We were in a doc-watching mood the other night, yet not in the mood for anything too time-consuming or heavy. Thus, much in the same way as when you’re looking for something for something better than a candy bar, but not a seven course meal, you might choose to eat a hot dog…we chose Famous Nathan (2014). And ya know what? It turned out to be better than a hot dog! Even a Nathan’s hot dog!
Okay enough with the hot dog metaphors. We’ll leave that to y’all Freudians. Famous Nathan is of course a documentary about Nathan Handwerker, the entrepreneurial force behind Nathan’s Famous hot dogs, who came to the U.S. as an immigrant from Eastern Europe, began working for Coney Island’s original hot dog man Charles Feltman, then struck out with an innovation of his own: the nickel weenie. He established Nathan’s in 1916 — a century ago — and it is still going strong. (Stronger than ever. Nathan’s was sold in 1987, and now there are hundreds of restaurants bearing the name all over the world).
But for the first 71 years it was strictly a family operation, run by Nathan himself until the mid 1960s, and then by his son Murray, who oversaw the first expansion. The film Famous Nathan is by Nathan’s grandson Lloyd Handwerker, who had access to amazing material: audio interviews with Nathan himself about the early years; lots of black and white film footage from the classic era, including film interviews from the early 1960s; video interviews with the key remaining players shot in 1984; and some more recent interviews. Edited together with still photos and other material, it becomes a wonderful, textured Coney Island cole slaw depicting a time, a place and a culture. You meet lots of hilarious Handwerkers, occasionally backstabbing, occasionally admiring, occasionally at each others throats. (And occasionally in their house coats). You learn about the great LSD-in-the-mustard scare of the late 1960s. And above all you encounter a WORK ETHIC that scarcely exists in this country anymore. Nathan, a peasant from what is now Poland, built his empire nickel by nickel. He instilled in all his workers (including his family) an almost maniacal standard of speed and service — one I’d frequently love to impose upon contemporary servers with a cattle prod.
But what is the main takeaway from this movie? I’ve found that watching it makes you very, very hungry.