WEEKEND EDITION

Last Resort: ‘Dirty Dancing’ and the Catskills Legacy

| January 6, 2012 4:00 AM video
Where: Film Society of Lincoln Center
When: Jan. 26 at 3:45 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.

As the directors of the documentary “Welcome to Kutsher’s: The Last Catskills Resort,” we’re often asked, why the Catskills? Or even more pointedly, why does the Catskills experience matter?

If you’re Jewish and grew up in the Tri-State area sometime between 1910 and 1980, then you’ll understand. If you’ve seen “Dirty Dancing,” then you’ll get it; that was, after all, a two-hour cinematic nosh of the 100-year feast that was the Catskills. And even if you’ve never heard of the Catskills before, if you’ve ever enjoyed a stand-up comic, an activity-filled cruise, “Dancing With the Stars,” or an all-inclusive, multi-generational family resort, then thank the Catskills; that mountainous region just under three hours northwest of New York City provided much more than just respite for families looking to escape the oppressive heat of city summers.

In the early 20th century, many if not most resorts on the East Coast were “restricted,” to put it mildly; “gentiles only,” to put it bluntly. So Jews created their own hotels and a loyal clientele soon followed. What began as a direct reaction to overt exclusion evolved during the post-World War II years into a rising upper middle class who wanted to vacation like Americans but do so Jewishly: with matzo ball soup from a Kosher kitchen, Sabbath candles to light and nice Jewish boys serving as life guards and potential suitable matches for their daughters. 

What the Catskills was, it will never be again. It could only have existed when and where it did.

In 1907, Max Kutsher founded Kutsher’s Country Club, the Catskills resort that (as legend has it) inspired the film “Dirty Dancing,” employed Wilt Chamberlain as a bellhop before he played for the NBA and launched the careers of stand-up comedians like Billy Crystal and Jerry Seinfeld. (As it happens, Max Kutsher is the great uncle of Zach Kutsher, who made news with the recent New York City opening of his Jewish American bistro, Kutsher’s Tribeca.)

Our cameras started rolling at Kutsher’s Country Club in the summer of 2007, during their 100th year in business. Although the Catskills had been in decline for almost 25 years, there was still a palpable life force at Kutsher’s emanating from the staff, the guests, and most of all, the family at the helm of this historic institution. Our film shows how the Catskills left an indelible mark on popular culture — from comedy to sports to everything we take for granted as standard fare on a family vacation.

WATCH VIDEO:


Watch the trailer to “Welcome to Kutsher’s: The Last Catskills Resort,” a documentary that covers the rise and decline of the Catskills resorts. The film will appear in the 2012 New York Jewish Film Festival at Film Society of Lincoln Center on Jan. 26.

Kutsher’s is where Mr. Kotter first got his groove on.

Kutsher's helped to foster the stand-up careers of generations of comics from Sid Caesar to Jerry Seinfeld, pictured here with Mark Kutsher, right, and his son Zach, left. Photo courtesy of Mark Kutsher.

One night at Kutsher’s during that summer of 2007, the entertainment headliner was Freddie Roman, one of the kings of Borscht Belt comedy. The topics of his jokes — aging, sex, in-laws and all things Jewish — may sound corny at first, but his timing and delivery were impeccable, honed from decades in the business. It’s clear why he is the official dean of the Friars Club. To quote Roman, “the Catskills were the springboard for American stand-up comedy.” To prove his point, in addition to Seinfeld and Crystal, the (partial) list of those comedians who cut their chops in the Catskills includes Sid CaesarBuddy HackettJoan RiversGabe Kaplan and Andy Kaufman. All of them appeared at Kutsher’s.

The Kutshers even built a custom bed for Wilt Chamberlain.

Before his professional basketball career, Wilt Chamberlain worked as a bellhop at Kutsher's. Photo courtesy of Mark Kutsher.

Just as these entertainers would go on to Hollywood fame and fortune, Kutsher’s athletic program attracted professional athletes and coaches to work on their summer staff. That meant that Wilt Chamberlain might have been your bellhop and Celtics coach Red Auerbach could have organized your son’s afternoon sports program.

If you were really lucky, you might have been a guest one of the times that boxers Ezzard Charles, Leon Spinks or Muhammad Ali visited Kutsher’s while training for a fight. And about that bed? Before Chamberlain ever played pro ball, Milton Kutsher told his wife Helen that he was hiring a very talented young man for whom they would need to build an extra-long bed, order an extra-tall uniform and set aside an extra quart of milk every day. “Why go to all this trouble?” Helen asked. “You wait and see,” Milton said, “This young man is going to be somebody.”

There would be no “Love Boat” without the Catskills.

Long-time Kutsher's dining room servers Vanil and Betty Colodetti preside over trays of lox and cream cheese. At Kutsher’s, the food was about more than kasha, a traditional Eastern European starch, or the homemade baked goods, or even the kosher kitchen. With many guest ordering two or three entrees at a time, abundance was what mattered most. Photo courtesy of Caroline Laskow and Ian Rosenberg.

Even if you didn’t care about nightlife or sports, there was still a non-stop whirlwind of activities at Kutsher’s. You could watch a make-up lesson before you took a still life art class, or stop by a lecture on the stock market after golf and be back in time for a cocktail reception before dinner. After dinner there would be a “champagne hour” dance contest, and the stars were the staff dance instructors (remember that scene in “Dirty Dancing?”).

Or perhaps you’d rather just stay up to get a hot-off-the press activity schedule and start deciding what lay in store for you the next morning. What cruise lines and Club Med would later claim as their own had first been one of the secrets of the Jewish Catskills resorts’ success — your entertainment options were all there: everything was included, everything was planned for you and almost anything was possible.

It may ultimately be impossible to fully understand the unique alchemy that gave rise to the Jewish Catskills resorts experience. What the Catskills was, it will never be again. It could only have existed when and where it did. Within that relatively small area of bad farmland in New York’s Sullivan County, nestled in the Catskill Mountains, the famed Borscht Belt emerged. And what went on at these dozens upon dozens of Jewish, family-run hotels would impact American vacation and pop culture forever.

Caroline Laskow is the director of “Ashtanga, NY” an award-winning yoga documentary that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2003.

Ian Rosenberg was nominated for an Emmy for producing the documentary “Finishing Heaven,” which premiered at the 2008 Los Angeles Film Festival. He is also the producer of “The World’s Best Prom.”

  • Andrea David

    My family owned The Terrace Hotel in Ferndale, NY (outside of Libery). We had the pleasure of the performances of, as my uncle would announce, “straight from the Ed Sullivan Show……..Jackie Mason and Alan King!” My greatuncle owned David’s Bungalow Colony in Monticello, a precursor to the resort life.

  • Mary Banks

    I was a teenager during the 1950′s and worked at a smaller resort – This is wonderful. Thanks to all who are making it possible for me to reminisce. Those were great days.

  • Francine Rexford Fleming

    Wow the Hotels, I lived and grew up in the Catskills, still live in the Catskills. What a live it was to grow up then. Thanks for letting me go back to then it was great.

  • Pedro Arana

    I actually grew up in kutchers seen as how my mom was a chamber maid I spent many of my weekends and holidays playing G.I. Joes in the stairwell by the upper lobby with Lance Sullivan. To my mom giving me parts of her tips to go play in the arcade. And hanging out in the little clothing store with a guy named Kerry those were some great memories growing up in the Catskills. It’s sad that my kids will never get to experience it.

  • Margie Schoenfeld Reisfeld

    This brings back wonderful, wonderful memories of summers spent at Stieglitz Bungalows in South Fallsburg from the age of 2 through my teens. We had so many great experiences and adventures,including going to Kutshers as an older teen for the rock’n roll show, a big night out! The Catskill summer was a unique phenomenon that,sadly, won’t come again.

    • Steve Entin

      We also spent many summers at Stieglitz Bungalows in South Fallsburg from the early 1950′s until the lat 60′s. I agree that the experiences were great for then, but it’s over and the only thing we have is the memories.

  • sue

    Spent my whole childhood in Monticello. Parents worked at Concord as did I for 30 yrs. My friend Celia owned the skating rink at Kutchers!! LOVED reading this…Many people have no clue what the catskills used to be!!! Oh the memories!!

  • Jon

    How about one of my favorites? The Raleigh! Always such a cozy and warm atmosphere. One guitarist did songs about Donald Trump! We had midnight ice cream sundaes, ice skated, watched play-off football at the bar, and just had a really fun time with our entire family. You felt like part of a bigger family — sharing stories, laughs and songs. Closest thing to that now is a cruise, except without the same comeraderie or warmth.

  • Meryl

    From the time I was 2 weeks old until I was 16 I spent in Thompsonville( near the Raleigh ). My Grandparents owned the ” Browns High Mount Hotel”. It was a small hotel. I think their were more grandchildren ( 17) then guests. Grandma was the cook, two of my aunts were waitresses, one aunt was bookkeeper and sold the candy and my mother ran the projector on movie nite. It was a great place to spend summers away from city streets and noise. I still pay taxes on land that I inherited, but have not been up there in years. It hurts to see what has happend to that area. There’s always that promise of rebirth due to gambling, but that’s never going to happen. The old hotels stand vacant and it’s just the memories that live on….

  • sema

    This is great! In 1970 I went to Vegetarian Hotel in Woodridge and from there to Nevelly,Kutsher´s ,Concord, Raleight,Pines,Brickman,the one nearest and many more I don´t remember the names.Good memories about 35 year on the Catskill´s

  • www.salenalettera.com

    Loved reading this article – would LOVE to see the documentary! I worked at the front desk of Kutsher’s when I was in my late teens. I saw Helen and Milton Kutsher on a daily basis as their offices where right behind the front desk. They were always very present and involved in the daliy operations. I also worked in the main showroom on occassion and was able to see some great performers during my shift.

    I have great memories from my time there. The Catskills are a great place with a wonderful history. My family owned the Dodge Inn restaurant in Rock Hill and in the heydey of the Catskills, many of the celebrities that played the hotel circuit, dined at our restaurant. And I remember meeting some now famous basketball players when they came to the hotel for the Maurice Stokes benefit basketball game. I was there in the 80′s and I thought it was a great place to be – I can only imagine how fantastic it was back in the day.

  • Catskill Girl

    Great article. Unless you lived it, you could never understand it. Growing up in Monticello with my entire extended family working at Grossingers, the Concord, etc. I worked at the Raleigh for years myself. To quote someone else’s response, it could have only happened when and where it did. It was magical to many in it’s heyday. Now, it’s just very sad and depressing to see these huge pieces of our history fade away ……..

  • Rob

    I grew up in Monticello, worked at the Concord, delivered laundry to Kutchers and got married there, the best pigs in a blanket of all time. It was a great place to grow up sneaking intothe Concord on singles weekend and Mambo night at the Raleigh. What a great place and unbelievable memories.

  • Karen

    I lived in Liberty, NY for 18 years until I left for college. I returned each summer to work in a private dress shop and hotels. Grossinger’s the summer I was 17, Youngs Gap at age 14-16. I visited bungalow colonies with my dad who a scrap dealer. Kaplan’s corned beef sandwiches couldn’t be beat (Monticello) and Singer’s in Liberty. Midnight madness a forerunner of a flea market!!! It was a great life in the summer. Mention the Catskills to our generation of New Yorkers and everyone knows how great it was!!!!! It will never be repeated!!!!!

    • Mark

      Ah yes, Kaplan’s. Roast beef on club with mustard and cole slaw. Potato knish. The best ever! I went to Kutsher’s Camp Anawana for seven summers and was friends with Rikki Kaplan (daughter of Kaplan’s owners) who went to the camp also. What can I add to all the other comments? “Unless you lived it, you could never understand it,” says it best. I wish I could go “home” again.

  • paul licker

    the catskills goes very deep, i worked some of the smallmom and pop hotels from 1946 to 1950. i was a high schooler, i would often write a post card or letter for an older guest to a son or daughter. they gave me in yiddish and i put it into english. i was treated with respect because i was a gelarnter —- educated .
    wilt probably played for kutshers basketball team. there was awhole hotel league
    back then with the cream of college players
    don’t forget jerry lewis
    and if i’m not mitaken menashe skolnick and red buttons

  • Mary Coles

    I grew up in Jeffersonville a small town 12 miles from Liberty and worked summers in Liberty during early ’60′s before and during college. The surrounding towns of Swan Lake, Ferndale, were packed with tourists. Rt 17 going to NYC was a traffic jam on Friday nights. Unfortunately, hotels couldn’t compete with the deregulation of the airlines and the cruise industry. As hotels hoped and waited for gambling, industry that would have provided jobs lost in the hotels was not encouraged. There’s hope for this beautiful area only 100 miles from the city; good schools and employment opportunities are needed most.

  • doris herman

    AS A FORMER CATSKILL GOER ‘ NOW LIVING IN FLORIDA IN A CONDO WITH OTHER FORMER CATSKILL GOERS. I WONDER IF YOU CAN BRING YOUR FILM TO FL AND TOUR THE CIRCUT, IN CONDOS LIKE WYNMOOR, CENTURY VILLAGE AND KINGS POINT.
    BECAUSE OF MY DAUGHTER’S AND HER HUSBANDS CHILDHOOD EXPERIENCE IN THE CATSKILLS, THEY NOW LIVE INGOSHEN, NY. OUR COUSIN CIRCLE MET SERVAL TIMES AT KUTCHERS AND STILL TALK ABOUT OUR EXPERIENCE THERE.

  • outoftowntownie

    I would love to see this movie. I’m to young to have seen the hotels at their height but my Dad worked in them in the late 60′s (although never met Wilt? hmmmm) but he agrees with the trailer that Dirty Dancing doen’t come close to the real experience, especially for the working staff. I grew up in Ulster County and the Sullivan County I knew was a ghost of it’s former self. The film looks like it could inspire someone to breath new life into the Catskills!

  • Michael

    I worked at several of the Hotels in the Catskills as a Waiter, Lifeguard, Bell-Hop, Busboy, etc, etc, I mainly worked at the Concord on and off for 12 years. I am a Gentile that grew up as a foster kid and ward of the court in Sullivan County. One day I would like to write a book about how working in the Catskill hotels and my exposure to Jews sincerely helped me in my life. I was a high school drop out with no positive role models and now have three college degrees all with the help of the people I met and was exposed to at the hotels. I was given a place to live and work and save money for college. Waiting tables at the Concord was hard work, but I payed my undergraduate tuition in cash. It wasn’t all work, we played hard too–the movie Dirty Dancing was nothing in comparison is right-that was just little taste of what it was really like. WOW–if it wasn’t for those hotels in that area, I do not know how my life would have turned out in the end. I was friends with the owner’s children and had a few insightful discussions with the Rabbi in the steam room. There are just too many good memories of an Era gone by..I live on the West Coast now. I took a cruise to Alaska in Sept. It was great but the ship as a hotel was not on the scale of the Concord. I go skiing in Tahoe and stay in Reno, and the big hotels there are Grand, but still not a Concord Experience. I am really glad I was exposed to that scene. Oh, yes, I partied and danced at Kutcher’s a few nights during the summer too.

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