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Remembering the Catskills: Wonderful Borscht Belt Memories

 

By Staci Sturrock   |  Bars and Clubs  |  August 27, 2010

GROSSINGER’S: The resort’s huge pool in the 1950s.

So many stories!

When we asked for your Catskills memories, we were unprepared for nearly 200 responses – a smorgasbord of stories about singles weekends and honeymoons; entertainers like Henny and Jerry and Eddie and Shecky; skiing, skating and sledding; and dancing and dining (so many mouthwatering letters about the food!).

You told us that you laughed, and even cried bittersweet tears, remembering those carefree days in the mountains of New York.

Grossinger’s! Brown’s! The Concord!

 

Like another summer, the vast majority of resorts have sadly vanished. But the memories linger .

Steve and Marsha Slade of Boynton Beach write:

"We spent our honeymoon at The Nevele from Dec, 27, 1966, until Jan. 3, 1967. My husband was on a two-week leave from Officer Candidate School in Fort Knox, Ky. He was very slim, but he ate so much food that week that his uniforms did not fit when it was time to return to base."

TAKE MY ONE LINERS, PLEASE!

The Catskills’ greatest contribution to pop culture: the comics who played on its stages

A very short list includes Woody Allen, Milton Berle, George Burns, Shecky Greene, Danny Kaye, Jackie Mason, Don Rickles, Joan Rivers and Henny Youngman.

Your memories…

Suzanne Cohen, West Palm Beach: "I remember baby-sitting for Sid Caesar’s children, unfortunately never seeing him sober, and when he walked me home in Woodridge, N.Y., he would roll up his sleeve and reveal seven watches which always showed him that it’s 4 o’clock somewhere and time for a drink.

"Buddy Hackett was an extremely shy man offstage. Totie Fields loved to take off her mink coat and reveal her (naked) body when she was slightly inebriated. Red Buttons taught me gin rummy."

Annette Schwartz, Delray Beach: She lived in Liberty, N.Y., in the late 1940s and early ’50s, she enjoyed many celebrity encounters. "I remember seeing Lena Horne when she was recuperating from pneumonia. She was breathtakingly stunning. No pictures could ever do her justice."

D’Anna Crain, West Palm Beach: She worked at the Granit in Kerhonkson in 1967, when she befriended that summer’s headline act, Rowan & Martin. "After work, Rowan & Martin would sometimes take us with them to visit other resorts to see their shows. They asked me would I like to try some comedy with their act. I opted out." Months later, Rowan & Martin began hosting a little TV show called Laugh-In.

BEHIND-THE-SCENES

While others played, they worked in the Catskills

Sally Wilks, Palm Beach Gardens: At 18, she worked as a governess at Ratner’s in 1944 (the Ratner became the Raleigh in 1948): "We got paid next to nothing since we depended on tips, which were not always forthcoming, but we did have room and board. My duties were to keep slews of kids of all ages happy while Mom and Dad could be free of the little darlings. At one point, I was in charge of over 50 children and was expected to put on a variety show with them. Being next to the Concord Hotel, we used to sneak into their facility some nights so that we could watch the great shows."

Jerry Perline, Boynton Beach: He was a busboy at High View Mountain House in Tennanah Lake during World War II. "The work was terrible – long hours, seven days a week, 16-hour days. We slept dormitory style (on bad mattresses) in the back of the casino along with the band. It was awful. The casino was made up entirely of wood with no windows, no fire doors, no sprinklers, no fans. During the day it was unbearably hot but cooled down around 3 a.m. What happened to the insurance and labor laws inspectors? Whew! What an experience. I wish I could do it again."

THEY MET – AND HONEYMOONED -

IN THE CATSKILLS

Sarah Donner of Boynton Beach writes:

"My husband and I met on Route 17. I was returning from a weekend at Grossinger’s with a girlfriend, Sy was returning from a ski day at Davos with friends. The boys invited the girls to stop at the Sloatsburg Rest Area. The rest is history.

"We met in February 1961 and were married Christmas Eve of the same year. We honeymooned at the Concord, where we were assigned a table with four other couples married the same day.

"We were the only ones who made every meal!"

AT GROSSINGER’S: THE END OF AN ERA

Joe Lehman lived at Grossinger’s for almost two years in the 1980s, after the grand hotel had closed.

His father’s company, Servico, had purchased Grossinger’s and attempted to remodel it and reopen it. "They couldn’t do it. It was too much," says the 38-year-old bartender, who lives in Jupiter.

As a teenage boy, Lehman explored every inch of the abandoned property – the emptied indoor pool, the playhouse just weeks before it was demolished, the skating rink and tennis courts and tunnels that connected the buildings.

"It was really, really cool for a kid," he says. "It was so big and grand, I couldn’t imagine what it must’ve been like. Everything was times 10."

Lehman photographed what he saw, and beginning in 2000, he has returned almost every year to document the property’s continued decline.

He now owns and operates what he says is the largest website about Grossinger’s (Joe4Speed.com ), loaded with thousands of photos of the resort, including a fascinating "then and now" section.

"It’s a shame what happened to it," says Lehman. "I guess they call it progress."

AT MILLER’S AND THE MAYFLOWER:

Where everything was swell

Elaine Falber of Boynton Beach has so many memories of Catskills summers:

"Watched Doris Day in Pillow Talk and Sandra Dee/Troy Donohue/Lana Turner in Imitation of Life on the side of the casino at Miller’s Bungalow Colony in Thompsonville. I was about 6 or 7 years old.

"I remember Sam the bullfrog — he lived in the pond by Horowitz’s bungalows across from Jack’s Corner where we used to play pinball and have egg creams.

"As a family we went to the Mayflower hotel where the emcee sang, ‘Come to the Mayflower, the mountains’ best hotel/Come to the Mayflower where everything is swell’

"There was always a comedian and a singer, and my dad taught me how to do the cha-cha and the merengue and the mambo."

THE CATSKILLS IN HOLLYWOOD

The Catskills’ experience was captured most memorably in 1987′s Dirty Dancing, starring Patrick Swayze, filmed in Virginia and North Carolina, and remembered for "Nobody puts Baby in the corner!"

Other movies set in or about the Catskills: A Walk On The Moon, Woodstock, Taking Woodstock and You Can Count On Me.

LOX OF LOVE: OH, THE FOOD!

Ed Buchanan, Greenacres, then a chef in the Catskills: "To this day I have never seen so much food consumed in my life. They were great times in the Borscht Belt, where the sour cream flowed down the mountains."

Flora Braver, Delray Beach, stayed at the Flagler Hotel in South Fallsburgh: "A basket of onion rolls and a platter of miniature danish were always on the breakfast table each morning. The menu included juice, cereal, appetizer, even bagels and lox, eggs and coffee. If you were still hungry there was French toast.

"At lunchtime there was always a pitcher of sour cream, a bowl of sliced peaches and a bowl of pot cheese on the table. In addition there was Borscht, blintzes, fish and other choices.

"Dinner was the most wonderful experience. The finest meats, steaks and fish were on the menu, and the desserts were heavenly."

Steven Hechler, Wellington, who stayed at Kutsher’s in Monticello: "The menu was typed on stiff paper and placed on your plate setting. They served five courses. You could order anything, and the server, dressed in starched white, would bring it to you. You usually had the same table server all weekend, so he remembered how you ordered your food and always gave us kids an extra dessert if we finished our plate."

AT GROSSINGER’S: A GLANCE, A DANCE, A LIFELONG ROMANCE

Among the guests on the dance floor of Grossinger’s Terrace Room on that February evening in 1951 were Lucy Kleinhaus of Brooklyn and Jules Budoff of nearby Monticello, who’d come to the resort for dinner with his brother.

For what happens next, we refer to a poem Jules wrote later:

"When two handsome men asked her to dance

"She turned towards me. I caught her glance.

"What a lucky break, like a gift from heaven, this was my chance.

"I fought the competition and accomplished my mission."

Seven months later, they wed.

They settled in Monticello, where Jules and his family ran Budoff Outdoor Furniture, supplying oak Adirondack chairs to Grossinger’s and the Concord, and many other businesses (including Walt Disney World).

Eleven years ago, the Budoffs left Monticello for Palm Beach Gardens.

The decline of the resorts was unfortunate, Jules says. "They had all the nicest of everything. Things were different then."

Grossinger’s was a sort of heaven on earth, says Jules. "It offered everything. Outdoor skating, an indoor pool, excellent food and great entertainment."

And a newsletter – typewritten, mimeographed and stapled daily – The Grossinger Tattler, which on a November 1950 day noted in its Here ‘n There section: "Attractive Lucille Kleinhaus making a very pretty picture in her chic winter outfit."

Now, "people go on cruises or they to go five countries in two days," says Lucy. "Ours was a quieter experience, I would say."

But if the Terrace Room reopened tomorrow and welcomed onto its stage her beloved Eddie Fisher (he autographed her Grossinger’s luncheon menu way back when), "I would go back in a minute."

AT BROWN’S: LAUGHING WITH JERRY LEWIS

"Having hotel owners as parents, I certainly have many memories of the Catskills," wrote Lonnie Rowley of Palm Beach Gardens, the daughter of Charles and Lillian Brown, the founders of Brown’s Hotel in Loch Sheldrake.

Many of those memories center on Jerry Lewis, a family friend who visited Brown’s every summer, sometimes with his entourage, sometimes with his own family.

"We always had a huge sign on the front of our main entrance welcoming Jerry, and our whole family was always there to greet him.

"A special table was always set aside for him and his entourage, and my parents and me, in our main dining room. Then he would take over the show in our Theatre Club on Saturday night, followed by bagels in our coffee shop, then into our Brown Derby (where we were usually joined by many entertainers from other hotels), where we closed the night with more laughs."

THE BORSCHT BELT RESORTS

According to the Catskills Institute at Brown University, almost 1,200 hotel resorts and boarding houses – and close to 900 bungalow colonies – operated in the Catskill Mountains of Sullivan, Ulster and southern Greene counties.

During the 1950s and ’60s, the Catskills drew millions of visitors and served as training ground for a generation of stand-up comics and musicians.

But as costs of insurance and labor climbed, and the price of air travel dropped, the hotels fell on hard times. Why drive to the mountains when, for the same amount of money, you could fly your family to Vegas?

Brown’s: Opened in 1944 in Loch Sheldrake, the 570-room hotel on 160 acres was sold at a foreclosure auction in 1988. Home of the Brown Derby showroom and Jerry Lewis Theatre Club, Brown’s sat empty until the mid-’90s, when it was converted into condos.

The Concord: Before it closed in 1998, the Concord Resort in Kiamesha Lake was the largest hotel in the Catskills, with more than 1,500 rooms and a dining room that seated 3,000. Golfers can still tee off at its famous ‘Monster’ course, but plans to renovate the hotel are ongoing.

Grossinger’s: Jennie Grossinger took a hands-on approach to grow her parents’ hotel into a legendary resort that covered 1,200 acres. She personally welcomed 150,000 guests a year. Its golf course still operates, but Grossinger’s closed in 1986 and continues to decay.

Kutsher’s: You can still start your day with pickled herring at the last grand hotel standing from the heyday of the Jewish Alps. The Monticello ‘country club’ survives, barely, said The Wall Street Journal last week, thanks to ‘a last-minute rescue this spring by a former employee (who) enabled the resort to open for its creaky 103rd year.’

The Nevele: Located outside Ellenville, N.Y., the 430-room Nevele Grand Hotel fell into a sad state of disrepair before closing last year. Drowning in debt and tied up in lawsuits, it awaits a buyer willing to renovate a property that inspired disgruntled guests to design ‘I Survived the Nevele’ T-shirts.

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