By Henry Foner
Those of you who know something about the later careers of the Foner family would probably believe that I, as the youngest of the four brothers, grew up in a household steeped in history and social activism. You couldn't be farther from the truth. The fact is that my early upbringing in the Williamsburgh section of Brooklyn took place against a background of music and comedy.
This is not nearly as strange as it sounds. The late 1920s and early 1930s, when I was making my tentative way into teenhood and adolescence, were the years of the Great Depression, and young Jewish men who were determined to achieve a college education had to seek ways of contributing to the family coffers and providing funds to sustain them during their pursuit of bachelor's or master's degrees.
More often than not, they turned to music. Bands were in great demands in those days. Dancing was a dual rather than individual activity, and scarcely a week-end went by without a plentiful supply of dances sponsored by social clubs and other organizations. Not surprisingly, then, my older twin brothers, Jack and Phil became musicians ñ Jack on the drums and Phil on the alto saxophone. Years later, when their careers demanded that they acquire middle names, they used their the names of their instruments as keys ñ Jack selected "Donald" with a D, and Phil "Sheldon" with an S.
At any rate, they soon organized a band that was ready to take on all comers. They had a tactical advantage over their competition. We had two cousins who were undertakers ñ the Jeffer brothers, Irwin and Norman. Perhaps you may not readily see the connection between funeral directing and music, but a moment's contemplation will make it clear. Undertakers had to join all manner of fraternal and social organizations in order to guarantee that they would be selected to officiate when one of the members passed on. For the Jeffers, this resulted in jurisdictional spheres of influence that made those of the European imperialist powers seem like child's play in comparison. If the deceased, for example, was a member of the Bielsker Bruderlicher Untertstitzen Verein, then it was Irwin's call to perform the rites. On the other hand, if it was a member of the Apex Social Club on Eastern Parkway, between Nostrand and New York Avenues in Brooklyn, then it was Norman's Community Chapel that provided the final tribute. But the live members of the Apex Social Club loved to dance, and every weekend their walls rang with live music ñ no disc jockeys for these terpsichores!
It required just a minor strategic manipulation for Norman to inveigle himself onto the Apex social committee and thence to recommend his cousins' orchestra for the weekly dances. So deeply entrenched did our family become in this enterprise that the baton was passed, so to speak, from Jack and Phil to Moe, and finally to me. I'm sure there is a doctoral dissertation waiting to be written about the relationship between the activities of the various Foner orchestras and the death rates of members of the Apex Social Club, but I leave that for some other scholar to pursue.
All of this, however, is simply prologue to my main thesis, which has to do with music in the Catskills. There was a wide open field of hundreds of summer hotels waiting to be filled with the music of four- or five-piece orchestras. Jack and Phil gravitated to the Royalton House in Monticello. But hotels like the Royalton, unlike Grossinger's, the Flagler, or the Raleigh, could not afford a full-fledged social staff with a social director, or "tummeler," as he was called. As a result, it usually fell to the orchestra to provide, not only the music, but the shows as well.
To prepare for each year's summer stint, I was assigned the task of listening to and recording the jokes of Ed Wynn, Phil Baker, Colonel Stoopnagle and Budd, and a host of other comedians. It was during this period that I created my first orig-inal joke. It went something like this: One herring was berating another for not tak-ing care of its family, to which the other replied, "Listen, I'm not my brother's kip-per." You can imagine my excitement when, two weeks later, the joke turned up in Ed Wynn's weekly routine, somewhat enhanced. This time, it was a hen for whose care the herring was asked to be responsible, and the reply was "I'm not my brooder's kipper."
My favorites, by far, however, were Smith and Dale. You may remember them as the prototypes for Neil Simon's comedy, "The Sunshine Boys," in which he shamelessly repeated some of their famous routines. Two that he overlooked were, first, the doctor's scene dialogue which went:
"You mean like coffee or milk?"
"I drink tea."
"How much tea do you drink?"
"Twelve or fourteen saucers a day."
"Why don't you drink from the cup?"
"The spoon hits me in the eye."
"Why don't you take out the spoon?"
"How am I going to keep the lemon down?"
Or my all-time favorite, which I have adopted as part of my philosophy of life. The scene is a restaurant and the waiter comes into the kitchen and asks the owner:
Owner: "Did he eat it or did he order it?"
Waiter: "He ate it."
Owner: "He's good for it!"
This brings me, inevitably and at length, to my own Catskill experiences as a musician. My first such job was in 1934. I was 15 and somehow I was hired as part of a 4-piece band at the Linden Lawn House near Mountaindale. More impor-tantly, it was just down the hill from my family's summer home. And so, when, after four weeks, Mr. Silver decided that the guest list was insufficient to support the band, all I had to do was pack up my saxophone and walk up the hill to my mother's tender ministrations.
The next year, however, was different. Now, I was much more confident, and I was supported by a pianist, violinist and drummer who were able to cover up my deficiencies. We played at the Hotel Turey in Harris, one stop beyond Monticello on Route 17. The Turey was owned by the Turetsky family, and most of its affairs were handled by their son, Morris, who, I learned, later wound up in jail for some malfeasance or other. To us, he showed his true colors about midway into the summer. As was not unusual at the time, the band slept in the social hall or casino.
After our evening chores were completed and the last guest had left, we would move our folding beds out from backstage and go to bed. One Friday evening, we were asked by the International Workers' Order in Monticello if we would donate our services after we finished our night's work for a benefit show they were presenting in town. Since we were all progressive-minded individuals, we agreed, and all went well until we returned to the hotel and found a note on the door of the social hall, which read: "Sorry, boys, we're overbooked for the weekend and had to use your room."
As you can imagine, this affront served to stir our combined revolutionary ardor. We spent the rest of the night alternating between resting in the violinist's car and walking on the road, planning our counterattack. The next morning, we marched into the kitchen and announced that we were too tired to play for lunch that day. Playing for Saturday lunch was part of the agreed-upon work week for the band, for which we each received the sum of $4.00 a week. If the truth be told, the guests were only too glad not to have their herring and borscht disrupted by our version of the "Poet and Peasant's Overture." But there was a matter of principle involved, and we were forthwith fired.
Not to worry, though. An employment agency in Monticello dispatched us forthwith to the White Sulphur Springs House, where we were to receive $7 a week each. We could hardly believe our ears. What a break! The White Sulphur Springs House was a welcome departure from the Turey, and the owner took to us as if we were his own children. The only problem was that the band outnumbered the guests, and after two weeks, the owner told us he would be glad to keep us on as non-paying guests, but he couldn't pay us.
By now, we had become experienced in the ways of Catskill hotels. We learned that the Turey had not been able to replace us, so we succeeded in negotiating a return engagement at the rate of $7 per week per man, and with two rooms of our own in the main house. You can imagine our triumphant journey back to Harris, where we concluded the season in glory. In one respect, however, our victory was incomplete. The band, in those days, ate at a table separate from the guests, and we were constantly on the alert to make sure that we were getting the same food as the guests. One day, we overheard one guest asking another to pass the pitcher of sweet cream. Sweet cream! We had never had our table graced with a pitcher of sweet cream. We immediately dispatched a delegation to the kitchen to demand sweet cream for our table. Turetsky, however, was no fool and knew with whom he was dealing. He motioned to the kitchen and said, "O.K. Help yourself to the sweet cream." We were dumfounded. To us, sweet cream was a demand; none of us had ever had it and we couldn't pick it out for the life of us. The owner grinned malevolently as we slunk, defeated, from the kitchen.
The following year, 1936, found the same combination that had graced the Turey ensconced at the Lake Huntington Lodge. We had, by now, graduated to $7 per week as a regular recompense, and we also had a social staff (a director and an actress) with whom to work. More important as far as I was concerned, however, was the fact that the hotel's bookkeeper was the brother of Dale of the Smith and Dale comedy team, and I was constantly besieging him with questions about their routines. I think he was glad when Labor Day rolled around that that pest of a saxophone player stopped bothering him.
By 1937, I had linked up with my brother, Moe, and we were playing together at the Saxon Hotel outside of Monticello -- myself on the alto, he on the tenor saxophone. I later wrote deprecatingly about him that "Moe played the tenor as if it were two fivers." By then, we had advanced to the point where we received $10 a week and were independent enough to insist that any hotel we played at had to have a decent tennis court. The advertisement for the Saxon Hotel had grossly exaggerated its facilities, and by the time we were four weeks into the season, we had decided that it was not for us. But here we were faced with a dilemma. The contract we had signed, on the back of a paper bag in which I had brought my lunch to the audition, provided that we could be fired but could not quit. However, we thought we were ingenious enough to solve the problem. One Saturday night, at the height of the festivities, each member of the band took out a different number ñ not only a different number, but a different rhythm. Thus, one of us took out a waltz, one a fox-trot, one a rumba, and one a tango ñ and we proceeded to impose this horrifying cacophony of sound out onto the ears of our listeners. In the midst of it all, the owner walked into the social hall, with his favorite perennial guest on his arm. He paused at the door, listened for a moment, and then turned to his companion. "You see," he said, proudly, "when they want to, they can play!" P. S. We finished the season at the Saxon.
By far the most rewarding and productive years of my Catskill experience took place at Arrowhead Lodge in Ellenville, which was owned by one wing of the ubiquitous Slutsky family. In 1940 and 1941, the Rapp-Coudert Committee, a forerunner of the McCarthy Committee, conducted a sweeping witchhunt at New York's city colleges, and when it was finished with its labors, three of my brothers, Phil, Jack and Moe ñ all of whom were on the staff at City College, two as history professors and one in the registrar's office ñ were its victims. At the time, I was a substitute teacher in Pitman stenography and typewriting in the New York City high schools, so, even though I was questioned by the committee, my tenure as a teacher was not immediately threatened. Still, by any standard, the Committee was batting .750 ñ three out of four ñ as far as the Foner family was concerned. We decided to reconstitute the orchestra, with Jack on the drums, Moe on the tenor sax, and myself on the alto. Phil, at the time, was employed as educational director of the Fur Floor Workers' Union, so he did not enjoy the perquisites of a summer vacation. We were searching for a name for our band, when Leonard Lyons, the columnist for the New York Post, came to our rescue. He announced in one of his columns that a group of teachers who had been suspended from City College had formed an orchestra and were calling themselves "Suspended Swing" ñ and so, "Suspended Swing" it became. In the summer of 1941, we were hired at Arrowhead Lodge. One of my colleagues at Samuel J. Tilden High School in Brooklyn, and a long-standing friend of the family, was a Spanish teacher named Sam Levenson. We persuaded the Slutskys to hire him as an MC ñ he had, we told them, a limitless supply of stories, and besides, he could play the violin. He was hired for free room and board for himself and his wife, as opposed to the $15 per week the rest of us were getting. This was Sam's first commercial engagement ñ he had previously entertained at Teachers' Union parties, but now he was exposed to the general public. I need not tell you that his career took off from there, and I'm sure that most of you are familiar with the results.
Sam Levenson was not the only comic of note whose career our orchestra was instrumental in launching. Earlier that year, we were playing at a dance tendered by the Daily Worker chapter of the Newspaper Guild, and that evening marked the first public performance of an aspiring young comic named Zero Mostel. Years later, when I was the president of the Fur Workers' Union, I was walking along Seventh Avenue with a prominent fur manufacturer, when I saw Zero approaching on his way to his painting studio then located on the fringe of the fur market. What an opportunity to make an impression! As he came near, I accosted him, "Zero," I said. "How would you like a job as a fur floor boy?" "Listen, Foner," he replied. "Why don't you go fuck yourself?" My consternation was only momentary. The fur manufacturer was overwhelmed. "He knows you!" he exclaimed.
But back to Arrowhead Lodge. The summer of 1941 was a total success. The shows we put on were so well received that the inhabitants of "kuchaleins" all around the area flocked to the Arrowhead social hall for their evening entertainment. Of course, honesty compels me to report that both the Nevele and the Fallsview Hotels, which adjoined Arrowhead, had guards at their gates to keep out all non-guests. Norman Franklin and I wrote a number of original arrangements, and we presented them at the annual band contest held at the Flagler in those years, with remarkable results. That summer, I also composed the song, "Shoot the Shtrudel to Me Yudel," dedicated to Yudel Slutzky, which was published in the latest issue of the Catskill Institute's Newsletter, and which I hope to present later this weekend.
By the following summer, however, Moe, Jack and I, along with Norman Franklin, were in the United States Army, and we had to wait until 1946 to be re-united and to reconstitute the Foner Orchestra. By this time, the title, "Suspended Swing" was outdated, so we now called ourselves, "The Foner Orchestra and Their Topical Rhythms." We learned that Arrowhead Lodge had entered into an arrangement with the Jefferson School of Social Science, whose faculty was made up mainly of victims of the Rapp-Coudert Committee. Guests would sign up for a week's stay at Arrowhead, beginning on a Sunday, and during the week, they would, in addition to all the other facilities of Arrowhead (including our band), attend lectures by such scholars as Doxey Wilkerson, Howard Selsam, Frederick Ewen, Morris U. Schappes, Philip and Jack Foner, and others. The result was that the hotel was practically filled up throughout the season. Incidentally, included among Jack's family at Arrowhead was his then 5-year-old son, Eric, who, even at that early date, was already displaying signs of his budding historical talents. When Jack would complete his own lecture, he would introduce Eric for a lecture on China. Eric would ascend (or be lifted to) the podium and deliver the learned tones the pronouncement that "China is a big country!"
By this time, our weekly salaries had ballooned to $95.00, but since we had full responsibility for all social activities, we did not consider ourselves overpaid. Of course, we had a distinct advantage over other hotel staffs, since the clientele changed each week and we felt no constraints about repeating our numbers.
Another advantage we enjoyed lay in the abundant supply of intelligence and talent possessed by the Arrowhead guests. A special feature of the week's program was an evening of sketches presented by the guests at the various tables in the dining room. Some of these were of such high quality that we adopted them as part of our own repertoire.
The arrangement with the Jefferson School continued through the summers of 1946, 1947 and 1948. They were fruitful in more ways than one. During the Labor Day weekend of 1947 ñ just 50 years ago this weekend ñ my wife, Lorraine, came up as a guest, and the following March, we were married. So, in a sense, this week-end is our Golden Anniversary. Also, during that same summer of 1947, Norman Franklin and I were commissioned to write a musical comedy for the Department Store Employees Union, and the result, Thursdays 'Til Nine, ran for four nights during the Thanksgiving Weekend of 1947. Our advisory committee consisted of Arthur Miller, Norman Rosten, Martin Ritt and Millard Lampell, and the opening night's performance was attended by Irving Berlin, among other notables. I am told his comment was "Too political!"
The summer of 1948 marked the end of the Foner Orchestra as a cultural force, but it did not conclude my relationship with the Catskills. At the end of the school term, I received the news that the New York State Commissioner of Education had turned down my appeal from the decision of the Board of Examiners to deny me a teaching license because of "insufficiently meritorious record" ñ but really because I had offended the sensibilities of the Rapp-Coudert Committee." My brother, Phil, was at that time writing the history of the fur and leather workers' union, and he introduced me to the leaders of the union, as a result of which I was hired as educational director of the Fur Dressers & Dyers Joint Board. As luck would have it, one of the first union projects after I came aboard was to build a hotel at White Lake in the Catskills for the vacation use of the fur workers and their families. Unfortunately, Ben Gold, then head of the union, did not reckon with the fact that the summer was the busy season of the fur industry during which styles and garments were prepared for the following fall and winter. As a result, relatively few fur workers were able to take advantage of the resort's facilities, but large numbers of the general public did. Since my past experience was known to the union's leadership, I was given an important role in fashioning the programs at the Fur Workers' Resort, as it was called. One of which I was and am particularly proud was that presented when Paul Robeson came to the resort in the summer of 1949 ñ the summer of the famous Peekskill concert and the infamous attack upon its attendees.
For Robeson's appearance, I wrote a special script that served as an introduction, and one of the mementos I shall treasure is his autograph on the script with the inscription, "Thanks a million, Paul." I shall pass it around for you to see. I cannot let this mention of Paul Robeson pass without calling attention to the fact that next year will mark the centennial of the birth of this great American artist and fighter for freedom. I am privileged to serve on the Board of the Directors of the Paul Robeson Foundation, which is planning wide variety of events to mark that auspicious occasion.
I shall also pass around a picture of the Foner Orchestra in which you can see my brother Jack on the drum, and the saxophone section consisting of myself, my brother, Moe, and Norman Franklin. There are also two pictures taken when the we made our final appearance during a weekend at the Fur Workers' Resort. In both of them, you can you can see my brother Jack and myself, and in one of them, the trumpet player is the actor, Lou Guss, whom you may have seen with Cher in "Moonstruck." In the other, the man with the hat and the fiddle is Allan Tresser, who is still, fifty years later, holding forth as the MC, or "tummler," at the Fallsview Hotel in Ellenville.
I think all of us owe a debt of gratitude to Phil Brown, Shalom Goldman, and the Catskill Institute for initiating these Annual Conferences. For me, it has pro-vided an opportunity to relive some of the most exciting and gratifying experiences of my life. I hope that sharing them here today has given you, as well, a picture of what it meant to be a musician in the Catskills during the heyday of its existence.