Glitz, glamour and gefilte fish

Remembering the glory days of the Catskills resort industry

July 24, 2014
By Steve Israel

A gala 1960s black-tie dinner at Grossinger’s Resort in Liberty brought out celebrities including former Miss America, Bess Myerson, seated second from left. Also at the table, Elaine Grossinger Etess, left, her husband, Dr. David Etess, center, and actress Betsy Palmer, right.

Once upon a time that seems so very long ago, Tarzan – or the movie star who played him – taught a young Monticello babysitter to swim at the grandest of Sullivan County’s 500 hotels, the Concord.

A Liberty man who couldn’t make a go of a chicken farm rented a barn for $60 a month and built it into what one customer called “our own little Bloomingdale’s” to serve the tens of thousands of workers and hundreds of thousands of guests who flocked to the Catskills.

A family printing company where 90 percent of the business was generated by Sullivan’s nearly 5,000 hotels, bungalow colonies and rooming houses printed 8 million discount tickets to Monticello Raceway to distribute around the world.

All this in a county where a baby-faced comedian named Jerry Seinfeld honed his act at Kutsher’s Country Club, where an even younger and skinnier Jerry Lewis – a waiter at Brown’s – rode a Fallsburg fire truck for a week just so he could perform in the company’s annual talent show.

These were the glory days of the Catskills.

They began innocently enough around the turn of the 20th century when sweltering city dwellers began doing what thousands of them still do today: journey to the mountains for the clean, cool air and crystal clear water. At first, that journey, by trains like the O&W and then by horse and buggy, took them to dairy farms that rented rooms and served the century-old version of farm-to-table: milk and cheese straight from the cow.

Soon, hotels like the four-story, 350-room Wawonda in Liberty were built to accommodate them in this era that Sullivan County historian John Conway calls “the silver age” of the Catskills. As word spread of the wonders of the mountain air and water, more and more people journeyed to such Sullivan County spots as the Loomis Sanitorium to cure diseases like tuberculosis. When newly arrived Jewish immigrants discovered the mountains, and that the soil grew more rocks than crops, they rented rooms and bought small hotels and rooming houses to rent to tenement-bound New Yorkers fresh from eastern Europe and Russia.

The Catskills vacation

At the Catskills’ peak in the late 1950s and ‘60s, millions of mostly Jewish families loaded their Studebakers, Ramblers, Fords and Chevys and headed up Route 17 – at first just a two-lane road – to the Concord and Grossinger’s, to the Shady Nook and the Elm Shade, to the Murray Hill and the Majestic. These were among what Conway says were the 538 hotels, 2,500 bungalow colonies, 1,000 rooming houses and 21 golf courses that made the Catskills “the destination place of the world,” says Fallsburg’s Ira Steingart.

His family’s Steingart Printing printed those 8 million discount tickets for the Raceway, which once presented one of the biggest stars in the world, Bob Hope, in the county where the galaxy of stars ranged from Louis Armstrong and Woody Allen to Barbra Streisand and, of course, Seinfeld.

“At one time it was as significant as Las Vegas and Atlantic City combined,” says Liberty architect Robert Dadras, one of the few people still trying to preserve the world that has, like the 50,000 tulips that once bloomed at the Concord, long disappeared.

But for folks around here, the Catskills wasn’t just a place where women wore their mink stoles in August and dined on dishes like Golden Browned Idaho Potato Pancakes or Broiled Filet of Lake Erie White Fish in the same dining room where a training Muhammad Ali might be eating kosher food.

The Catskills was a world that touched just about every Sullivan County life, from young babysitters like Bloomingburg’s Holly Roche, then a Monticello girl who was taught to swim by Johnny “Tarzan” Weissmuller, to a plumber/rock ‘n’ roll musician like Mountaindale’s Allen Frishman, whose grandparents owned two bungalow colonies, the Hemlock Grove in Mountaindale and Sadownick’s in Monticello. Not only was he, like his father, a plumber who turned on the water at countless bungalows to start the summer season – and off to end it – he also ran the coin-operated washing machines in those colonies and played in the New Generation rock band at Kutsher’s, the Pines and Homowack hotels.

“There was just so much to do; you could never say you could never get a job,” says Frishman, who tried unsuccessfully to start a bungalow colony museum from the artifacts he’s collected over the years.

Roche and Frishman were among the tens of thousands of workers per year who parked the cars, calculated the books, taught the folk- dancing and groomed the multi-colored ski slopes of the Catskills. That figure doesn’t even include the families who owned the bungalow colonies – like those of Liberty’s Dorothy Shapiro and the late Dave Kaufman of Monticello – who scraped the pools and fixed the roofs of the countless colonies with names like Miami Beach and Beverly Hills that stretched from Livingston Manor in Sullivan County to Ellenville in Ulster.

At one time, the resort industry dominated so much of Sullivan County life, the owners of its largest hotels – the Concord, Grossinger’s, Kutsher’s – helped build the county’s hospital, airport and college. Grossinger’s had its own post office and zip code. The Concord had its own sewer and water district, gas station, laundry and bakery. Kutsher’s, which had a bellhop named Wilt Chamberlain, had the Boston Garden parquet floor at its Sports Academy, where stars like Bob Cousy, Oscar Robertson and a rookie named Lew Alcindor dazzled crowds at the annual Maurice Stokes benefit basketball game.

“They had clout,” says Fallsburg’s Harold Gold, who owned the Fallsburg Gas company, which served more resorts and bungalows than he could count.

History slipping away

Today, of course, the grand old resorts are gone. The demolished Concord is a mess of rubble, rust and graffiti. Grossinger’s is all broken windows and overgrown weeds. Kutsher’s, the last of the iconic family-owned Catskill resorts, is slated to be torn down this summer and be replaced by a health and wellness resort. Like the glory days of the Catskills, which seem frozen in time, its indoor pool this winter was solid ice, with a rusty bicycle stuck in the middle. Instead of the more than 1,500 hotels and rooming houses of those peak years, the county Visitor’s Association now lists a total of 101 places, including campgrounds, to stay in the entire county.

And while there have been attempts to preserve the Catskills, by historians like Conway and Northeastern University’s Phil Brown, by collectors like Frishman, Steingart and fellow printer/advertising agency owner Bernie Cohen, there’s no real showcase of the region that was the origin of the all-inclusive, three-meal-a-day, entertainment-included family vacation, except for a small exhibit at the Liberty Museum and an even tinier one at the Sullivan County Museum in Hurleyville.

“Nobody’s really done anything; it’s time,” says Dadras, who has installed a sliver of a 6,000- square-foot exhibit about the Sullivan, Ulster, Greene and Delaware County Catskills in the Liberty Museum, and plans to exhibit the whole thing.

“My fear is the daily life of the Catskills, what they meant to many people, will be forgotten,” says Brown, whose family owned what is now the Bradstan Country Hotel in White Lake and who, like Frishman, keeps much of his Catskill Institute memorabilia at home.

So sure, some may glimpse a slice of the Catskills through films like “Dirty Dancing” and “A Walk on the Moon” or a Broadway show like “Catskills on Broadway.” And yes, Catskill veterans like Billy Crystal or Joan Rivers might still crack wise about “such small portions” of the terrible food. But for the dwindling number of folks who actually lived the glory days of the ‘50s and ‘60s, the story of the Catskills is the story of a vibrant time of life that died a slow, undignified death and has been buried beneath a mountain of sweet memories of the good times and bitter feelings of the bad. It’s also the story of a county that put all of its economic eggs in one basket – the resort industry – only to find that basket empty when the industry crumbled. It’s a story some fear may happen again if the Catskills finally lands a casino, or two.

The “do-it-yourself” ethic

It’s a story no one could possibly imagine when the parents of Shapiro or Kaufman journeyed to the mountains from New York City to start a new life by farming the mountain land.

Instead, they discovered what countless Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe and Russia found:

“It was all rocks,” says Shapiro, whose parents owned Slavin’s bungalow colony in Spring Glen, near Ellenville in Ulster County.

So instead of farming, these immigrants rented rooms to other Jews looking for a cool escape from the sweltering tenements of the New York City summer. And as more guests came, they built more rooms, or bungalows.

“Every time we needed a new bungalow, we sold a cow,” said Kaufman, formerly the mayor of Monticello, supervisor of the Town of Thompson and chairman of the Sullivan County Board of Supervisors.

Since they couldn’t afford to hire workers to build their new world, they learned to do much of that work themselves. That’s why Kaufman would see his mother shingle a roof in a rainstorm at Kaufman’s Hillway View Cottages. That’s why Shapiro learned to scrape the paint off the pool. And that’s how the unique monetary system called “Catskill currency” started, recalls Gold, of Fallsburg.

Since the owners depended on the summer for income, they borrowed from friends and family during the winter. If they had to hire a plumber or an electrician, they’d promise him $10,000 at the beginning of season and pay him $6,000 at the end, with the “guarantee” of the rest next year, which would, the owners said, be a better season than the one before.

“We carried promissory notes like cash,” says Frishman, who recalls other forms of payment, like the slabs of beef New York City butcher/Ideal Bungalow Colony owner Louie Slamowitz would bring up to the Catskills, throw on his Cadillac and cut and distribute to the plumbers and carpenters who worked for him.

And as the bungalows, rooming houses and small hotels grew, and became Grossinger’s, Kutsher’s and the Stevensville, so did the businesses that served them. That’s how, in 1948, a returning GI named Irving Shapiro – Dorothy’s husband – with his brother, turned an unheated barn selling Army surplus such as $2.93 mattresses into Sullivan’s Department Store at the foot of Grossinger’s in Liberty. This “little Bloomingdale’s” with the county’s first escalator employed about 100 workers and not only attracted buses from all the hotels, but the employees of those hotels.

Sullivan’s wasn’t alone. The downtowns of now depressed Liberty, Monticello and Fallsburg were filled with stores, shoppers and strollers who noshed on corned beef sandwiches at Kaplan’s Deli, bought Wedgewood Crystal at the Elegante, both in Monticello, and had egg creams at Pop Ins in South Fallsburg.

The Catskills’ decline

But then, as the ‘60s dawned over the mountains, what Conway calls “the three A’s” – airplanes, assimilation and air conditioning – took their toll on the Catskills. Jews could fly virtually anywhere to vacation, or stay in the cool comfort of their suburban homes. So while the clientele at the resorts grew older, their children forsook the Catskills for the Hamptons, Cape Cod or Europe.

And all of a sudden, the glittering hotels that competed with one another and the rest of the world by adding indoor pools, ski slopes and extra rooms found themselves with sprawling resorts, fewer guests and less money to replace worn rugs and leaky roofs.

In 1986, Grossinger’s closed, leaving hundreds of workers unemployed. In 1998, the Concord and its 1,500 rooms closed, leaving 400 workers unemployed, which meant some 60 workers who had lived in the hotel’s bungalows were left homeless.

And as one hotel after another shut down or cut back, the workers – some of whom had escaped troubled lives in the city – had no place to go, or work.
“They knew how to park cars and clean rooms, but there was no call for those skills anymore,” says Kaufman.

“They were not employable elsewhere,” says Conway.

So instead of the multicolored snow on the Concord’s ski slope, these bankrupt hotels left mountains of debt and bad feelings. Instead of paying taxes – $35.2 million in sales tax as recently as 1996 – the bills mounted and the county was faced with higher unemployment and welfare payments.
And once those resorts were gone and the longed-for casinos never arrived to replace them, those glory days of the Catskills just faded away, leaving many of those locals with a taste as bitter as the sourest of pickles.

‘The (hotel owners) just wanted to bury all that,” says Alan Barrish, former director of the Crawford Library in Monticello, whose father was a head waiter at Kutsher’s, where Alan worked as a kid.

And so far, no one has been able to raise the money, or do the work, to keep those glory days alive.
“We let it slip away,” said Kaufman two years before he died.

So those once-upon-a-time days of the Catskills now seem so very long ago.

“We didn’t realize how fabulous it was until it was long gone,” says former advertising man Cohen.


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