“The Automat”, a page in the history of American restoration

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Mel Brooks in “The Automaton” 2021. picture IMDb

The documentary “The Automat” takes a loving look back at one of America’s great restaurants.

said the technocrat,
To the plutocrat
To the autocrat
And the Democrat…
Let’s all eat at the Automat! – Evening sun in New York, 1933

New York director and producer Lisa Hurwitz has decided to give us a gift from the American past full of nostalgia and charm.

Everything revolves around the automaton.

“Self-what? ” you ask.

I didn’t think you would know what it was, so Hurwitz gives you a guide that you surely know, to soften the blow and bring it all back to life.

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It will be the wonderful, delicious, charming and hysterical Mel Brooks, (“The Producers” and hundreds of other entertainments.)

Mel guided the much younger Lisa and all of us through time and even wrote a song about the automaton.

It’s a very personal homecoming trip for this reviewer, who as a young actor/writer actually took all his appointments there, and I’m thrilled to share it with you.

A little meeting:

In 1902, two ambitious boys, Joe Horn and Frank Hardart, got into the restaurant business on separate buses and when they met, became, are you ready?

COR AND HARDART. Not a comedy song and dance crew, but restaurant guys in Philadelphia, who changed Americans, well, in Philadelphia and New York at the time, who dined on the cheap.

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People from the big cities who were always, even today, hungry and in a hurry.

It happened like that. You walked through the door and came across a wall of small windows. You went to the cashier and gave her your bills, and she gave you back a handful of coins.

Remember these? When was the last time you saw one?

Then you went to the wall of tiny windows, picked the one you wanted, like macaroni and cheese, burger, egg and ham, put your nickel in a slot and voila, or “Oi” or “OMG”, your lunch is out, with lemon meringue pie, chocolate custard and tapioca. Can you believe it?

Coffee? The best coffee in the world, they say, came to you from the mouth of a silver dolphin and costs just a penny. Try getting it at Starbucks today.

Once word of this magical place spread, Horn and Hardarts popped up all over town and, for the next century, changed the eating habits of these towns.

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These eating places became known as the “automatons” that powered New York City, during the Great Depression, World War II and the 1950s, where this writer dined daily.

Hurwitz’s delightful pastiche is not a boring documentary, but minutes of time travel to an exciting page in American restaurant history.

Dozens of wonderful faces and voices dot the fast-paced minutes.

We meet Starbuck founder Howard Schultz, who tells us how his childhood lunch at Horn and Hardart inspired him to Starbucks.

Brooks sits in a chair and tells us he and Carl Reiner ate there every day, while writing for Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows” in the 1950s.

“Don’t tell Mel’s mom,” Reiner whispers, “but her daily favorite lunch was the automaton’s ham and cheese.”

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Brooks describes how the coconut cream pie was “both delicious and great for smashing someone’s face”.

“L’Automate” is full of stars who tell us their story with the famous tables.

We meet and listen to the memories of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elliot Gould, Colin Powell and star after star of the Hollywood actors who appeared in every movie where the automaton was part of the story, from the 1930s to the late 1950s .

“Automat,” directed by Hurwitz and written by Michael Levine, opens at the Railroad Square Cinema in Waterville on Friday, April 29.

JP Devine from Waterville is a former theater and film actor.

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