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MCA/WCA Documentary Film - The Automat

  • February 26, 2022
  • 7:00 PM
  • March 01, 2022
  • 8:00 PM
  • In the Comfort of Your Own Home


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The Automat

A Film by Lisa Hurwitz

Click HERE to View the Trailer

At the Horn & Hardart Automat, a customer could obtain a cup of coffee by sliding a nickel into a thin brass slot and pulling a lever below it, allowing a steady stream of chicory-blended coffee to pour from a dolphin’s mouth (though some argued it looked more like a lion’s head) into a thick, porcelain cup. If one blinked, they would miss the thin stream of milk that trickled into the cup from an unseen spout.

That 5-cent cup of coffee became emblematic of the Automat, a cafeteria-style restaurant that boomed in Philadelphia and New York in the early and mid-20th century: affordable, tasty and downright enchanting.

Though the last of the 157 Horn & Hardart establishments closed its doors in 1991, its legacy lives on in the minds of many who visited the restaurant and, most recently, in “The Automat,” a documentary by filmmaker Lisa Hurwitz.

Horn & Hardart’s business model was unique in the U.S. Borrowing German technologies, the Automat used a waiter-less, vending machine-style model. In exchange for a couple of nickels, one could buy a meal consisting of an amalgamation of dishes pulled out of small, temperature-controlled, glass-doored cubbies. Baked beans, macaroni and cheese, salisbury steak and strawberry rhubarb pie were menu favorites.

“The Automat” captures the essence of the Horn & Hardart establishments through the eyes of those who experienced the restaurants firsthand: Brooklynite comedian Mel Brooks, with a near-photographic memory of his cross-boro trips to the Manhattan Automats in the 1930s; Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who remarked on the automat’s hallmark commitment to serving everyone who walked through their doors, regardless of race, class or gender; and former Secretary of State Colin Powell, whose rare family outings to a restaurant were defined by Horn & Hardart’s affordable, yet high-quality service.

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