If you grew up in or around New York City when I did, the
memory of Coney Island and Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs (est. 1916) will surely
make you smile. Now Lloyd Handwerker, grandson of that institution’s founder,
has made a disarming and surprisingly moving documentary about his family. It
is at once a specific story and a universal one, encompassing the early 20th
century immigrant experience, the challenge of building and maintaining a
business, and the conflicts that can tear at the fabric of any family.
An audio interview with Nathan Handwerker after his
(reluctant) retirement provides much of the exposition: born to utter poverty
in Poland, he started working away from home at the age of 11, then decided his
future lay elsewhere, in the United States. He managed to cross three national
borders undetected, caught a boat in Holland arrived in New York, not speaking
a word of English. The one thing he understood was hard work. He rose from dishwasher
to waiter to owner of a hot dog stand, where he undersold his competition by
charging 5 cents—but never skimping on quality.
Contemporary interviews with his two grown sons (long
estranged) and other relatives, filmed over thirty years’ time, piece together
the rest of the mosaic: a man who earned loyalty from his longtime employees
but couldn’t find a word of encouragement for his own children. Generational
customs and taboos emerge in Lloyd’s conversations with his elderly father,
cousins, and others who still don’t believe in revealing private matters, even
after all these years.
The film has a homemade, DIY quality that suits the material
and its participants. At one point a neighbor walks right in front of the
camera while Lloyd is talking to a relative sitting on her apartment porch in a
housedress. But diligent research has yielded wonderfully evocative photos and
footage of Nathan’s at its peak, when crowds surged around the block-long
eatery day and night. (My wife vividly recalls many a Saturday night when,
after a family night at the movies in the Bronx, her father would say, “Let’s
drive out to Nathan’s.” It was as busy at midnight as it was at noon.)
There may not be any great truths revealed here, and I
realize that the subject matter might not have resonance for someone who didn’t
live under the spell of Nathan’s, which for me has never dissipated—even though
the remaining franchises, found mostly at airports around the country, don’t
maintain the original Nathan’s standards of quality. I still crave those crinkle-cut
I can only speak for myself: I found Famous Nathan to be compelling and poignant. It is now playing at
the Cinema Village in Manhattan. The exclusive Los Angeles engagement begins
July 31 at the Music Hall in Beverly Hills. For more information click HERE.
Famous Nathan will also be available on VOD, iTunes beginning August 4th.