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Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Borscht Belt

Every time I have watched Dirty Dancing, I have enjoyed its depiction of a subculture that has practically disappeared. In the Catskill Mountains, in the counties north of New York City, there was a large number of vacation resorts that were visited regularly by the city’s citizens. Some of these resorts attracted particular ethnic groups.

In particular, there was a group of resorts, called The Borscht Belt, that attracted Jewish Americans who lived in New York City. This Jewish clientele also called this area The Jewish Alps and Solomon County (a comic mispronunciation of Sullivan County).


In the first half of the 20th Century, there was a lot of discrimination and resistance against Jewish encroachments into WASP society, especially into the upper classes. Fancy hotels and resorts did not welcome Jewish guests and sometimes even refused to rent rooms to people who had obviously Jewish names and accents. Therefore there was a real demand for resorts where Jews felt they were welcomed and treated with dignity.

In addition, the resorts offered entertainment programs in the evenings. A good resort would employ an orchestra that would play live music for ballroom dancing. The Jewish guests enjoyed these entertainment programs all the more if they included the singing of Yiddish songs, the dancing of Jewish dances, and the telling of Jewish jokes. Many Jewish-American singers and comedians performed in these resorts before they became famous. Such comedians include Joey Adams, Woody Allen, Morey Amsterdam, Milton Berle, Shelley Berman, Mel Brooks, Lenny Bruce, George Burns, Red Buttons, Sid Caesar, Bill Dana, Rodney Dangerfield, Phyllis Diller, Totie Fields, George Gobel, Shecky Greene, Buddy Hackett, Danny Kaye, Alan King, Robert Klein, Jerry Lewis, Jackie Mason, Carl Reiner, Don Rickles, Joan Rivers, Allan Sherman, Jonathan Winters, and Henny Youngman.


Families would visit the resorts for a couple of weeks every summer for cultured activities. They would learn to play golf and volleyball, to do ballroom dancing and other such activities that socially upwardly mobile people should learn how to do. Dirty Dancing has one interesting scene where female guests learn how to put on cosmetics and style their hair.

During that scene there is an announcement over a loudspeaker, saying that a rabbi will give a lecture about the psychology of insult comedians. This is perhaps the movie's only explicit reference to the Jewish character of the resort hotel's guests.

There was a kind of dress code that included semi-formal clothing for evening activities, which included performances by comedians, singers and other entertainers from New York nightclubs. At the end of the stay, the guests and temporary employees were encouraged to participate in a talent show.

When the children of such families reached college age, many of them got summer jobs in these same resorts that they had visited as guests. They worked as waiters, life guards, activity leaders, and so forth. They were hired because they were familiar with the resort’s relationships and interactions with the guests. One of the key characters in Dirty Dancing is a college student who has been accepted into medical school and who is working as a waiter in the resort’s dining room during his summer vacation.

The adolescent guests commonly became involved in brief romances during these stays. Of course, that was natural and fun for the adolescent guests, but the hotel managements strictly prohibited the staff members, in particular the college-age, temporary workers, from engaging in such romances with the younger, high-school-age guests. This situation is a central element in Dirty Dancing’s plot.

These Catskill resorts blossomed during the years from about 1950 to 1965. Afterwards, they gradually became unprofitable and went out of business. One major reason is explained in the last scene by the resort owner, who owns two such resorts. In a conversation with the resort’s band leader, the owner explains that travel to Europe was becoming so cheap and convenient that more and more families were deciding to spend their summer vacation weeks visiting Europe. The families’ teenage children were becoming bored with the annual visits to the same resorts, and so they begged their parents to go to Europe instead. The parents themselves found that such travel provided a much more educational and cultural experience for their children, and so they agreed. Once a family broke its annual habit of visiting its summer resort, the family usually did not return to its resort in subsequent years.

After the decision to make the movie Dirty Dancing had been made, the producers traveled around in the Catskills Mountains looking for such a resort that they could rent for a summer in order to make the movie. To their dismay, they found that only a couple such resorts -- catering mostly to unassimilated Orthodox Jews -- were still in business. None of those still functional resorts was willing to risk losing its still regular summer clientele forever by renting itself for a movie production. The producers found several former resorts, but the all the buildings and grounds were in bad repair after years of abandonment. Since the film’s production budget was only $5 million, the producers could not afford to do the necessary re-construction, painting and landscaping that would have been necessary to restore one of these abandoned resorts to its former glory.

Another consideration was that the leaves in northern New York beginning turning colors already in the late summer. The producers feared that in some scenes the background trees would be totally green and in other scenes the trees would be turning yellow. Likewise, the grass on the resort lawns would be lush green and then browning.

Therefore, the producers looked at similar resorts farther south, in Virginia and North Carolina. In these area too, such resorts were going out of business, but the producers found a couple that still could be used for the movie. A Virginia resort still had a magnificent fa├žade and front lawn and an upkept interior, and a North Carolina resort had a beautiful back side and an authentic area with small cabins for the resort staff. The latter area was important, because much of the movie takes place around and in the cabins inhabited by the hotel’s temporary summer workers – the waiters, dance instructors, etc. The producers therefore rented both resorts and filmed in both locations.


There is a small bridge over a brook that the actors cross several times in the movie. The audience perceives that the actors are walking back and forth between the front and back of the resort, but it would be more accurate to say that they are walking through a space warp that transports them instantaneously between Virginia and North Carolina.

The Virginia resort still had some beautiful white, wood fences from this brook to the resort's main building. Whenever the film crew moved from one location to the other, the crew would take these white fences apart and take them along to the other location, where the fences would be reassembled to give the viewers a false impression that the fences extended from both banks of the brook. On the North Carolina location, the white fences were set up to extend from the brook to the temporary employees' cabins.



When the producers contacted the owners of the North Carolina resort with an rental offer, they found that the owners already had sold the entire property to be subdivided. In fact, bulldozers already had begun to re-arrange the terrain. This bulldozing was stopped in the nick of time, and grass was replanted over bulldozed areas that might appear in the film. In a few such areas, the new grass did not re-grow fast enough, so the film crews spray-painted the dirt green right before the actual filming. After the filming was completed, the subdivision of the property resumed immediately, and all traces of that resort disappeared in the following months.

The Virginia resort has continued to exist to the present, but only because the movie turned out to be such a popular success. The resort still advertises itself as the location where the movie Dirty Dancing was made, and most of its clients come and stay there just for that reason. A stay in the resort includes guided tours of the facility, and the guests can look into the rooms were Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey supposedly lived during the filming. There is an evening entertainment program reminiscent of the program depicted in the movie. A souvenir shop sells books, DVDs and other mementos related to the movie and its stars.

1 comment:

  1. Loved your take on the Catskill resorts and the making Dirty Dancing. My dad actually worked in the Borscht Belt at the same time the movie would have taken place and stayed to raise a family in next door Ulster County. Don't know if you've seen Sullivan County lately but it has not held up well...
    http://www.outoftowntownie.com/dirty-dancing-the-borscht-belt-sullivan-county/

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