Film Review: Famous Nathan

A grandson's documentary about the founder of the Nathan's Famous hot-dog empire is no hagiography but a "frank" look at the multifaceted immigrant who arrived penniless, became a multimillionaire, yet still lived to work.
Specialty Releases

A pleasant and in some ways remarkable surprise, this visually stylish documentary about hot-dog king Nathan Handwerker and his Coney Island landmark, Nathan's Famous, is the work of his grandson, Lloyd Handwerker, who began it as a family-history project some 30 years ago. "Rich man's grandson's home videos"—yes, yes, you could be forgiven for thinking what I was thinking, especially after sitting through an attenuated, silent home-movie opening of Grandpa Nathan offering his grandkids loquat fruit. Bring on the hagiography.

What hits you instead is an intense, perfectly balanced and psychologically complex tale that with more wisdom than in many biographies sets up mountains of evidence covering every side of Nathan Handwerker, letting you see him in all his parts without making reductionist claims. Lloyd Handwerker in his decades of production collected an armada of family members, countless employees, boardwalk business-owners and even two of Nathan and his wife Ida's aged friends. Many of those who spoke with him have since died, and their recollections here are an irreplaceable part of New York City history.

By good fortune, Nathan, a year before he died at age 81 in 1974, gave his only known family-history interview to a cousin of Lloyd's. With a bemused "Can you believe all this happened to me?" tone, he described his 1892 birth in Galicia, a former kingdom on the present-day site of the Poland and Ukraine border. One of 13 children of an impoverished shoemaker, he lived and worked in a bakery in another town for two years beginning at age 11. He later lived with his brother in Belgium, and saved enough for a steerage ticket from Holland to Ellis Island. Finding work in a bakery that was also a restaurant, he impressed his mentoring boss as a hard worker. Nathan later started a hot-dog eatery open Saturdays and Sundays, but at ten cents a frankfurter, his business went bust. He tried a new hot-dog stand in Brooklyn's Coney Island neighborhood in 1916, where—at five cents a dog—Nathan's was born. Every year, the business grew to encompass a few more feet, until it eventually became the landmark emporium that, under other hands, continues today. 

Lloyd intersperses these audio tidbits throughout the documentary, which has the canny affect of letting us look back from the adult Nathan to see the seeds of what he became. Yet aside from these biographical facts about an illiterate immigrant who became a multimillionaire, who was Nathan Handwerker? The best answer may be that he had different, seemingly equally genuine sides that he compartmentalized for different people.

Lloyd's father, Sol Handwerker, the younger of Nathan's two sons, fought frequently with his father, who seemed to prefer the elder son, Murray. (A daughter, Leah, goes unmentioned.) "He sacrificed his life for that business," Sol says of Nathan, adding that, however, "He had no regrets." Murray, in one of the few things on which he and Sol agreed, calls their father "a workaholic." On the one hand, he says, Nathan cared so much for his children that he would drive three hours to visit one in summer camp, but then drive back to work at the shop—where managers and other workers who stayed with him for decades could have run the place without him for a day. One recalls how Nathan "would never compliment" the sons. "He couldn't show love."

At least not verbally. "He was feared… He was a tough boss," says Jay Cohen, Nathan's Famous' general manager from 1956 to 1980—adding a moment later that "Nathan was a very charitable man… If there was a customer on the street who didn't have the price of a hot dog, he'd say, 'Jay, give it to him.' He didn't want the guy to see that he gave it to him… He didn't want the whole world to know."

Indeed, the Nathan's employees interviewed here revered him. Nathan paid well above minimum wage, and was given to largesse. Sometimes when an employee wanted to buy a house but didn't have money, remembers Feliz Vasquez, a waiter from 1960 to 1990, "He'd say, 'Go ahead, buy the house, you'll get a no-interest mortgage from me.'" And at a time when Coney Island was segregated, Nathan hired African-Americans and other minorities as countermen and managers. "There was no discrimination there," says Vasquez. "Nathan's was like a family—we all fit in there."

Actually better than family, perhaps. As Lloyd admirably ventures into dark waters, he find Joe Handwerker, Nathan's nephew, who served as the company vice president and worked there 50 years, from 1923 to 1973. Joe—who gets into a shouting match with two middle-aged black guys on the boardwalk, suddenly seeming the very prototype for Jerry Stiller's Frank Costanza on "Seinfeld"—recounts bitterly that after many promises made, after being told he was essential and invaluable to the business, he was given nothing in Nathan's will. "He was two-faced and I'm not afraid to tell you," he says.

We see images of what seems like Nathan and Ida's happy marriage, with him unafraid to smile and kiss her in public. Nathan's sister Anna describes Ida as the love of Nathan's life. But another sister, Lena, says, "They were never too happy together." When Lloyd asks his father Sol about Lena's claim, he responds, classically, "So what does she know?" and then encapsulates the documentary's very theme: "I don't know who was telling the truth… It's hard to know. People pretend to be a lot of things." At many such moments, Lloyd lets the camera run, indulging in the eloquence of silence after speech, with expressions that say more than words.

Sol finally had enough of Murray and left in 1963 to open the successful hot-dog shop SnackTime on West 34th Street in Manhattan. Five years later, Murray finally convinced a recalcitrant Nathan that, after having opened another store or two, the company needed to grow big. Nathan's Famous went public, with Murray creating a lavish headquarters and flagship store in Times Square. But then after a flurry of franchising and what former employees call Murray's questionable moves, the stock, one witness recalls, plummeted from $15 to 50 cents. In 1987, Nathan's was sold to a Long Island investment group for $17 million, with the payout distributed to all shareholders.

Nathan Handwerker retired to Florida in 1971, at nearly 80 years old. He was a millionaire many times over, yet still put in the hours and missed the work terribly when he left it. If there is a lesson here, Lloyd wisely doesn't play armchair psychologist. And just as Grandpa left his name on an empire, his grandson has created something that'll be of value to New Yorkers until the last hot dog is gone.

Click here for cast and crew information.