SUNY Press re-issues history of Catskill resorts
By KATIE SCHNEIDER
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Summer days are hot and lazy. For many Jews back East, hot summer days meant traveling to resorts in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York. For much of the 20th century, those resorts—about an hour and a half drive northwest of New York City—were a respite from the crowded, sweltering metropolis. The resorts became a tight-knit community, where families stayed in the same rooms year after year, stuffed themselves at the kosher buffet and took in some of the best entertainment around.
“It Happened in the Catskills: An Oral History in the Words of Busboys, Bellhops, Guests, Proprietors, Comedians, Agents and Other Who Lived It” is a window to the world of that time.
Authors Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer traveled through the Catskills in the summer of 1989, going from one hotel to another interviewing anyone with a story to tell.
Originally published in 1993, the book was just re-released.
The Frommer’s trip was fortuitous, since many of the legendary establishments folded over the course of the next decade and much of the history has since passed out of living memory.
“The beginning,” the authors write, “was inauspicious.” Immigrants from Eastern Europe hoped to find fresh air and land on which to farm. Relatives started coming to stay in the summers. Farmhouses turned into boardinghouses. Given the advent of more leisure time and income, boarding houses turned into resorts. Anti-Semitic restrictions in other locations fueled demand. A legion of Jewish entertainers, raised in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx, began performing on stages at establishments such as Grossinger’s, the Nevele and the Concord.
A 19-year-old Neil Sedaka played at Esther Manor. “That summer,” Sedaka told the authors, “I played the accordion during the afternoon for the cha-cha lessons at the pool and at cocktail time. In the evenings our band played dance music…Late at night we played in the cocktail lounge. We got paid $86.50 a week plus room and board.” He also fell in love with owner’s 16-year-old daughter, eventually marrying her.
A Catskills appearance could make or break a comedian. The audiences were demanding, but the experience was invaluable.
In discussing the inflation of fees, entertainment director Jerry Weiss inadvertently gives a who’s who of A-list talent who appeared at his resort. “In 1956, a new comedian by named Shecky Green received $300 at Grossinger’s, which was a lot. …But Henny Youngman for $200, Joel Grey for $400, and Alan King for $350 also appeared that year. Jackie Mason got $100 when he was at Grossinger’s in 1959. I look at my notes: 1967—Stiller and Meara $500, Rodney Dangerfield $175. In 1973, David Brenner was paid $650 for a show. Billy Crystal in 1976 got $1,000.”
While the entertainers made headlines, the staff hustled behind the scenes. Agents and publicists found and booked the talent. Legions of housekeepers and busboys and cooks attended the guests.
Marvin Welkowitz, whose parents owned the Ridge Mountain hotel, said “there were hundreds of hotels, and kids from all over the city and suburbs went there to get a summer job. They knew they’d take home between $1,000 and $2,000 in salary and tips, enough to pay for college. They put themselves through medical school and law school with that money.”
Black-and-white photographs feature celebrities: Jackie Robinson at Grossinger’s, Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin, Eddie Fischer’s wedding to Debbie Reynolds, Cary Grant and Milton Berle at the Concord. They celebrate the everyman too, with slice-of-life images of picnics, golf, sunbathing and dancing.
Every hotel had dance instructors. Jackie Horner, a dance teacher, explained. “Rumba had come in during the ’40s and was still going strong, but everyone wanted mambo and cha-cha. Meringue and bossa nova come in a little bit later, around 1963. All of us could do the routines that Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey did in “Dirty Dancing.” In fact, I used to bring the watermelon plugged with vodka to our staff parties just like in the movie.”
This book is a treat for anyone who lived through the golden days of the resorts or simply wants to know what it might have been like. The reminiscences underscore the family feeling, the hard work and the glamour of a more innocent time. “Snatched from the edge of the oblivion,” the authors write, “recounted, recorded, assembled, and preserved, here—in the words who live it—is what happened in the Catskills.”