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Hot Dog! The Story of Famous Nathan

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.

Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Handwerker

Image Courtesy of Daniel Farrell. The Handwerkers

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 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.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at leonardmaltin.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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