Memories: they’re what make the Catskills classic

July 24, 2014
By Barry Lewis

I’m dancing around the cabana area that surrounds the outdoor pool of the Shady Nook Country Club in Loch Sheldrake. My father, who doubled as the small resort’s daytime tummler and nighttime emcee, sets the music tempo playing the conga drum with his fellow band members while my mom, the resident queen of mahjong, stays focused on her game.

It’s the summer of ’63. Not my first summer in the Catskills but the first that I remember. I was 3.

Four years later I had my first car accident. At the Flagler Hotel in South Fallsburg.

Trying to make my way out of my dad’s car, I accidentally hit the gear stick. Hanging halfway out, I helplessly watched the car roll backward from the top of the elevated, curved driveway, hitting the car behind it, which hit the car behind it, which smashed into the car behind that.

Five years later I’m making out for the first time with a blonde-haired girl behind the backstop of the softball field at Breezy Corners Bungalow Colony on Joyland Road, not far from the Concord Hotel.

Five years later I met an even prettier blonde girl during the summer I bussed tables at that same Shady Nook hotel. She was a Sullivan local.

It was 1977.

That year I became a local.

Five summers later I married that pretty blonde and we began our life together in Sullivan County.

Like so many, my life has been measured by time and place in the Catskills. Milestones that folks can’t wait to share about their time spent in what was affectionately known as the Borscht Belt.

“My family used to go there.”

“I worked up there.”

“We spent every summer there.”

I hear that all the time. Right after I tell someone I live in Sullivan County. It doesn’t matter – big-time politicians, hot-shot developers or the person I just happened to bump into while touring another state.

They all wear the memory like a badge of honor. Yeah, they’ve been to the Catskills. Then they smile. And you can practically see the projector rolling in their minds, flashing home movies of those summer trips when they left Jersey and the City and took the Quickway up to the mountains, stopping for a midway bathroom break at the always-open Red Apple Rest.

It might have been a one-time weekend getaway. The same few days at the end of July. A whole summer at the bungalow colony. Doesn’t matter. They were here. And they’re eager to share a moment that’s as much a part of their life as the day they got married or the birth of their child.

Memories as fresh as the flowers that lined walkways of these once-upon-a-time grand resorts. Or as fresh as the fish that came out of the dining-room kitchens.

It was their life, and it’s forever part of their history. It’s what makes this place so special. It connects with generations who saw the Catskills as their only affordable escape from the sweltering summer sun that would lay claim to tar beach. A place where you could feel a cool breeze in August, which, for apartment dwellers, was like finding a pool in the desert.

And as I later found out, not all of those Catskill pools were the same.

As much as my family and I enjoyed the cabana setting of the cozy Shady Nook, with its wood and metal lounge chairs placed around the simple oval pool, others, it turned out, left the city to vacation at resorts the size of small cities. Places like Grossinger’s, which featured Olympic-length pools with multi level diving boards, health clubs with saunas and folks who gave massages and snack bars complete with waiter service.

My mouth dropped the first time I saw Grossinger’s. It was in the mid ‘60s I was tagging along with my dad who was in this organization called the Entertainers, made up of, yeah, entertainers who performed regularly in the hundreds of hotels and bungalow colonies in the mountains. They would have this big year-end show to raise funds for local charities. The location would rotate and that year it was Grossinger’s turn. Honestly, I’d never be able to enjoy the Shady Nook the same way again.

Over time I would befriend members of the Grossinger family, including Mark and Mitchell Etess, grandsons of Jennie Grossinger and especially their mom, Elaine Grossinger Etess, a sweetheart of a woman who shared pictures and stories with me about being a part of one of the most famous hotel families. Her time and tales would be invaluable in the making of this publication.

You see, over these last few decades our Catskill landscape has changed. We’ve seen what Father Time, Mother Nature and the ravages from flames could do to the structures that at one time seemed as plentiful and endless as the number of guests who would fill them.

Driving along the winding country roads, looking out at the tall grass along the blacktop, amid the clearing in the woods and up in the distant hills you would swear there used to be a hotel here. A bungalow colony over there. Even a kuchalayn way in the back.

And you’d wonder.

Whatever happened to those waiters and busboys? To the kid they bunked with for two straight summers? To the family who was in the next bungalow year after year? To the blonde-haired girl you kissed behind the backstop of the softball field?

I’ve wondered the same thing.

After the fires in 2012 that took down the old Tamarack, ripped into the former Gibbers and left but a shell of what was the Grandview condos, but what I’ll always call Charles and Lillian’s Brown’s, I knew we had to do something about preserving this golden era of celebrity, tradition and lifestyle. To make sure the resorts that made up the grand Catskills are not forgotten. To leave a lasting legacy for future generations.
What ever happened to...

Like the beat of my dad’s conga drum and the clicking of my mom’s mahjong tiles, I’d like to think they are with the other Classic Catskill memories.


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