INTERVIEW: Helen Kutsher - Kutsher’s Country Club


It was never the biggest of the Catskill resorts, nor did it have the international acclaim. And it wasn’t Jerry Lewis’ favorite place.

And while other hotels touted their enormous dining rooms, multiple golf courses and outdoor pools and maze of corridors leading to more than 1,000 guest rooms, Kutsher’s Country Club countered with the gracious handshake, warm smile and motherly care from hotel matriarch Helen Kutsher. No resort owner could make any guest feel more at home.

And now amazingly – and many would say sadly – Kutsher’s has become the last of what is estimated to have been nearly 1,000 hotels in the Catskills during the heyday of the 1950s.

What began in 1907 when brothers Max and Louis Kutsher started taking in guests at their small rooming house on 200 acres evolved – guided by the keen business mind of Louis Kutsher’s son, Milton – into a 1,500-acre resort empire with hotel, condos and sports camps. It survived the most turbulent years a century later under the watchful eyes of Milton and Helen’s son, Mark.

How did they do it?

With a lot of lox, a lot of luck and a lot of love.

In 2007 I was able to convince Helen Kutsher to take some time away from her guests and talk about her life, her Milton and her hotel, which was celebrating
its 100th anniversary.

Helen died in March 2013 at age 89.


 

Do you remember your first summer at Kutsher’s?

It was 1934. My mother died a year and a half before that. I came up with my father’s friends, who didn’t want my brother and I to be in New York alone in
the summer. We spent several weeks at Kutsher’s. I was 10.


How did you meet Milton?

I knew Milton since I was 10. My stepmother (Rebecca Kutsher) – I never called her that – was his aunt. She was married to Max Kutsher. My mother-inlaw and my mother had it worked out. There were four boys in the family: Milton, Joe and the Bogner boys, Mannie and Carl, who were cousins. They figured, “Helen has to be for someone; we have to keep her in the family.” I made a wise choice. Milton and I both made a wise choice. This year we would have
been married 61 years.


And you helped run the hotel?

Not bad for a shy, introverted girl. My mother kept saying, “There’s nothing you can’t do” and Milton agreed with that.


No one would call you a shy, introverted girl now.

No, but that’s from their influence. My mother used to disappear every day at about 12-12:30 so she could go shopping. But she would disappear so I’d be forced if a guest came to greet them. I’d stand for a while, hoping they’d go away. They broke me of my shyness. Forced me into doing things I never would have done. Like giving them a strong handshake. My mother said, “Reach for their hands. Look in their eyes. People need to know that you are paying attention to them.”


And you know their names.

It’s getting a little harder to remember, so I check our arrival list every day, who’s coming in, what they like. If we need to send them food, send them wine. And greet them. They’re part of my family. I also use a book I’ve had for 50 years. It’s got information about guests and our staff. Birthdays, anniversaries, what people want. God forbid I should lose the book.


How did you balance being a mother and hotel matriarch?

It’s not easy. Not easy at all. I thought it was normal to work 23 hours a day. We always ate our dinners together. Breakfast was a fast deal. We did have a chauffeur, Murray, who lived with us. He’d get the bagels, take the children to school and watch over them. They resented it. They’d say, we can’t do nything; Murray’s watching us. That’s how we survived.


Are there times when you just want to lounge around in a bathrobe?

That luxury I never had. But now, after all these years, I eat breakfast at home, which I never used to do. We all grew up like that. If you married a hotel man, and you weren’t a working wife, something was wrong. I’d say, “She really hates the business,” because how can you be there and not be active in some form?


What did you want your role to be?

I just worked my way into it. (Laughing). They’d be talking of women’s lib. I didn’t even know what it meant. I went to Milton, “What are they talking about, women’s lib?” He said, “That’s what you’re doing.” Hotel women were an essential part of the business. Milton couldn’t do it all.


They say Catskill guests can be tough.


(As I ask Mrs. Kutsher, two guests interrupt to say hello to her.) They check their room. If they’re used to 810, they don’t want 811. They say, “That’s my room. My room.”


You give pep talks to the staff?

Every Monday I’d go into the dining room and talk with all the waiters and busboys. They were all going to college. I told them, “I know you’ll be a doctor, a lawyer ... whatever your profession. But if you want to be successful in whatever your purpose is in life, you have to be a successful busboy and waiter. That’s what will follow you through life. This is important. It forms your thinking.”


The hotel was always updating.

I’d be handling reservations and people would call and ask, “Do you have an indoor pool?” We didn’t at the time. But Milton said, just tell them eventually we’ll have one. This year we’re building a golf course and next year we’ll have an indoor pool. I remember selling a room in the main building that wasn’t built yet. Milton said sell the first two floors of the main building and we’ll have it built.


Can you believe, 100 years?

People ask, “Have you been there all the time?” I say, “No, I skipped a few years when I went to school.” It goes over their heads.


How has Kutsher’s survived?

There was a very personalized feeling here. Guests felt they were coming home. They could have gone to the Concord or anywhere else, but they would be just another guest. Our people didn’t want that. Each hotel was different, each one pretty good in its own right. Every hotel had its own personality. And you’re the personality of Kutsher’s. My grandson says, “You’re the eyes of the hotel, Nanna.”

 

           




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