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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

History of Borscht Belt Hotels and Bungalow Colonies in the Catskills

Hudson Valley magazine has published an article, written by David Levine and tiled History of Borscht Belt Hotels and Bungalow Colonies in the Catskills. The article's beginning:

As geography, the Catskills are a mountainous region of southeastern New York State. As synecdoche, they are a now-vanished way of life. For your parents and grandparents, the Catskills from the 1920s through the 1970s was the Borscht Belt, the Jewish Alps, “Solomon” County, the summer place to be if you were Jewish.

A blurb on the home page of the Catskills Institute says it well: “New Yorkers hungry for mountain air, good food, and the American way of leisure came to the mountains by the thousands, and by the 1950s, more than a million people inhabited the summer world of bungalow colonies, summer camps, and small hotels. These institutions shaped American Jewish culture, enabling Jews to become more American while at the same time introducing the American public to immigrant Jewish culture.”

The Catskills had been a resort area for Gentiles in the 19th century. As Eastern European Jews immigrated in the early 20th century, some became farmers in the area. And as their urban peers became more prosperous, they looked to do something they could never have imagined doing in the old country: take a vacation. They weren’t welcome in most of what was still an anti-Semitic world, so the Jewish farmers began taking on boarders. Their boarding houses morphed into small hotels and bungalow colonies — a cluster of small rental summer homes. ...

“Once Jews started to go in large numbers, they had their own built-in community,” says Dr. Phil Brown, a professor of sociology and health sciences at Northeastern University and director of the Catskills Institute. “Farms, businesses, professionals, day schools, yeshivas. Yiddish was spoken, 95 percent were kosher. And they also liked being around their own people.”

The big resorts — like Grossinger’s, Kutsher’s, the Concord, and the Nevele — “were pioneers of the all-inclusive vacation,” Brown says, offering three meals a day, snacks, entertainment, child care, sports facilities, everything you can get now at Club Med — plus a knish to die for. ...

The entertainment was first-rate. Musicians like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Dean Martin, and comics Rodney Dangerfield, Henny Youngman, Woody Allen, and Jerry Seinfeld all toured the hotels.
In regard to sexual shenanigans between female guests and male workers, the article includes this remark by Tania Grossinger, whose family owned the hotel pictured above.
Marital relations were very confusing to me as a child. I saw so much infidelity — and it wasn’t limited to men. I remember once, when I was around 10 years old, I heard about a woman I knew who was getting married. My mother asked me why I was so excited about it. “Because then she can go to sleep with the lifeguards. That’s what all ladies do when they get married, don’t they?”
The article includes also this reminiscence about the performance of foul-mouth comedian Lenny Bruce at a hotel at the beginning of the 1950s.
In 1950, my father, Jack Kramer, hired Lenny Bruce to be the master of ceremonies for our hotel, Kramers on Luzon Lake. Lenny was great. He tumulled, he danced, he told jokes. My father was happy.

In fact, he rehired Lenny for the 1951 season. That summer, Lenny brought his new wife Honey along. They were still a happy couple. In fact, several times a week my father had to have Lenny paged over our booming loudspeaker system. A temporarily chastened Lenny would straggle back from a private escape on the lake or from a romantic walk in the woods to conduct the daily dance lesson by the pool. My father was not so happy with Lenny that summer.

Lenny suggested that he invite some of his entertainer friends to do a late show at the hotel’s casino a few nights a week. In return for providing extra entertainment for our guests, he wanted 50 percent of the bar take after midnight. Since our guests were all asleep by midnight, and the bar take past that hour was zero, my father gladly accepted.

Lenny brought in jazz musicians, comics, even strippers to our little casino. For 1951 only, Kramers was the hottest hotel in the Catskills.

Several weeks into this arrangement, there was a particularly large, raucous crowd at Lenny’s show. A couple of guests knocked on my father’s door to demand that he quiet down the crowd. Reluctantly, my father ventured downstairs.

When he arrived at the casino, there was a pudgy, pimply-faced kid on stage talking dirty in New York English and broken Yiddish. The crowd loved it, but this was too much for my father. He marched on stage in his bathrobe, slippers, and cigar and kicked the young comic off the stage.

The next week or so Lenny got more morose with the guests, and more attentive to Honey. So about the 15th of August, when the crowd was thinning out anyway, my father fired Lenny. He figured he would get an MC for Labor Day Weekend, and save two weeks’ pay.

The Irish Catskills

Recently the PBS television channel broadcast an hour-long documentary about the "Irish Catskills". Here is the documentary's trailer.

The Irish Catskills was an area around East Durham, New York, that featured many hotels that, in the summer, hosted large numbers of Irish-Americans from New York City and other large cities. This Irish phenomenon was similar to the Jewish phenomenon portrayed in the movie Dirty Dancing.

The documentary was produced by Kevin Ferguson, an Irish-American whose family visited the Irish Catskills every summer when he was growing up. An article about Ferguson and his documentary, titled The History of the Irish Alps, was published by Hudson Valley magazine. Here is an excerpt from that article:
“It was such a bizarre place,” Ferguson recalls. “The town was completely transformed into an Irish town in summers. It’s where my parents met, and where many Irish couples met, on the dance floor. It’s where I learned to dance. It was charming and odd in so many ways, and hard to describe in words, and the fire prompted me to go into film. It needs moving images and sound, because it is so imbued with music and dance. It’s obvious, really.”

When Ferguson’s mother emigrated from County Cavan to America in 1950, her first address was a small boarding house, owned by her sister, called Mullan’s Mountain Spring Farm in East Durham. Ferguson says that Irish immigrants had been visiting the area, which was previously predominantly German, since the late 1800s. The landscape reminded many of them of the old sod, what with its lush, soft, rolling green hills. In the 1930s and ’40s, with the Depression and then war in Europe, many Germans sold their boarding houses and businesses to those of Irish descent, and the Irish Alps were truly born.

The towns of Leeds, South Cairo, Oak Hill, and East Durham offered boarding and sustenance at places with evocative names like the Shamrock House, the Weldon House, O’Neill’s Cozy Corner, O’Neill’s Tavern, Kelly’s Brookside Inn, and McKenna’s Irish House. In the summer, city dwellers looking to escape the heat and dirt headed upstate for the clean mountain air. As with the Borscht Belt, the Irish Alps hit its heyday after World War II, from the 1950s through the early 1970s. In 1960 there were upwards of 40 Irish-run hotels or boarding houses in the area, Ferguson says, filled each summer with Irish families singing, dancing, and playing music. “Leeds reminds me of a village in Ireland, with one main road, a few storefronts. It’s only a block long, but in the day there was a street car,” he says. “That’s how much activity there was.”

The union organizer, Michael Quill, played a big role in that. As one of the founders of the Transport Workers Union of America, established in the 1930s in New York City, he helped Irish workers earn better pay and more time off. Many had been spending any free time in the Rockaways, a smorgasbord of Irish, Jewish, and Italian retreats. Now, they could travel farther, for longer periods, and be with their own.
The documentary is well done. It includes many old video clips and many interviews.

A popular activity at these hotels was traditional Irish music and dance. The following video is not from the PBS documentary, but it shows that kind of music and dance.

Because I am interested in Dirty Dancing, I was particular interested in a part of the PBS documentary that described a radical change in the Irish Catskills music that took place at the end of the 1950s and 1960s. In Ireland itself, there was a music fad of so-called "show bands", and such bands toured in the Irish Catskills. During those few years, those "show bands" became more popular among young Irish-Americans than the traditional, folk-music bands. If someone wanted to make a movie like Dirty Dancing about the Irish Catskills, that invasion of Irish "show bands" would provide an interesting setting.

Here are two videos that show the look and sound of that period's "show bands".

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

A Movie Depicting a Break-Up Between a Daughter and her Father

Movie reviewer Jason Bellamy wrote a brilliant essay about Dirty Dancing. The following passage describes how Baby and her father change their relationship during the story.

Baby and her father Jake Houseman
at the beginning of the movie Dirty Dancing
... Baby “becomes a woman,” as they say, in the way she grows as a dancer, in the way she starts to exude confidence with her body, in the way she starts to understand the complexities of Penny's predicament, in the way she relates to her sister and, maybe more than anything, in the way she relates to her father.

Dirty Dancing is, no doubt, a romance between Baby and Johnny, but it's also something of a breakup movie for Baby and her doctor father, played by Jerry Orbach. It's not just that Baby professes her love for her dad in her opening voice-over and then falls for Johnny. It's that over time Baby allows herself to become a woman in her father's eyes.

This, as I've been told numerous times by female friends, can be one of the most difficult transitions a daughter makes. It's one thing to have sex. It's another thing to allow your father to know you're having sex, and that you see yourself as a woman, and that you're not his perfect little girl anymore, as much as you'll always love him.

In one of the movie's best scenes, Baby confronts her father and accuses him of insincerity and classism, as he stares out into the distance, only occasionally glancing his daughter's way, saying nothing. That's a big deal: to call the hero of your youth a liar. But the part that really stings is when Baby admits, “There are a lot of things about me that aren't what you thought.” That's the heart of the matter, and it breaks both of their hearts to confront it.

Later, Johnny will thank Baby for sticking up for him, praising her for her heroism, but even he won't understand what it costs Baby to let her father see the truth. It's an incredibly brave act — Baby standing before her father much more so than standing up for Johnny — and it's evidence of the movie's greatness that her face-to-face admission seems so genuine, that Baby's evolution feels so complete.

As Baby storms off, {Director Emile] Ardolino's camera studies her father's pained face as he bites his lip and briefly turns in his daughter's direction, devastated at his own hurt, and Baby's too, clearly wanting to call out to her but not knowing what to say. It's a gracious shot that you won't find in a lot of movies, and it's a testament to the film's understanding heart: watching your daughter become a woman before your eyes isn't easy either.

It's scenes like that one, as much as Johnny's climactic line (“Nobody puts Baby in a corner”) and the triumphant final dance, that made a generation identify with and fall in love with this film. I can't tell you the number of women roughly my age who remember seeing Dirty Dancing for the first time the way guys my age remember their first R-rated movie. For many, Dirty Dancing was, much like Baby's experience at Kellerman's, a stepping stone toward an enticing yet intimidating new phase of life.
Baby and her father Jake Houseman
near the end of the movie Dirty Dancing
 I have read many essays about Dirty Dancing, and Bellamy's is the very best. Read it all.

In another essay, Bellamy wrote:
I continue to get a giggle out of the film's penultimate scene. Johnny and Baby have just danced their hearts out, and now everyone is on their feet, infected by the moment, shaking their thang. Johnny and Baby are smiling at one another and Johnny says, "Let's go." They're heading toward the door, heading outside to who knows where, when Baby's father stops them and delivers his apology.

It's a terrific apology, by the way, so in character for the principled yet protective father.

* First to Johnny, in regard to Penny's pregnancy and abortion, "When I'm wrong I say I'm wrong."

* Then to Baby, "You looked wonderful out there."

Short. Straightforward. Sweet. Everybody wins in that scene. Johnny gets the next best thing to an arm wrapped around him. Baby gets to be her father's prized possession once again and a young woman at the same time. And Dad gets to set things straight. ...

One of the strongest scenes in that movie is the one at the breakfast table the night after Baby's father treats Penny. The mother is perfectly oblivious. And the unspoken tension between father and daughter is just right. Lots of wonderful little moments like that.

To jump a few scenes back, I also love that when Baby wakes up her dad she doesn't tell him what's wrong, [he] just just picks up his medical bag. Perfect.