June 03, 2004
Mannie's hotel was a tight ship
:: Previous Barry Lewis columns
I was on line in the kitchen, grabbing some two-dozen soups for my lunchtime guests at the Raleigh Hotel.
I started filling my tray.
A half-dozen bowls of French onion . another half-dozen of frosted fruit . a dozen glasses of cold borscht.
"What are you doing?"
I heard the voice before I saw the man.
But I knew.
It was Mannie Halbert. The owner. Standing over my shoulder wearing his well-tailored suit and tie, as I tried not to slouch in my three-sizes-too-big red waiter's jacket.
"What are you doing?"
"Good afternoon, Mr. Halbert. I'm just filling my tray with soup."
"What's under the soup?"
"I put a wet napkin under my tray . so the soup wouldn't slide."
I knew that would impress Mannie Halbert. Show him I wasn't fooling around.
The man allowed me into his dining room to help serve lunch during the Passover holiday. The busiest meal during the busiest week of the year.
It had been 20 years since I'd last served borscht. I thought it would be fun to relive the experience with readers. Some fun.
Now I was showing Mannie I was serious.
Of course, Mannie was nothing but serious when it came to his hotel.
He looked me in the eye.
"Those cloth napkins cost 15 cents to wash. Next time, use paper."
He knew there wouldn't be a next time. But that didn't matter to Mannie.
There was this time.
You work in Mannie's hotel. You get soup from Mannie's kitchen. You play by Mannie's rules. Paper - not cloth napkins.
He wasn't in the kitchen to scare off a writer. Or to show off to the staff.
He was in the kitchen because he was always in the kitchen.
At 6:30 in the morning, he made sure there were enough onion rolls. At 6:30 at night, he made sure the brisket was lean. And in the afternoon, he checked to make sure that waiters - even ones making cameo appearances - were serving the right way.
You heard a lot this week about Mannie's way, as family and friends, hotel staff and hotel contemporaries paid their respects to one of the last giants of the golden age of the Catskill resorts.
Mannie Halbert died Saturday. He was 91.
At his funeral, Rabbi Irving Goodman was eloquent in his description of the World War II veteran and Bronze Star recipient who carried over his military training from the battlefield to the Borscht Belt.
"He was demanding, disciplined and ran a tight ship. He knew where every pipe, every plank and every valve was in that hotel."
And when Nettie, the love of his life who helped turn the seasonal Ratner Hotel into the year-round Raleigh, died in 1971, Mannie's love of his life was the hotel.
You need to understand that to understand why Mannie knew that a wasted cloth napkin would cost him 15 cents.
It's not about being cheap.
You can't go through 3,000 pounds of fresh fish (including 1,500 pounds of salmon) in less than a week on the cheap.
You can't bring in Milton Berle, Totie Fields, Chita Rivera and every other Broadway star on the cheap.
You can't stay in business while just about every hotel around closes its doors if you're doing it on the cheap.
Mannie was a hotel owner.
He walked the kitchen at 6:30 in the morning to check on the food because he knew the guests would be hungry.
He walked the dining room and checked the shine on the silverware, the goblets and the plates, because he knew the guests would be checking.
He never walked past a cigarette butt without picking it up. Because it was his hotel floor.
It wasn't his vocation. It was his life.
Mannie questioned me about that napkin four years ago. When his Raleigh in Fallsburg was among the very few Catskill resorts still breathing.
Most couldn't outlive the promise of casinos. Of the originals, only Kutsher's still welcomes guests - as it waits for pending slots to arrive at its sports academy.
And there's the Raleigh, its brightly lit trees leading up to the main building.
There are no casino bells and whistles in its future, just the warm summer sounds of tumult in the dining room.
That's what Mannie lived to hear.
Barry Lewis can be reached at 794-3712 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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:: Servin' up summer - in servitude style - 5.2.03
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:: Hooray for rugelach; summer's no bummer when Izzy's in town - 6.13.02
:: Perfect rolls, topped off with some traffic jam - 7.13.02
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:: Mannie's hotel was a tight ship - 6.3.04
:: The great Passover strike of '77 - 2.26.06