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 20thcentury 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.
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 French fries.
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.