Seeking the Heiden, star of the Catskills

March 19, 2006
 By Barry Lewis
 Times Herald-Record
I often drive by the old Heiden Hotel, past the gabled Tudor-style, three-story structure that is covered in worn white stucco with peeling brown paint and boarded-up doors.

Like some old Hollywood movie star begging Mr. DeMille for her close-up, the Heiden stands at the ready for another chance to be on the big screen.

But just as layers of makeup and a well-fitted wig cannot hide from the camera's lens the wrinkles and age spots of the once-glamorous celluloid hero, so, too, have the years taken a toll on this once-cozy Catskills resort.

The Heiden is much smaller than the other still-standing vacant monuments to that classic era: Grossinger's, the Pines and the Concord.

It was never one of those year-round destinations that offered golf in the summer, skiing in the winter and swimming any day of the year.

Instead of 18 holes and big-name shows, the Heiden's claim to fame, if you were to believe its billboard on Route 17, was that it had an excellent day camp.

While those larger-than-life hotels were arguably the stars during the golden era of this region's resorts, it was the Heiden that would forever showcase the special relationship between the Catskills resort's owners, staff and guests.

In 1987, Hollywood came to the Mountains as the Heiden starred in the film "Sweet Lorraine."

She was somewhat typecast, playing the title role as The Lorraine, an aging family-run Borscht Belt hotel trying to keep its remaining customers satisfied while spurning the advances of potential buyers.

I THOUGHT ABOUT the movie this week after hearing of the death of the film's other star, Maureen Stapleton.

Her obituary in newspapers told of her 60 years of classic performances on stage, screen and television, where she won two Tony awards, an Emmy and an Oscar. She made audiences laugh in "Bye Bye Birdie" and earned critical acclaim in "Reds."

Yet missing from her long list of credits was "Sweet Lorraine," considered by many movie critics to be the most authentic film about the Catskills.

I suppose it didn't hurt its "authenticity" to have a movie about a Catskills resort filmed at a Catskills resort.

Or that many of the hotel-guest extras were Sullivan County folks familiar with the old-time resorts.

Or that the film's director and producer was Steve Gomer, whose grandfather had been the salad chef at the Heiden in the 1950s. Gomer spent his childhood summers at the hotel and later grew up to marry the granddaughter of the hotel's original owners.

Gomer's desire to bring the Heiden back to life - if only until he yelled "cut" - was not only a treat for movie buffs who appreciate realism but for local folks, too, who warmed to the temporary revitalization of a sweet gal, deserving better than to sit empty on a country road in South Fallsburg that still bears her name.

Unfortunately, those same sentiments were not shared with the rest of this country's moviegoers, who in the same year filled theaters to see "Dirty Dancing."

That fictional coming-of-age story was set in 1963 at a place called Kellerman's (a la Grossinger's) in what was supposed to be a typical Catskill resort. Only it was shot in North Carolina.

In 1999, another film tried to depict the glory days of summers past: "A Walk on the Moon." Here, we're at a bungalow colony in 1969 and Diane Lane has an affair with the blouse man and sneaks off to Woodstock. How she managed to get in and out of Bethel so quickly remains a movie mystery.

Plenty of bungalows here, but they filmed in Canada.

All of which makes "Sweet Lorraine" that much more special. A movie about the Catskills filmed in the Catskills.

I DECIDED NOT to just drive past the Heiden this week, but to pull onto the concrete driveway that long ago lost its battle with protruding weeds.

I stopped at the front entrance where bellhops would greet the weary travelers. I looked inside, where in the evening, women in mink stoles and men in their smart pinstripe suits danced to the big-band sounds.

Today the steps to the entrance are blocked by the roof of a canopy that has collapsed. And the only dancing is done by dry leaves moving, twirling and dipping in the March wind.

I stroll the grounds where guests walked off their meals and time was marked by games of cards and mahjongg.

The "Heiden Hotel" sign is gone, as is the one that welcomed guests to "The Lorraine." They've been replaced by a billboard tacked onto an electrical pole warning visitors: "Beware of Dog."

I know there'll be day when I drive past and see only the concrete pool out back. The Heiden will be gone.

But at least I'll be able to pop in a tape and have the memories of "Sweet Lorraine."


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