Last Resort: ‘Dirty Dancing’ and the Catskills Legacy

January 06, 2012 at 4:00 am

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 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.”

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