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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.

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