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Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Resort Hotel's Employees

None of Dirty Dancing’s dialogue mentions that anyone is or is not Jewish or addresses any particular Jewish concern. The overwhelming majority of the people who have watched this movie have not perceived that it takes place in particular Jewish cultural institution or that it has anything at all to do with Jews or Jewish concerns.

In fact, that very absence of Jewish concern is a major reason that the Borscht Belt disappeared. By the mid-1960s the Jewish population of New York had assimilated and prospered into American society. They could go to any resort and enjoy real upper-class life, not just a Jewish imitation. Every Jewish family had a television and could watch successful Jewish performers every day. Even the families that still did visit the Borscht Belt did so more as a familiar, family tradition that had become devoid of Jewish consciousness. Jewish families still preferred that their children eventually marry other Jews, but they also preferred that their children finish their higher educations first, so the Jewish parents’ mingling of their Jewish teenage children during summer vacations had lost its urgency.

A major irony of the Dirty Dancing story is that the main character, a 17-year-old girl in a prosperous family that is visiting such a resort hotel, prefers to spend her time and energy socializing with the employees who live in cabins behind the hotel and who dance in a vulgar, “dirty” manner in a dilapidated warehouse or in a remote forest, meadow and even a lake. For this girl, the cultural enrichment she acquires during her vacation is her encounter not with upper-class WASP (White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant) society, but rather with a lower-class society comprising Irish (e.g. Johnny Castle), Puerto Rican, Negro and various mongrel dregs.

The resort hotel where the movie takes place is called Kellerman’s, and it is owned by a man named Max Kellerman, played by a 63-year-old actor (Jack Weston). He apparently owns two such hotels, the other one being called The Sheldrake. Max Kellerman is assisted by his grandson, Neil Kellerman, who intends to enroll soon in the Cornell School of Hotel Management and who appears to be about 20 years old. This grandson Neil indicates in a remark that he already considers himself to be the owner of the two hotels, foreseeing that his grandfather will retire when he himself graduates from Cornell.

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The hotel employs a big-band orchestra, which seems to comprise mostly Cubans of African ancestry. We can assume that this orchestra alternates evenings between the two hotels and that the orchestra members do not do any work at the hotels besides playing music.

When the producers were selecting a resort as a location for the movie, they looked for a resort with a swimming pool, because the movie was supposed to show that the swimming pool was racially integrated. The author Eleanor Bergstein in her running commentary mentioned that the Jewish-owned resorts racially integrated their swimming pools before the other resorts did so, so apparently her original script included a reference to that fact. However, the producers could not find an available resort with a swimming pool (we do see guests swimming in a lake). Therefore none of the movie’s dialogue refers to the racial integration of the swimming pool, although the dialogue refers several times to the Civil Rights movement that was developing in the South in the early 1960s. We can suppose that the African-Americans in the planned swimming-pool scene would have been the orchestra members, who were idle during the days.

Several of the employees who live in the cabins and who dirty-dance in the warehouse are African Americans, but they probably are not orchestra members, who are older and are busy playing their music in the evenings while the young employees are dirty-dancing.


The orchestra conductor is about Max Kellerman’s age, and Max Kellerman seems to treat him as a social peer. We should understand that the orchestra members are an upper and distinct social class of the hotel’s employees. The orchestra members are older and are professionally established, and they rest during the mornings and days and work during the evenings and nights.

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Another category of employees works in positions that interact directly with the guests. For example, the movie dialogue mentions explicitly that the restaurant waiters are college students who work in the hotel during their summer vacations. We can suppose that this employee category includes also receptionists, social-activity leaders, life guards, and so forth. Most such employees were former guests who had visited the resort in younger years with their families.

In a scene that follows soon afterward, Mr. Kellerman is instructing the restaurant waiters about their conduct rules during their employment. He tells them:

You waiters are all college guys, and I went to Harvard and Yale to hire you. And why did I do that? Why? I shouldn't have to remind you. This is a family place. That means you keep your fingers out of the water, hair out of the soup, and show the goddamn daughters a good time -- all the daughters, even the dogs. Schlepp 'em out to the terrace, romance 'em any way you want. Got that, guys?

Although these employees are only waiters at the hotel, they are university students and also (although not stated in the dialogue) Jews who might be appropriate marriage candidates for the young women among the guests. Furthermore, the Jewish parents might even welcome romantic interest from such employees toward their daughters. One of the waiters, named Robbie Gould, is a medical student, and so he is treated very warmly by the family father, who himself is a doctor. It is apparent that the father considers this medical student to be a good romantic prospect for either of his two daughters.

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As Mr. Kellerman is completing his instructions to his waiters, another group of male employees walks through the restaurant, and Mr. Kellerman instructs them differently:

Well, if it isn't the entertainment staff. Listen, wise ass, you got your own rules. Dance with the daughters. Teach 'em the mambo, the cha-cha, anything they pay for, but that's it, that's where it ends. No funny business, no conversations, and keep you hands off.

This second group of male employees is dressed in matching shirts and is carrying guitars in cases, so it is apparent that they are a musical band. One of this group is dressed differently than the others, and he is the one who Kellerman addresses as “wise ass” and instructs about how to conduct himself with the guest families’ daughters.


Mr. Kellerman addresses this second group as “the entertainment staff” but later in the movie we see some of them doing ordinary jobs on the hotel grounds. We can suppose that some of them cook and wash dishes in the kitchen, clean floors, mow the grass and do other such jobs. In fact, they might not be paid at all by the hotel for playing music as a band. They play in the band only for tips and for the opportunity to acquire some public exposure as a band. Probably they can use the stage on the evenings when the orchestra plays at the other hotel. Their exposure provides them with some possibilities that some families might hire them later to play at Bar Mitzvah, wedding and anniversary parties. Apparently there is also a shortage of male guests at the dance classes for the guests, and so these band members fill in only as needed to correct the male-female ratio for partner dancing but are not supposed to socialize further with the female guests.

(We never see this band play in the movie. The DVD’s commentaries and interviews inform us that the producers had great difficulty convincing Patrick Swayze to accept the role of Johnny Castle, and furthermore Swayze’s own agent advised him against accepting the role. Eleanor Bergstein, the movie’s author, in her running commentary, reminisces about how, before the filming began, Swayze gave her a tape recording of a song, titled She’s Like the Wind, that Swayze had written and performed with a band that he headed in his real life. Therefore I speculate that in order to convince Swayze to accept the role, the producers agreed to provisionally include a scene where Swayze would perform his song with his band. Apparently the scene was removed from the movie’s final version, but the earlier scene where the band encountered Mr. Kellerman remained. As a consolation to Swayze, his song was included in the soundtrack.)

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Such a hotel would hire also a lot of female employees to work as housekeepers to clean the rooms. We never see Mr. Kellerman address them, but we do see them hanging around in and around the cabins and dancing in the warehouse.

These ordinary male and female employees – who cook and wash dishes in the kitchen, who clean the floors and do repairs, who mow the grass, who clean the rooms, etc. – were not supposed to socialize with the guests. A major reason for this restriction is that these employees were not Jewish, a fact that is obvious from their appearances – many are African-American or Hispanics.

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Two of the employees – Johnny Castle and Penny Johnson – are professional dancers, and they comprise an employee category of their own. They work as professional dancers only during the summers at the resort hotel. Johnny Castle, for example, works primarily as a house painter during the rest of the year. Their employment at the resort hotel comprises several elements:

  • They performed special dances for the hotel guests while the orchestra played. They did so at both hotels.

  • Then they encouraged the hotel guests to dance while the orchestra played. They were available to give special dance lessons to guests who were willing to pay for such lessons.

  • They organized and conducted a talent show that was performed on the final night. Hotel employees were required to participate in the talent show and guests were encouraged to participate.

  • They taught the employees to do group dances that were part of the talent show.


An early scene shows Johnny Castle and Penny Johnson dancing together spectacularly during a ballroom dance on the new guests' first evening at the hotel. Neil Kellerman remarked (to Baby Houseman) that they should stop dancing with each other and start dancing with the guests, because they would not sell dance lessons if they danced only with each other. Thus it seems that the hotel received a cut from the dance lessons that the professional dance instructors sold.

Since these dance-instructor jobs involved much socialization with the guests, the hotel owners would have preferred to hire Jews for these positions, but there simply was a shortage of Jews who could dance so expertly. Therefore non-Jews were hired, but they were supervised closely.

The movie includes several instances of such close supervision by Max Kellerman or by his grandson Neil Kellerman. In one instance, Max Kellerman motioned angrily to the two professional dancers that they should stop their dance performance and begin encouraging the guests to dance. In another instance, Neil Kellerman intruded without knocking into a room where Johnny Castle was giving a private dance lesson to the 17-year-old female guest. Neil Kellerman remarked that the dance lesson must last exactly as long as the time that the guest has paid for and also insisted that the talent show’s group dance by the employees be done in a dance style that Johnny Castle had rejected.

The two dance instructors have non-Jewish names – Johnny Castle and Penny Johnson – and they have personal appearances that are far from Jewish stereotypes.

When Penny Johnson became pregnant after an affair with the waiter Robbie Gould, she and Johnny Castle feared that they might be fired by the Kellermans as a consequence. One reason, which is not stated, was that the Kellermans valued the Jewish medical student Robbie Gould more as an employee than they valued the non-Jewish professional dancer Penny Johnson. If the pregnancy became known, then there would not be enough room on the hotel staff for both Gould and Johnson, and so Johnson would have to go. Gould came from a Jewish family that had been regular customers of the hotel for many years, and now he was attractive to Jewish families who had daughters who were entering a marriageable age.

Another problem caused by Johnson’s pregnancy was that she would not be available to dance in the hotel’s special performances. The pregnancy itself eventually might have prevented such performances, but the problem that developed in the movie was that she decided to have an abortion that had to be performed on a particular night when such a performance was scheduled. This situation led to a decision that the 17-year-old guest would learn the dance sufficiently well to substitute for Johnson on that one night. Many employees were young females, but none of them are available to learn the dance because they all were too busy cleaning the rooms during the days and preparing for the talent show during the evenings.

Since Penny Johnson was a couple months pregnant and since the story took place at the end of the summer, she apparently became romantically involved with Robbie Gould at the beginning of the summer or even during a previous summer while they were both working at the hotel. Penny Johnson sincerely loved Robbie Gould and expected to marry him, especially after she became pregnant. She was an extraordinarily beautiful and talented woman, but Robbie Gould could not consider marrying her, because she had not even graduated from high school and (although not stated) she was not Jewish.

Although Penny Johnson's status on the hotel resort's staff was much higher than the status of the female employees who worked as housekeepers and other such ordinary positions, she was subject to the same sexual rules probably applied to her and to all such female employees. They were forbidden to involve themselves in personal relationships with the male guests or20even with the Jewish male college students who worked as waiters, and any scandals were grounds for immediate firing.

The producers originally had selected an Italian-American actor to play the role of the male professional dancer. The producers soon decided that this first actor would not be able to dance as well as they expected, so they eventually replaced that actor with Patrick Swayze. The author Eleanor Bergstein indicated in her running commentary that this character thus ceased being an Italian-American character and instead became an Irish-American character. None of the dialogue indicates that this character is Irish-American, and the name Johnny Castle is not distinctively Irish, but perhaps this point was made by some dialogue that did not survive into the movie’s final version.

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One of the movie’s characters is Johnny Castle’s young cousin, Billy Kostecki, whose name is Polish (indicating the employees’ mongrel pedigrees). In some previous summer, Johnny Castle had convinced Max Kellerman to hire Castle’s cousin Billy Kostecki to do odd jobs at the hotel. Kostecki was about the same age as the 17-year-old female guest and apparently had began a platonic friendship with her during a previous summer when they both were quite young.

Billy Kostecki plays what the author Eleanor Bergstein describes as an "expository role" in the screenplay. At various moments, he explained the developing situation to the young female guest and thus to the audience. In particular, he told her that Penny Johnson had become pregnant and then later that the pregnancy was caused by an affair with the medical student Robbie Gould. In some other moments, Kostecki's explanations advanced and clarified the story conveniently for the audience.


Billy Kostecki also serves as a means to bring the young female guest into the employees' secret world. Kostecki was supposed to carry three watermelons from the kitchen to the remote warehouse where the employees were supposed to be practicing dances for the talent show. He was not able to carry all three watermelons safely, however, so when he noticed the young female guest, he asked her to help him by carrying one of the watermelons. Thus she accompanied him to the warehouse, where she saw and joined the employees, who have been doing their own dirty dancing instead of practicing for the talent show. Without Kostecki's role, the young female guest never would have gone into that warehouse and become involved with the other employees.

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