The impact of Jewish comedians who honed their craft in the Catskills is phenomenal. They were the Who's Who of America's favorite clowns and comics for generations. Joe Dorinson's presentation, "Catskill Comedy" was both informative and hilarious; especially wonderful was his material on Danny Kay and Sid Caesar. Caesar sharpened his talents at the Avon Lodge in Woodridge (and even married into the owner¹s family). Improvisation and speaking pseudo often Yiddish inspired languages were among the comedian's bag of tricks displayed weekly on his own groundbreaking television program, "Your Show of Shows," which featured the brilliant writing of Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks, among others. These skills evolved directly from his Catskill experience. Danny Kay, who tummeled at the White Roe Inn in Livingston Manor also incorporated Catskill Yiddishisms into his material even after he moved into the mainstream. His hit song "Dinah" is a good example of such material. Extremely likeable on screen, Kay's appearance was considered "too Jewish" by the Hollywood studios that wanted the comedian to get a nose job. As a compromise, the dark haired comic actor dyed his hair blond. John Weiner, who ran the White Roe with his father and brother, attended this year's conference along with his wife.
Being at Kutsher's provided for a New York comic refresher course. On Friday evening we were entertained by Steve Solomon, who is clearly Jewish and whose material would have worked as well with the "Golden Age" audience fifty years ago as it did with today¹s audience. His stories about his grandparents were especially hysterical and timeless. More modern was his use of language and his vivid simulations of the sounds of bodily functions, which earlier comedians would only have hinted at. They were crude, but great crowd pleasers. He brought the house down.
Saturday night couldn't have been better for us. We were to be entertained by John Pinette who Kutsher's Kapers describes as, "An actor-comedian with an extensive list of credits on the screen and on TV, the rotund rollicker has just been named by American Comedy Awards as Stand-Up Comedian of the Year." Indisposed, he was replaced by a living legend of Borscht Belt Comedian Alumni, Alan King.
With his acerbic wit intact, King, a longtime Kutsher family friend recalls that he worked at Kutsher's for fifty years. During his first year employed at the hotel, he was paid $80. He teased the family for asking him "To fill in for a comic I never heard of." Apparently, he never caught Pinette on MTV. This was King's first Catskill appearance in two years and he was clearly reveling in being at a venue where he could do some of his favorite shtick that does not play with the greater public. By turns sentimental and very funny, he received the ultimate Catskill accolade a standing ovation.
When we had arrived on Friday afternoon to register, we were immediately tempted by Sal Kluger's book and Judaica bazaar. As usual Sal had a wonderful mixture of hard to find books, tapes, and CDs. There was also some more popular stuff and wonderful Schlock this year, featuring "Harvey Magila" the "Sonic Activated" Hasid doll who dances to Hava Nagila when you clap your hands. But where else, except at Sal's, will you find a contemporary Polish book on Jewish postcards printed in pre-war Poland?
As always the registration desk featured a display of books written by our speakers for sale. Once again there were TV documentary production people in the audience working on developing Catskill shows and features, including a major presentation being planned by New York's Channel 13. As in past years, Jeff Gold taped all of our proceedings for his company, Creative Seminars. Not only are these recordings a valuable archive source, but the tapes of individual sessions can be purchased very inexpensively from Creative Seminars, P.O. Box 203, West Hurley, NY 12491 (or call 845/679-6885).
A wonderful Friday night dinner offered the traditionalists gefilte fish, brisket, cholent and matzo ball soup. An even more modern fare, including a vegetable plate, was offered to the more assimilated. After dinner, the evening began with Phil's valedictory in his beautiful Yiddish, followed by an English translation. Next as slides of Catskill resorts past and present flashed on the screen, Phil, on the keyboard, and Sy Kushner on the accordion, played a klezmer medley.
The note was right to introduce Eileen Pollack who read from her novel Paradise, New York, about hotel life in Liberty. Six years ago she read to us from her manuscript. The book, since published by Temple University Press, has received many favorable reviews including one in the New York Times. As before, Eileen was marvelous she reads with character and verve. Her son, Noah, making his first teen year visit to the mountain of his mother¹s birth, accompanied Eileen to the conference.
Saturday morning, after a very substantial herring and lox filled breakfast, Harvey Jacobs read from his 1975 novel Summer on a Mountain of Spices, which is set at the fictional Willow Springs Hotel in the 1940s. Jacobs¹ descriptions of Monticello were wonderful, as were his evocations of resort life. Sadly out of print, the novel can be found on the internet and it shows up in many unusual places. My son Joshua found my copy for me in a secondhand bookshop in Charlottesville, Virginia. As would be expected, Sal had a copy for sale. Harvey was informative, energetic, and entertaining. He was followed by Joe Dorinson's "Catskill Comedy" presentation.
After a lunch offering borscht and shav with smoked whitefish and blintzes, Joe Berger of The New York Times talked and read to us from his new, very well received book, Displaced Persons: Growing Up American. Part memoir, part family history, Displaced Persons is about Berger, his parents and their circle. An important part of both their Americanization and their hunt for a hamish community led them to spend several summers at Catskill bungalow colonies. Joe's presentation and reading elided many questions and comments from the audience, many of whom interacted with displaced persons in their own lives.
After a short break, John Conway, the Sullivan County historian and author of Retrospect: An Anecdotal History of Sullivan County New York, made a return visit to the conference. A speaker at the first conference, Conway talked on "Gangsters in the Catskills," updating the research he has done over the last seven years. His insights into gambling and organized crime during the "Golden Age" were always fascinating as was his discussion of the use of Loch Sheldrake Lake as a dumping-ground. When asked about organized crime in present day Sullivan County, Conway invoked a promise he had made to his wife that "he would never do research on living gangsters." Enough said!
Saturday night's dinner offered "Consomme Noodle Mandlen" a.k.a. chicken noodle soup with mandlen. "Roast Prime Rib of Blue Ribbon Beef, au jus," "Boiled Beef Flanken," and "Roast Philadelphia Caponette" were among the traditional entrees. Those with other tastes were offered "Bouquetiere of Garden Vegetables" or "Buffalo Style Chicken Wings with Honey Mustard Sauce."
After dinner Irwin Richman did one of his almost traditional slide shows, one featuring new, never before seen photographs from his family archives and illustrations used in his new book, Sullivan County Borscht Belt. As before, Irwin's mother Bertha, herself a living artifact of the great bungalow years, felt free to counter lecture. Irwin had never opened for a star of Alan King's magnitude before. After one question the audience departed en mass to the nightclub to get a good seat so that they could enjoy the comedy legend. King's real opening act was Tony Cherry, a fine performer who Pat Cooper, our last year Saturday night comic, called "my favorite young singer." He left the crowd in a mellow mood for King's star turn. Next morning, with Shabbat behind us, the grill was open and we could enjoy omelettes along with our lox, bagels, herring and pickled lox. Now we were ready for Phil Brown's fine slide show, "Searching for the Ruins." Phil, a sociologist, is a fearless field worker. "Private Property" and "No Trespassing" signs don't stop him. Burly guards do! His co-explorer Alan Barrish, librarian of the Monticello library, reported this. Armed only with a copy of Catskill Culture -- when confronted the book often overcomes suspicion-- Phil and Alan hunt for remnants of old hotels. Some resorts are very recognizable; others have been remodeled beyond the recognizable; others have almost vanished. Phil's presentation of alternating photographs and postcards of hotels in their prime with photographs showing their present condition was especially fine as was his discussion of Alfred Landis, the very important postcard artist who created some of the best aerial views of hotels all drawn without the benefit of an airplane.
Closing the conference was a newly-blond Art Tanney, who was as wonderful as last year's brown haired Arthur Tanney. His memories of his father, evoked by a visit to the old bungalow, brought tears to his eyes and the eyes of many in the audience. Arthur's many bungalow stories can be found on the Catskill Institute Website and AOL.
Afterwards, all that remained was a last lunch to fortify us for the road. We packed up and traveled north, south, east and west. Our long distance champions this year had been a couple that came from San Francisco. They left their heart in the Catskills.
At last year's opening session we heard about the great plans to convert the Concord into a new resort. Nothing has happened! We heard that Kutsher's would be the site of a new Indian Casino. Nothing has happened! Despite these setbacks there is a sense in the air that changes will happen. At the site of the Woodstock Festival a new concert hall is to be built, already designed by Richard Mier the architect of the Getty Center in Los Angeles. It is due to be the summer home of the New York Philharmonic. We'll see! Next year, we expect to be back at Kutsher's. And in addition to presentations and readings, we expect to offer bus tours of the world that was. Remember, Next Year in Monticello!