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9th Annual Conference: Recap by Irwin Richman

Remnants of the old Catskills still survive, but they are changing.  Kutsher’s, which for years, along with the Raleigh, been a survivor of the old school, is now undergoing metamorphosis.  It is now a hotel within a hotel.  The “Glatt Boys” now run a glatt kosher hotel, complete with separate dining room and kitchen facilities – and separate male and female swim sessions in the indoor pool.  Our former meeting room, the Launching Pad, has now become the glatt kosher dining room.  It takes some adjustment to see the ultra-orthodox, and even Hasidim, strolling the lobbies on the Sabbath.  As a result of the new policy and new clientele, Kutshers was completely sold out, in what is traditionally a slow part of the season.

As usual, our conference began on Friday with registration beginning at 5:00 p.m.  Also, as usual, a variety of books authored by members and presenters was on display. Phil Brown’s Catskill Culture, Irwin Richman’s Borscht Belt Bungalows, and Deborah Dash Moore’s To the Golden Cities, all recently available in paperback, were on the table.  Nearby Alan Frishman, Fallsburg native, plumber, building inspector, and collector of Catskill memorabilia par excellence, sold duplicates from his collection.  Brochures and menus from now-departed hotels were featured.  But who could resist a 1952 enameled sign proclaiming membership in “The Sullivan County Bungalow and Rooming Association”?  Missing from the registration area was Sal Kluger’s bazaar.  Because of the funeral of Myrna Kluger’s father, the Klugers couldn’t arrive until late Friday night.  However, by Saturday morning Sal’s emporium was back in operation – and all was as it should be at the Catskills Institute.

After an hour-long cocktail reception featuring chicken wings, egg rolls, and lo mein, we were ready for some serious eating and Kutsher’s dining room did not disappoint.  The traditionalists among us had gefülte fish, matzoh ball soup, and brisket with cholent.  But the vegetarian and the cosmopolitan were also able to feast.

At about 8:45 we began our program with one of Phil’s traditional slide and music presentations, our official welcome, and our remembrances of fallen Catskillers.  Next came our open-mike session, which featured brief presentations by six members.  Len Shenkin, a Los Angeles based optometrist, almost won the honors for the presenter who traveled the longest distance.  He recalled summers spent on his family’s Schatzkamer’s Farm, just north of Woodbourne (but with a Hurleyville mailing address.)  Len spent some of his time as an amateur-Catskill-summernik-archaeologist.  Returning to the farm’s now overgrown site and discovering the ruins of its swimming pool of treasured memory.  Impressive as the length of his trip, it was second to the Goldwassers, radio personalities in their adopted country, who came to the Institute from their home in the Netherlands.  Ira Goldwasser shared his memories of being a lousy waiter, but also of becoming a great Latin dancer.

Next came a showing of the film, “Sweet Lorraine” for those who didn’t want to go either to sleep or to the night club.  The starring act was comedian Mal Z. Lawrence, who was featured in Freddy Roman’s Catskills on Broadway.  His performance was polished, highly professional, and greatly appreciated by the fun-seeking crowd. 

Saturday morning the dining room opened at 8:30 for a Sabbath breakfast of cold and steam table foods, but we survived on lox, bagels, cereal, French (or should I say, “Liberty”) toast, little Danish and hard cooked and poached eggs.  Morning session began at 10:00 with, “Ain’t No Mountain High: Hoop Dreams in the Borscht Belt,” a memoir and history presented by Joe Dorinson and Henry Foner, both familiar to conference goers.  Henry lived the 30s and 40s around the Catskill sports scene in his musician days.  Joe Dorinson, who lived the years of the 1950s forward is editing a history on basketball in the Catskills, which we hope will be available by next year.  Both Joe and Henry recalled a world now gone of amateur sports, fun, serious competition, and scandal.  Next Deborah Dash Moore spoke on “Jewish Leisure and Vacationing,” exploring what was Jewish about the Catskill experience and questioning how many Jews actually vacationed in the Catskills.

Following a very ample lunch featuring borscht, schav, and smoked whitefish, we were well fortified for our afternoon tours.  Originally only one trip was scheduled, to be led by Phil Brown and based on his books Catskill Culture and In the Catskills.  When this was sold out, Irwin agreed to do a repeat of the Borscht Belt Bungalow tour he led last year.  Phil’s expedition took people to visit a well-preserved, abandoned small hotel, the Mayflower, in Thompsonville (later transformed into Bethel Sunshine Camp). People were able to see all the buildings of a typical small hotel, never even renovated in the 1950s, that might have held 100 guests. The tour next stopped at the Heiden Hotel (where “Sweet Lorraine” was filmed), and to meet ex-owner Herb Heiden, who gave a brief history of the hotel.  They then visited the Grossinger site and its still active golf course, and they explored the White Lake and Swan Lake areas.  Phil was especially pleased to be able to show the folks the Bradstan Country Hotel, which had once, briefly, been Brown’s Hotel Royal, his family’s resort.  Irwin’s tour once again featured a stop at the site of the Ambassador Hotel, which had the Catskills first night club and his mother’s house, the remnant of Richman’s Bungalow Colony in Woodbourne, where all were impressed by Bertha’s collection of vintage refrigerators.

Returning from the tours, we had time for a brief rest and a shower before dinner.  Whatever else is on the menu, Saturday night was always steak or roast beef night in The Mountains and tonight did not disappoint. 

Our Saturday evening program could have been a disaster; Aurora Flores, who was to have presented “Mambo in the Catskills” was a no show!  However, Phil had a back-up.  Eileen Pollack, visiting by good fortune, read from her Catskill short story, The Rabbi in the Attic.  Eileen’s elegant reading brought us a powerful glimpse of local life in Liberty nearly a half century ago. With good grace and charm, Eileen admitted that it was every novelist’s dream to be asked to “save the day” by doing a reading!  Afterwards Michael Littenberg-Brown and his charming companion Eliana Gutman demonstrated salsa and offered salsa lessons to the salsa-inclined.  Those of us who witnessed Michael’s singing debut several years with father Phil, were pleased and astounded by his dancing prowess and his poise and competence.  The kid has all the right moves and he has studied Latin dance in Latin countries.  Phil and Ronnie kvelled!  Ole! Ole!

Those with stamina to spare ended the evening with The Drifters in the night club.  This was a visit down Memory Lane from the days when rock and roll was new.  The group received a well-deserved standing ovation from the very appreciative crowd.

Sunday morning the grills were in full fire for a breakfast and omelets and pancakes joined the fishes of yesterday to fortify us for the next programs.  At 10:00 Shelly Altman spoke “On Writing the Screenplay for ‘Sweet Lorraine.’”  Her presentation was warm and affectionate and added to our appreciation for our very own cult classic.  “Sweet Lorraine” is “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” of the Catskill aficionado.    We all know where to sigh or cry.  [Being at Kutshers, many of us were even in costume.]  The next event was Irwin Richman’s tell-and-show, “Home Movies” in which he talked about the meaning of home movies in understanding Catskill history and then showed examples of home movies, including those he took at Richman’s Bungalow Colony in the 1950s. 

As always, most of our sessions were taped by Creative Seminars and copies are available from Box 202, West Hurley, New York 12491.

All that was left to do now was to eat lunch and say our goodbyes.  For the conference planners, we have already started thinking about next year.  For everyone else we hope to see you all at Kutshers once again for our gala 10th Anniversary edition.

Happy New Year!