Catskill Hotel Stories From the Golden Years
August 30, 1998
Let me start with some thoughts I put down on paper earlier this month on a field trip out here. It's called Sleeping in My Parents' Old Catskills Hotel
Tonight I am sleeping at my parents' old hotel in the Catskills. A half century ago that would sound pretty common, but William and Sylvia Brown owned Brown's Hotel Royal on White Lake only from 1946 to 1952. It's a miracle the hotel still stands, recycled as the Bradstan Country Hotel and beautifully detailed with luxurious antiques and appointments far exceeding an old Catskills hotel. Most very small hotels ñ the Royal would probably be stuffed at 60 guests ñ are long ago collapsed, burned, reclaimed by the land. For my book, Catskill Culture: A Mountain Rat's Memories of the Great Jewish Resort Area , I compiled a list of 926 hotels that graced the Jewish summer paradise of Sullivan and Ulster Counties over the last century. Less than two handfuls remain, none of them as small as the Royal, and they close at an alarming rate.~~~
That's why the Royal's survival is so spectacular. I 'found' it in 1993, on my first field trip to the Catskills that started my research, after having been away since 1979. I say 'found' because my parents till their death ñ my father in 1972, my mother in 1991 ñ hid from me their failed exploration into the hotel business. Sure, my parents had told me that they once had a hotel, when I was born. they even showed me some photos of us there. But they said the hotel was 'gone.' Surely they knew it still stood, in various reincarnations, including a sseedy rooming house, since they worked the Catskills their whole lives. My father died working in his concession at Chaits in Accord in 1972 and my mother remained cooking there till 1979. For many of their years working in Swan Lake, they went right past White Lake en route to Monticello. And nowhere was that far that they couldn't show me their old hotel, especially since I often asked. All I got was "It's gone," even when we spent several weeks in May on the Kauneonga side of White Lake at a friend's bungalow colony while my parents looked for work.
All I had was a postcard I found in my mother's few papers after she died. I knew that somehow I would find what I expected to be the remnants of Brown's Hotel Royal. The postcard would be my magic key and treasure map, even if I only found foundation stones. But I was shocked to see an operating hotel, the Bradstan, that was so clearly the Royal. It lacked the symmetrical side rooms that framed the front porch, a common Catskills architectural detail. And its white clapboards were not the old stucco facade. But the whole shape was there, comfortably nestled on Route 17-B across from the most beautiful lake in the Mountains.
Each year since 1993 I visited the hotel for one reason or another. One year I brought a New York Times reporter who wrote a story on me and the Second Annual History of the Catskills Conference. Another year I came to collect an old menu, handwritten by my mother in 1950, that owners Ed and Scott had turned up. Once I brought my wife and children to see the place where I was a baby and toddler. I kept thinking,"I should stay here as a guest once." Now I'm doing it.
Who slept in this room 50 years ago? Actually, the question is who slept in half of this room, for each two small rooms had since been made into a single larger room. Was it once of my aunts, uncles, cousins ñ the many family members who often stayed and/or worked here? Max, Laura, Gloria, Bess, Nat, Gene, Eugene, Sylvia, Sylvia, and Sylvia (so common a name then) ñ did you fall asleep here, across from White Lake shimmering in the August moonlight? Did you enjoy summer here in the Catskills, swim in the lake, play poker at night, hear my cousin Gene play violin, drink schnapps?
I would have been conceived here at the Royal, if my parents were already up here April 1 getting ready for Passover. But they did they not open for Passover, being so small.
The dominant story I remember my parents telling many times was about me as a toddler, roaming through the dining room. My father, fearful I'd crack my head on a table corner, ran in front of me, covering the corners with his hand. It's a simple story of a protective father, but it happened here, downstairs in our family's hotel.
What a strange idea, my parents amid these many hundreds of very ordinary people thinking they could run simple hotels in the Catskills. Not much business experience, precious little capital, and a reliance on relatives, friends, and landsmen who would accept shared baths and cramped rooms. But a tender feeling, that these New York Jews could come up here and make a summer celebration of their interconnected lives in the fresh Catskills air.
That was it ñ same story everywhere ñ lots of Morrises, Sylvias, Abes, and Mollies. There weren't the fancy dressers of the Nevele or Grossingers, but only plain Jewish folk who had great fun and a good time on the cheap.
I come back to roam country roads in search of abandoned hotels to record on film for people, many of whom will never quite understand how a million people each summer came to relax in hotels and bungalow colonies, or how their doctors, professors, doctors's parents, and professors' parents came to work their way through the first generation of college.
My camera records dybbuks grazing in the fallen timbers of old kitchens, hotel spirits lurking in the half-moon facades of 'Catskills mission' architecture. My tape recorder picks up from overgrown weeds the murmurs of requests for pickled lox, embraces in the staff quarters, merengues from champagne night in the casino. My heart logs a million desires, hopes, and dramas of every sort of East Coast Jew looking for something to make a life with.
Within the next ten years, every Jewish fiction writer worth his kosher salt will have written, or be in the process of writing, a book, novella, or story set in the Catskills. A previous generation of these Litvak literati and Galitzianer storytellers found the Lower East Side as central to Jewish story-telling, much as the English romantic poets feasted on swans and vales. But that was the generation leaving the East Side. Now it's the generation that just left the Catskills and can't find it any more.
The Lower East Side at least has a Tenement Museum to show how they lived in the densely crowded, unhealthy neighborhoods of generations ago. I want to find the benefactors to fund the acquisition of an old hotel for a museum that recaps and preserves how those Jews came to the Catskills in the summer, precisely to escape that Lower East Side. If we can do that, and if we can all help encourage more writers to capture this Summer Eden in literature, it won't only be about sleeping in my parents' old hotel, but about a whole culture of greenhorns and post-greenhorns who learned to play and enjoy life in White Lake, Hurleyville, Woodridge, Fallsburg, and Greenfield Park.
So, that's the little essay I jotted down. Let me move on to fill in some of the material that can put this experience in a historical framework.
Lots of people thought that the hotel business was an easy thing to enter. I must begin then with a personal tale, since that is what got me in the Mountains in the first place. Max Waldman sold the Royal to my parents in 1946, who took out a $16,500 first mortgage and a $4,500 second mortgage, and owned it as Brown's Hotel Royal. But how long did it last? I have in my possession a copy of the August 4, 1952 deed that Joseph Jacobs obtained when he bought the hotel at a mortgage foreclosure for $15,325. Even thought the place was crawling with mishpocheh, some working and some staying as guests ñ who could tell the difference? -- it was not enough to make it operate. Part of this was my parents' poor business sense.
Others were smarter, and perhaps luckier too. The Brickmans bought Pleasant Valley Farm in 1910 for $4,000, including 98 acres, a 13-room farmhouse, a barn, supplies, and livestock. The $400 down payment came from the Jewish Agricultural Society, being paid off at $50 a year.
In the economic boom of the post-WWI era, Murray Posner of the Brickman's remembers, "Everybody was putting up these stucco buildings." A man spoke of his father and grandfather starting up in 1929: "They bought a farm and they converted one of the buildings into living quarters, and I think they built one or two other buildings at the time. Very low capital operation. I think my grandfather started with $500 and borrowed $500 from one of his sons and $500 from one of his sons-in-law." One hotel veteran remembered how in 1926 the Granite Orchard House (later the Granite) was bought by his father, two grandfathers, an uncle, and one outsider. Combined, they put down $2,500 and were left with a $3,000 mortgage payable annually at $250, including interest.
Another hotel child recounted that her grandfather actually bought a hotel for his wife as an anniversary present. From another person came this memory: "My father bought a hotel because he loved the idea that he could play pinochle and the business would keep going at the same time."
Resorts were often started for health reasons. Another such example was the Excelsior: "My family got to the Catskills because my mother had TB... My grandparents had a cousin who already ran a small hotel in Liberty, so [in the 1920s] they bought the adjacent farm of 84 acres that had a large wood frame house with a lovely porch and moved in with the idea of starting their own hotel like that of their cousins, the Fleischmanns, and caring for my mother."
Some garment workers even managed to save enough money to go into the hotel business: Nat Lebowitz recalled that "In 1912 my father got tired of working in the sweatshops of the Lower East Side, so he and his young wife decided to go off on their own and they decided to come up to Sullivan County to start a resort hotel." They bought the Ridge Mountain House in Parksville, and then in 1916 they sold it and bought the Pine View Lodge in Fallsburg, which had been built quite recently: "It was a very modern hotel. It had running water in the rooms. That was a big thing in those years." In the 1950s, they moved old guest buildings to the rear of the property, for use as staff quarters, and built new houses, expanding the hotel to 216 rooms that could hold 450 guests and 50-70 children. The Pine View ran until 1982 when the adjoining state prison in Woodbourne took it by eminent domain to add a minimum security facility.
Nat Lebowitz offered an interesting piece of history about the building of hotels in the early part of the century:
In those years they didn't have lumber yards, so the way hotels were built -- sawmill operators would find a location where there were lots of trees, and in our case there must have been thousands of pine trees in our area. And the sawmill operator set up his shop and built two hotels - the Pine View and a neighboring hotel (the Regal] at the same time from the trees that they cut down.
In so many cases, people didn't know what they were getting into. Simple dreams and desires became transformed as small enterprises grew. Often, the transformation seemed a very positive development. Murray Posner recalled the origins of Brickman's:
This was the Pleasant Valley farmhouse that my grandparents acquired back in 1910. My grandparents didn't come here to be hotel owners or resort operators. My grandfather was a farmer in the old country and when he came to America the city was not for him. The children bought him a farm. Those years, you know, the farms, they weren't profitable. My father used to go to New York. He'd get a job and he'd send up his salary; it was $40 a week. He'd send it up to my grandfather to keep the farm going.
The more the place developed, the more they took pride in the growing resort. On videotape, Murray Posner provides a 24 minute tour of Brickman's, riding on an electric cart used for maintenance, similar to a golf cart. He points to specific trees and shrubs he personally planted, noting that they were taken from nearby woods on their property - cheaper and also more acclimated to the specific conditions than nursery purchases would be. Posner regales us with tales of laying stone pathways, tromping through chicken manure-covered fields, and all the time talking of the great "pride of ownership" he had in the place.
Even during the Depression, some people entered the hotel business. Anne Chester, her husband, his brother and brother's wife owned a summer home in Woodbourne, and their New York real estate business was hit hard in the Depression, so they started a resort, Chester's Zunbarg (that's Yiddish for Sun Hill). Carrie Komito still runs the Alladin Hotel that her parents bought 65 years ago in 1932, after already being guests for ten years, as she puts it, "before my mother got us into this mess." They entered the hotel business in a curious way:
In 1932 the people that owned this place before us were neighbors with my parents in the city. They had a butcher shop; my parents had a paper store. When they moved here they put up the main building. The man had 11 children. Instead of turning in the money, they were spending it. He was an easy parent. Business was good so he put up the second building. He was getting $18 a week. With the new building he charged $30. He was being foreclosed. We were guests here. Everytime my mother came out of the dining room, they waylaid her and asked her to help out, until one day she went with them and bought off the second mortgage.
For another example of getting a farming start in the Depression, we can look at three brothers-in-law who in 1937 bought a farm in Ulster Heights, near Ellenville. On their 58 acres was a main house for the three families, a boarding house for renting to four other families, a barn for ten cows, and some chicken coops. For their Maple Crest on the Lake, they built two additional bungalow units and another chicken coop, and worked the farm of eight milking cows and 200 egg-laying chickens. The partners hired a man to farm and teach farming, though he soon left to start his own farm. Up until the time they sold the place in 1945, all plowing was done by horse power. In a written memoir prepared for me by Les Sperling and his family, three children of two of the families recalled some comic episodes:
A number of people who didn't live on the premises had permission to go down to the lake on the Maple Crest dirt road leading that way. The road went right past the chicken house. This proved very tempting for a few of the ladies one summer, who were helping themselves to eggs every day, and scaring the chickens to death to boot. In those days Little Leslie had a bantam rooster who behaved like a watch dog. In spite of only weighing a pound and a half he would fly into the faces of strangers. We placed this bird in the hen house. This was followed by wild screaming ladies and the worst dirty looks imagineable. But the thefts stopped instantly.
Following Labor Day, many of the places were deserted. On one of the properties near Maple Crest, there was a small apple orchard. Naturally, the apples were left unattended to rot. The cows populating Maple Crest at that time must have smelled the rotting apples, and broke the fence to get to them. It must be remarked that rotting apples actually have a fermentation process going on, with significant alcohol production (hard cider!). That evening we had one very drunken herd of cows to get home, falling down drunk!
The end of World War II brought another major building boom. Comedian Mac Robbins put this in perspective in terms of places he worked: "After the war I worked as a tummler at the Lorraine, then the next year at the Anderson, then at the Rose Glow, later the Delano out on Liberty Road. They were owned by a milliner, a furrier, and a barber who had a few bucks after the war and bought a hotel up here. A lot of people were doing that then."
For $70,000, Charles and Lillian Brown bought the Black Apple in 1944 from the Appel family, who had run it since they built the Black Apple Inn in the early 1920s. For another $100,000 in renovations, Brown's began its famed career as one of the largest hotels, and it only closed in the 1990s. Now you can buy a condo there. Imagine, buying one room that you rented 50 years ago.
For many people, hotel ownership was often a hand-to-mouth operation. As a second-generation owner of a 100-room hotel remembered, "We were so poor, there was no profit. It was just a matter of having a place to live and have food on the table. We lived on grains and beans. We lived on credit. We paid it off in the summertime." Many men owners retained City jobs for the security. Some proprietors took on extra work, as with the owner who worked as a school bus driver, which required providing one's own station wagon. He bid very low in able to win the contract and hence be able to buy a new wagon which he needed for the hotel. One owner of a rooming house/colony combination painted many hotels and colonies in the neighboring area off season, as his son remembers: "He was famous for his sponge and stencil work on the walls, which he often painted while singing Yiddish songs." Another hotel owner ran a full-time painting contractor business while still operating the place with his brothers and their three wives. Sometimes the profits were not enough to support owners through the year. Proprietors of small and medium hotels and bungalow colonies, along with their children, often worked in larger hotels in the off-season. That often included Passover, since very small hotels lacked heating facilities to open that early.
Hotel owners had to come up with a variety of devices to satisfy guests. The classic tummlers were always poised to engage in wild antics to entertain people who were on the verge of leaving after several days of rain. When the kitchen was running late in preparations for the meal, owners could simply hold off on opening the dining room doors for 10 or 15 minutes. I remember this happening very frequently, while guests lined up at the doors clamoring to get in. Some had the nerve the open the door, as if they could talk us into opening up. But what happened if the kitchen got bogged down once the meal began? A family member tells this delightful story:
At the Granite, the orchestra played in the dining room. A march shepherded the guests in when the doors opened, and background music entertained them through the meal. "It was usually on [the very crowded] Sundays that the orchestra was called upon when the kitchen fell behind. The orchestra would play the Star Spangled Banner, usually between the soup and main dish courses, and the guests would stand in respect. As soon as they sat down, the band would play the Hatikvah, and again the guests would stand. This would give the kitchen about five or more minutes to catch up. Of course after many years, the guests became wise and realized what was happening whenever the orchestra played the Star Spangled Banner.
In the 1940s and 1950s, the casino often represented a major expansion; by the 1960s owners would likely go beyond the casino to a full-fledged night club. In his novel, Summer on a Mountain of Spices, Harvey Jacobs recounts owner Al Berman's desire to build a center of entertainment: "The Willow Spring Hotel boasted its palace of pleasure, the font of Al Berman's passion, years before even Henderson's [the larger competition, next door] had a social hall." Overflow crowds sometimes slept in tents, but Berman preferred the casino over additional rooms:
He wanted a casino with a stage, a dance floor, and stand to sell refreshments, not [guest] rooms. The Willow Spring would have a resident band of music, a social director, regular entertainment... Carpenters from Monticello went to work in the spring following Al Berman's blueprint. A long flight of wooden steps was built leading to a long porch held by white columns. The interior of the building was left hollow to the roof beams. A smooth wood floor, waxed and mellow, led to the stage. Two dressing rooms, stage right, stage left, were added and under the stage a storage room accessible by trapdoor was a final inspiration. The concession was placed to the left of the stairs with its front serving the porch, its side serving the inside of the casino through a large window. The result was a Catskill masterpiece, a local wonder. The casino itself was a handsome structure. The idea of so much empty air with walls around it, not a church or synagogue, was totally unique. Naturally on the busy weekends the dressing rooms held paying guests and the dance floor hosted rows of army cots for bachelors, so all was not lost...'We had a casino practically before Jennie Grossinger,' Al Berman said many times over twenty-two years. And it was true.
Hotel owners were in a rut of always having to expand. Anne Chester wrote that:
If business is good, there are constant improvements, additions both in accommodations, facilities, and staff. Then if sizeable accommodations are added, the kitchen, dining room, living rooms, play areas, theater, etc. become too small -- athletic facilities have to enlarged as well -- and so it goes. And if business is not rewarding -- then one must think of what additional to offer.
I spoke a few weeks ago with an ex-owner in Monticello, who told me also about the push for new additions: "Every year the guests come and ask 'What's new?' One year I said, 'You know what's new? The wrinkle on your face.'"
Overall, the proprietor had to know how to hustle the guests, while still satisfying them. From an owner's daughter comes this story:
This family came back three years in a row. Well, their room was #78. They were due to arrive on a Sunday. The people who were occupying the room refused to leave. They were going to stay another week. What to do?? In those days, the door numbers were nailed on. They were made of metal. When the occupants went to the pool, my dad switched the numbers. He put 78 where 77 was. It was directly opposite. When the #78 guests checked in, the bellhop showed them into 77 which was now numbered 78. The woman, Mrs. Marcus, said to her husband, "Why does this room look different?" Her husband said, "After a whole winter you forgot. Look at the number. It's the same room." And so it got by and my dad was so proud of himself. They never knew the difference.
Another hotelkeeper's daughter offered her family's method of having a black bellhop show rooms to prospective guests:
He had this little system with my mother where she would be trying to get them to take this room, and he would bring them upstairs to see the room [while the owner stayed in the office], and then they [the guests] would talk to each other in Yiddish, you know "It's too small," Look at this, it's too old," or "Boy, this is a real bargain for this price." And he [the bellhop] would convey this back to my mother.
Dorothy Eagle, owner of the Pine View Country Club in Loch Sheldrake (that's a different Pine View), remembered the challenge of talking people into rooms with a shared bath. "I had to sell rooms," she pointed out, but people resisted the idea of a bath on the floor, rather than a private bath. So she said to them:
When you close the door, you're private. No one's going to bother you. So they'd say, "You son of a ...." Then I'd say "Let's go down and have a drink." And I'd treat them to a drink and have my busboy bring us something to snack on. And they'd say, " [You're] The most terrific hostess."
I have spoken with endless hotel children who began working at the family place as soon as they could -- often at 8, 9, 10 years old, even if only selling newspapers or counting laundry. But here's a curious story about an alternative approach: One hotel owner felt his son needed a trial of work elsewhere first, as Jack Landman recounts:
I started working in the Catskills when I was 16 years back in the early 30s. At that time my father had bought a hotel, the West Shore Country Club on Kauneonga Lake. He wouldn't hire me because I was too young and he wanted me to get work experience elsewhere. My first job was as a busboy at the Hotel Glass across the street from the Flagler in Fallsburg. I worked there for one weekend. Most of the staff quit. It was Decoration Day weekend. We were not treated too well. I was used to it since my father didn't treat staff member any better. I understood the conditions. They were normal to me. To others they were abnormal. After the last meal, the older boys in college felt that they were treated so poorly that they could say we quit. They left the dining room in shambles of used dishes and unreturned bus boxes. Two of us--both of whose families were affiliated with the hotel industry -- his parents were in the catering business felt that we could not expose ourselves to the criticism inherent in leaving a job unfinished. The two of us cleaned up the entire dining room. As a result, Mr. Glass called my father to tell him what a fine young man I was. My father's response was typical: "If you're such a fine young man, why work for someone else? You'll work here from now on." That's how I became a busboy at West Shore.
Many parents wanted their children to stay in the business, even though they themselves might complain about how hard it was. One hotel child received a Ph.D. in biology, and had a hard time finding a job in the mid 1950s. In his memory, "In the back of my mind, I was probably waiting for the call to help manage the hotel." But he didn't get the call. Another hotel child did get the call:
I started running the hotel in 1960. I really wasn't a cosmopolitan person. I didn't care for the hotel. I didn't see any dollars there. I went into the millwork business. I went into the military. Then the lumber business. I wasn't successful. My father separated from my mother, and my mother was running the hotel. She was depending on me more and more. She called me. As time went on, I thought I can't do any worse at the hotel. That's when I got into the hotel.
Another owner was more realistic about her daughter's reluctance to even consider taking over the business: "Why would she like this place. She has no time and she's not interested. She spent her childhood here; that was enough."
Children grew up knowing that the hotel did in fact come first. Yet, at the Irvington in South Fallsburgh, the eight cousins whose three sets of parents owned the place would actually stop the main line to give the children what they wanted to eat:
It could be the middle of dinner, hundreds of people waiting for their dinner, the waiters screaming, yelling, sweating, and the fans running, one of the tykes would run in and come up and say "Uncle Irving, I'd like some dinner," and he'd stop everything; the whole production line would stop and [he'd say] "What would you like?" and the chefs would be muttering under their breath.
For this family grouping, hotel life seemed great for the children:
We had the run of the place. It was like a huge playground. We had the run of the kitchen. You wanted something in the middle of the afternoon sitting at the pool and everybody said, "Gee, it's hot," we'd just stroll in to the kitchen, get the keys to the fridge, open it up, and there it was, a vast cornucopia at your fingertips.
What did we do in these hotels? The pool was the major social center during the day. In between breakfast and lunch, and lunch and dinner, a large proportion of the guests were there, even if they didn't swim. Cards and mah jongg were played there. Bingo games and other contests were held. Shuffleboard courts were often adjacent. Bands played Latin music. Day campers had certain times that they could use the pool, so that it would not be too crowded and raucous for the adults. I remember endless days of lying on the side of the Seven Gables pool, as the four inch pipe at the deep end delivered a constant flow of cold water from the well. This water was so good that we cupped our hands and drank from the pipe before it hit the pool. Because of that deep, cold well, when they first filled the pool in June, it took a week or two for the ambient temperature to make the water swimmable. I loved the water, being used to nearly year-round swimming in Florida, and that was one reason why I begged my parents to not send me to day camp -- I wanted to be at the pool all day. As a veteran hotel kid, I felt I could take care of myself without supervision and without getting into trouble, and I simply did not want counselors telling me all day that it was time to make lanyards, time to play kickball time to make plaster of Paris casts ñ you remember, there were about 3 or four different molds: The Indian head, the parrot, I remember those two. Mostly, my parents disagreed, and I went to day camp. The only time in my life I was glad that my father had a concession was when he did one year at the Seven Gables, and I could avoid day camp in order to work behind the counter, a big grown-up 11 year-old.
At the Seven Gables, it seemed a long walk through the woods to the camphouse. Seeing the ruins of the hotel today, it is astonishing how close together everything was. Our memories are often bigger than life. But there were so many trees that you could have all sorts of adventures while still within earshot of the hotel. There was a small stream for catching frogs, and stands of sumac trees that we assiduously avoided just in case they were poison sumac. The best thing was getting off the grounds on camp trips -- swimming in Ulster Lake, bowling in Ellenville, taking a bus to the Catskill Game Farm, even walking a few hundred yards down Route 52 to Kass's Corner to get pizza, or hiking up a nearby road past the "haunted house," a crumbling old house that people say was struck by lightning years ago. Day camp made the hotel more palatable for parents, since they didn't have to be with their children for large portions of the day. In the 1960s, hotels started providing care even for infants -- anything to keep the guests coming up. The Brickman's Murray Posner heartily boasted that, "People ask what age we'll take children at. I tell them, 'If the kid breathes we'll take it.' "
This attitude was a sign of the tenacity with which hotel owners could keep up with change -- at least to a certain point, and then only when they had control over the forces that shaped them and their resorts. American Jews were hustling up a new mobility, and what more logical place for it to shine through than in the Catskills! Just as the owners sought to maximize their profit in the short, treacherous season, so too did others hustle. Everyone was trying to figure out how to get something special or to make an extra buck. A baker recounted this story:
The first two seasons they had a tearoom. They had Charlie the bellhop, and he would come in and clean out the bakery. And I once had an argument with him. From now on -- he handled the newspapers also -- I want a free paper every day, and he was able to get the cake.
Social directors convinced guests to go horseback riding, for which the farmer kicked back a third of the charge. Comic and tummler Mac Robbins recalled that "The tummlers used to have to take the people into town -- a dozen or so at a time -- if they wanted a luncheonette, a soda fountain, a deli. The owners used to give us, not exactly a kickback, but a little something -- a free lunch, a pair of tickets -- to encourage us to bring our guests to their store." To get a birthday cake for a family member you had to pass money to both the baker and the maitre d'. If a guest wanted a fancy dish, such as sturgeon, rather than ask the waiter he had to tip the maitre d' to bring it. A waiter alone could not get it -- I know, because I tried to get sturgeon from the saladman at Brickman's, who refused and referred me to the maitre d'. I guess it's safe after 30 years to say that it wasn't for a guest, it was for me.
The hotels were full of rivalries between all parties. I heard from one baker the following:
They had one chef there that trusted me. He would make his gefilte fish in my mixing machine. He had an experience once-- his mother was a chef also -- and he called her up one day, he said, "My gefilte fish fell apart." She said, "Where did you mix it?" He said, "In the baker's machine." This was another baker at another time. She says, "Do you get along with the baker?" He says "Not really." She says, "He must have put a handful of baking powder in your fish and it just blew it apart."
The staff always worried about the guests causing them too much trouble. One veteran worker remembered this: The hostess would be running out with a little plate like this, and the people, "What do you got there, what do you got." "Dietetic spinach for somebody." "I want some too."
It was amazing how people wanted something because others had it. Listen to this baker reminiscing:
I made a hullabaloo one time. I made frogs for the kids. These are cupcakes with butter cream and I would use butter cream and cover it with chocolate and then I would cut a slit with a knife and pink icing butter cream would be the tongue. And I'd put eyes on it and it would look beautiful. I would make this for the kids. I think I had three or four of these left over and one of the guests saw it in the kids dining room and he wanted one in the main dining room. I said "I can't give it to you." So he got Mrs. Komito and she came in. And is said "I'm sorry, I can't give it to you. You'll start a whole hullabaloo in the dining room. " I said "If he'll eat it here he can have all four. But he's not going to carry it into the dining room. Well the wind-up was he didn't get it, and she was plotzing, the owner, "How do you do this to a customer?" It got OK after that. I said "You don't do that. You don't take this out and everybody is going to want it, and what am I going to give them?"
An owner's son recounted a story about a guest who disliked herring so much he demanded that the waiter who served it family-style put it at the far end of the table away from him. So difficult was this guest that someone tied a herring to the pull-chain of the light in his room, which scared him enormously when he entered one dark night. Some proprietors came right back at their difficult guests, as this hotel child recollects:
One time at his boarding house a female guest, a chronic complainer, accosted Zada Megel in the yard with some complaint. He told her she was driving him to his death and he pulled out a bottle of iodine from his pocket with the skull and crossbones prominently displayed on the label, which he drank and fell to the ground feigning death. Of course, he had replaced the iodine with tea, but needless to say, she never bothered him again.
Lots of people thought that guests were often schnorrers:
After the second season, I think, they did away with the tearoom so the concession wouldn't lose out. So what would the people do? They would take extra cake from the dining room, carry it down to the concession, just order coffee, and eat the cake from the dining room.
And we waiters and busboys were not innocent babes. We played around a lot in the dining room, before and after meals. We did animal imitations and performed impromptu skits satirizing the chef, maitre d', and owners. We called make-believe harness races. We roughhoused with each other. A busboy recalled:
While working as a busboy we had contests after everyone left the dining room to see who could carry the heaviest tray. You would pack it all around on the tray and then see who could carry it into the kitchen without dropping it. I was carrying one of these heavy trays into the kitchen when the owner walked in and said to me, "If you drop a dish, you're fired. Even if you don't, you're putting on the amateur show on Wednesday."
Well, it looks like I got caught carrying a heavy tray, because here I am doing amateur nights and talent shows a few decades after I should be, trying to keep the legacy alive. It's a legacy that in one way still lives, because we are here in a small Catskills hotel having a good time. But in another way, we have to admit that the legacy is about something that's already declined. Since the beginning of the 1970s, the familiar Catskills are part of history. No more do these Mountains hold a million visitors each summer. No more do the towns and roads teem with life. No more do over 500 hotels and more than 500 bungalow colonies provide the nourishment to several generations of American Jews who sought relief, pleasure, income, and community.
When I give talks on the Catskills, people seem to want to hear about the reasons for its decline. And I mean something more than the pat answer: "air conditioning and jet planes." There really are a lot of reasons.
Changes in family structure were important. By the 1960s, women were entering the workforce in large numbers. This knocked out the tradition of summer vacations where the mother and children could be away for all or a large chunk of the summer. The growth of feminism, combined with outside labor, meant that women disliked being so 'on' in their vacations, especially in bungalow colonies where they had to cook and clean all the time. Even if women did not have jobs, it became less appealing to stay in hotels where they were often taking care of their children by themselves except for the weekend.
As family ties loosened, people did not seek resorts that had a familial character, one of the central elements of the Catskills hotels. Intermarriage might have contributed to the decline. Jews who married before 1924 almost always married other Jews -- 98.3% did so. Even by 1959, 93.4% still married Jews. The dramatic change started in the 1960s, and moved rapidly. Jews marrying between 1960 and 1964 married other Jews 88% of the time. For those married between 1965 and 1974, the figure plummeted to 69%; for marriages between 1975 and 1984 it dropped further to 49%, and for marriages between 1985 and 1990 to 43%. It was hard to be in the very Jewish Catskills environment with a gentile spouse. Though you can practice religion separately, you wouldn't be likely to go separately to the Catskills.
The higher divorce rate also made it harder for single parents to go to family resorts in the Mountains. While the Jewish divorce rate is lower than that of other religions, their divorce rate is still more than twice the 5.1% rate as in 1971. Even the traditional matchmaking function of the Catskills could be obtained elsewhere, in singles bars, dating services, and even ethnically and religiously sponsored singles clubs.
Geographic mobility made it more likely that people would live far away from relatives, and therefore not go to a 'local' resort area. Jews were not only moving to New Jersey and Westchester, but to California and Florida. Where in 1960, 45.8% of American Jews lived in New York state, by 1990 only 30.8% did. In those decades, California went from 9.6% to 15.4% of all Jews, and Florida from 2% to 9.5%. Many 'snowbirds' already had a lengthy, easy, vacationlike period in Florida, and had neither the need nor perhaps the means to go to the Catskills.
Jews no longer worked so predominantly in the seasonal industries that had slack summer periods. For many jobs, the summer was too busy a time to take off. Nor were Jews concentrated in certain industries, such as the garment and fur sectors, that would lead them to seek vacations together. When Jews made it up the economic ladder, many associated the Catskills with their poor past, and hence rejected the area. By the 1970s the same Jewish youth who used to need Catskills earnings for college might already have made enough money to support their own children through college. Once Jews stopped working the Mountain dining rooms, they were less likely to become guests.
The aging of the population was central. Immigrants of the 1910s and 1920s might have gone to the Mountains from that time into the 1960s. That was all the vacation they were used to. When they began to grow too infirm to vacation, and when they died, that traditional group of Mountain-identified people shrank rapidly. Younger people might have tried the Catskills, but were not as tied to it, and could easily move to other vacation spots. What a good number of people saw as the very style of the resorts -- gross overeating, ethnic entertainment, self-deprecating humor -- was embarrassing to many young Jews.
Vacation choices changed as well. In the late 1940s and into the 1950s, one person told me, "Jews didn't go back to Europe, because they had run away from there." By the 1960s and 1970s this had changed -- it was the next generation, who had never been there, who wanted to see it. Much of this was due to their children visiting Europe as teenagers and young adults, a common practice starting in the 1960s.
There were more highways for travel, especially after the interstate system got under way. The growth of recreational vehicles and camping offered cheaper alternatives to resorts. With increased income, especially in families with two wage earners, second homes became a preferred alternative. The traditional two-week vacation for many was replaced by 2 or 3 shorter vacations. Airline travel, a rarity for the average person even in the early 1960s, spread rapidly, offering more points of the globe in a short time. With air conditioning so prevalent, there was no drastic need to escape the city heat.
A more businesslike tourism industry led to the development of more exotic vacation areas in places previously unheard of. At the same time, resorts became more homogenized. The hotels in Hawaii, the Caribbean, Florida, and the Carolina Sea Islands all began to look quite similar. In this overall homogenization of culture, people found endless distractions and predictable rooms; they were no longer driven to resorts that had a special identity. Murray Posner, shortly before his Hotel Brickman closed, mused that "I used to think I'm competing with the hotel down the road. I'm competing with every resort in the world."
Antisemitism had once made it impossible for Jews to vacation apart from their own. As this declined, they realized other choices existed. As well, an owner noted, "The seasonal families really came to a lesser degree in the mid 50's when the metropolitan NY area country clubs permitted Jews as members, and with the creation of new country clubs by Jewish people."
Even if the old resorts wanted to try to keep up with the modern vacationers, there were too many obstacles. Many of the hotels were based on in-law or sibling partnerships and extended family work forces. The particular kind of owner partnerships that were precisely necessary to run these small to medium hotels were hard to recreate. They were part of an old world or new immigrant culture that faded away into the more modern economy. Small and medium hotels couldn't keep up with larger ones that were expanding with the express intent of capturing the convention business. An owner of a major resort recalled that "There was a great deal of interaction between guests and owners. That created a problem when we hired general managers that were not a member of the family. Guests refused to have these people solve their problems and insisted on a family member."
On top of all these other factors, in 1973, the American economy entered a two-decade downturn. Although small sectors did very well in this period, real income declined for large numbers of people in the lower end of the income pyramid. Changes in the job structure hurt many middle-class people, including small business owners, professionals, and managers. So, vacations were not as affordable to the whole range of people that used to go to the Catskills. Hotel owners faced drastic increases in building and maintenance costs, making it difficult to keep up their resorts.
For three or four decades, Catskill resort owners were remarkably adaptable. The typical progressions, from farm to kuchalayn to boarding house to hotel, or from small to large hotel, were carried out with minimal financing but with incredibly creative approaches and the unceasing hard work of extended families. But the changes I mentioned above were too much in combination. Many hotel owners were not talented businesspeople with a smart sense for making transitions. Rather, they were experienced only in running family-type resorts that depended on certain people from a particular milieu.
The physical plant of the average hotel was too old and tired to be maintained, much less modernized. A good number of the buildings were a half-century old, with antiquated systems. Even the largest places, with much more modern buildings, began to look frayed. Nor was it possible to continue the exploitative labor practices that long allowed the Catskills to operate with bimmy labor. The state Labor Board came around increasingly in the 1960s, checking on working conditions and making it harder to exploit the lowest rungs on the workforce. There were other problems with the resort labor force. One owner who sold out as late as 1987 recalled that, "What happened was that in the 80s the labor situation got so difficult. The alcoholics were now drug addicts. It was frightening." On top of that, Jewish teenagers and young adults no longer wanted to take the jobs they traditionally held. Hotels had to recruit dining room staff from as far away as Ireland.
Kosher cooking, a specialty of the Catskills, was no longer in such demand with younger people. Many Jews no longer felt the need to have even the toned-down ritual observances offered in the hotels. Yiddishkeit became less central as well. By the 1960s Yiddish was rarely spoken by American Jews, and the traditional Yiddish-speaking or Yiddish-tinged resort atmosphere was no longer necessary. The cooking and humor associated with Jewish culture lost much of its appeal. The particular protection of a lansman culture was no longer required. Jews could travel very widely without fear of anti-Semitism and without the need to be expressly Jewish as they vacationed.
Food habits changed as well. Besides turning away from traditional tastes, modern Jews turned away from the meat- and fat-laden meals, and from the large amount of food consumed there. Americanized Jewish palates became interested in a variety of international cuisines as well as more inventive domestic ones.
And lest many or all of these were not impediments, visitors would come to the current Catskills and see widespread ruins and an enormous amount of Hasidim, making the whole tenor of the place less conducive to a playful holiday. But the ruins should remind us of the past, one owner asserts: "Today when you pass a closed, decaying resort, know that in the sagging grey timbers and weed-choked pool are buried the dreams, expectations, and prodigious labor of a family. The faded signs and crumbling entrance gates are a mute memorial to the herculean efforts of real people who struggled and eventually lost."
In closing, it is worth while thinking about what context framed the golden years of the Catskills. A crucial element of this 1950s and 1960s period is that these Jews were playing and relaxing at a time of fresh, piercing memories of the Holocaust. The escape to the Mountains was in part an escape from that horror, when many of their family and friends were killed by the Nazis. A bellhop who spent much time at a resort with many survivors recounted that "For the post WWII refugees, the survivors from the camps, it was almost like heaven. It was freedom from everything." The resurgence of religiosity or at least Jewish self-awareness led Jews to seek their Jewish cultural roots in the Catskills Yiddishkeit, even though at the same time they sought the modernity of affluence and vacation life; the miracle of the Catskills was that it could provide both.
Miracles! The Catskills is full of miracles. Turning little boarding houses into hotels is a miracle. Making a place for the Jewish working class to get some fresh air is a miracle. Building a summer Eden that stretched for two counties' worth of eternity is a miracle. And being here still, today-- that, too, is a miracle. There is a prayer for experiencing a miracle. Let me say it, as you think of the miracle when any one of New York's millions first stepped onto the grounds of the kuchalayn, bungalow colony, or hotel, and saw the cannas in the garden, smelled the fresh-mown grass, heard the gurgle of the stream, smelled the brisket in the oven and the rugelach on the table: Boruch atau Adonai, Elohenu, Melech Holom, shehausau lee nays bamaukom hazeh. Amen