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10th Annual Conference: Recap by Irwin Richman

With video poker glittering at the newly refurbished nearby Monticello Raceway, the Catskill Institute held its 10th conference, once again at Kutsher’s Country Club.  Now the last of a dying breed, the atavistic scent of additional promised casinos is in the air and, sadly, we learned that The Raleigh, Kutsher’s chief competitor, would not open in its present form for the 2005 season. It has been sold to an ultra-orthodox group.  Kutsher’s is now to be the only major golden age Catskill Hotel remaining in original family hands and we cherish it.  It offers a full range of sports activities and every night there is dancing and entertainment in the nightclub,  Indeed, on Friday and Saturday the hardiest of us went on to be further amused at the shows after our evening programs.  The food, as always, was abundant and often traditional.  Breakfasts were rich with smoked and pickled fishes, miniature Danish and bagels, all to be washed down with eggs, French toast, waffles, and omelets.  This warmed us up for our dairy lunch:  smoked whitefish with “just a side of potato pancakes.”  Schav and borscht with sour cream are always extra good lubricants.  All of this got us into training for dinner where Catskill menu language holds supreme.   No one eats boiled chicken when “Steamed Selected Plymouth Rock Pullet” is available or a vegetable plate when you could feast on a “Bouquetiere of Garden Vegetables.”  Most at our table enjoyed “Roast Prime Rib of Blue Ribbon Beef, Au Jus.”  As always, the more recent pop culture items also showed up: “Buffalo Style Chicken Wings” with “Honey Mustard Sauce” replacing the normative blue cheese dressing. 

The conference began with registration at 5:00, which led into our cocktail party at 6:00.  As is our custom, the registration table also offered a selection of books authored by conference presenters.  Adjacent, Sal Kluger had his enticing bazaar set up offering seductive books and tee shirts and other ephemera of Jewish interest – and Jewish music on record, tape, and CD along with a few hard to find movies on DVD and disc.  Allen Frischman, collector of Catskilliana extra-ordinaire, showed some of his treasures and offered duplicates for sale.  A cocktail buffet of wings, fish sticks, noodles, and cocktail franks warmed us up for Friday night dinner, which as always kicked off with matzoh ball soup and gefülte fish. 

At 8:30 we were ready to start the conference … officially.  Phil Brown called us to order, memorialized our fallen Catskillers, and then he demonstrated his recent mastery of Power Point.  Goodbye to slide shows of yore.  As always, Phil’s photographic/musical essay into the Catskill past was evocative and informative.  Next was “A Bintle Briv” in which Phil and Irwin read letters written to them by readers of their books, Catskill Culture and Borscht Belt Bungalows.  The letters, by turn, were poignant and humorous.  For voice variety, some of the letters written by women were read by Susan Richman.  The evening ended with a brief presentation by Deborah Dash Moore about the ongoing celebration of the 350th anniversary of Jewish Life in America.  Her remarks, as always, were intelligent and polished. 

The next morning after breakfast, our first talk was by the extremely energetic Robert Dadras, an architect who spoke on “Resort Architecture and Historic Preservation in Sullivan County.”  A resident of nearby Grahamsville, Dadras lives in a Greek Revival style former tavern that he is restoring.  Bob was so anxious to talk that he took the redeye flight from Los Angeles to be with us!  His presentation covered topics beyond our usual scope.

He was followed by Rachel Kranson, whose presentation was “The Luxurious Left: A History of White Lake Lodge.”  Rachel, an NYU graduate student in her twenties, represents the future of Catskill studies.  Her presentation was insightful, well organized, and crisp with a well co-ordinated Power Point assist.  With great good humor Rachel described her successful search, with Phil Brown as her native bearer, for the surprisingly well preserved remains of the White Lake Lodge, built by the Furriers Union for the use of its members and other unionists.  Leftist in politics, it was a lively place.  Providing commentary was the eternally vital Henry Foner who had helped to develop the resort.

After lunch (ah, borscht!) Phil Brown narrated a bus tour, “Woodridge, Greenfield Park and Ulster Heights.”  Well ordered and beautifully researched, as is Phil’s style, the trip covered ground familiar to the maestro from his young years working in the Catskills.  When we got to Ulster Heights Les Sperling, a retired professor of chemistry from Lehigh University, regaled us with tales of his growing up and attending a one-room schoolhouse in that small community.  The high points  of the trip were, for many, the visits Phil arranged to two hotels, the Grand Mountain in Greenfield Park and the Rainbow (formerly the Alpine) in Ulster Heights.  Both hotels were practically in ruin when they were rescued and reopened by Russian immigrants.  Both cater to a Russian and largely non-Jewish clientele.  Especially interesting was a tour of the immaculate kitchen at the Rainbow whose beaming proprietor Dina Edelstein was as gracious host as was Alex Smushkovich at the Grand Mountain.  It was fascinating to see the similarities and differences that these hotels exhibited in relation to the normative Jewish resorts that preceded them.  One casual observation is that Russians often wear skimpier swimwear than do normative Americans – on more ample bodies.  Our bus driver was marvelous, getting us into many unlikely places … and getting us out again!

After dinner John Conway, Sullivan County Historian, delivered a fine talk about one of Sullivan County’s other industries … tuberculosis sanatoria.  His presentation, “The Search for the Cure and Its Impact on Sullivan County:  The Sanitarium Movement in America,” concentrated on Liberty’s Loomis Sanitorium, which was founded in 1895 by Dr. Alfred L. Loomis (1831-1895).  Opening in 1896, it was managed and financed by a strong board of women trustees.  Many of its buildings remain.  John’s enthusiasm sent a number of us on a mission to find the complex, which is fittingly reached via Loomis Road in Liberty.

Sunday morning was devoted to pioneers.  In our first session Bernie Cohen and Harold Gold talked about “Local Businesses and Resorts.”  Both gentlemen in their eighties, both college graduates (Gold: Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, Cohen: Cornell University, Economics), both took over and expanded businesses founded by their parents.  Cohen’s was printing and advertising and Gold’s was bottled gas.  Both successful, both interesting, both provided interesting insights into the financial side of the resort business and the ever present conflict between supplier and resort owner: the supplier wanting to be paid, the resort owner wanting to delay the almost inevitable. 

Cohen and Gold were followed by two other spry octogenarians: Evelyn Haas, who ran the Edgewood Inn in Livingston Manor for many years, and Leo Lipkowitz, who along with his brother, had just sold their Lipkowitz Bungalow Colony in Ferndale after more than fifty years.  “My brother and I,” Lipkowitz recalled, “wanted our children to succeed and they did.  Two doctors, a lawyer, a pharmacist and a college professor,” and none of the children wanted to take over the business.  Because of health problems, the brothers reluctantly sold the bungalow colony.  It was purchased by ultra-orthodox Jews.  It was a bittersweet end to the formal conference program.

At lunch we said our goodbyes and began our planning for next year.  We hope that Kutsher's will still be here as an example of the Catskills that was.