Preservation hall: Finding ways to preserve the heritage of the Catskills

July 24, 2014
By Steve Israel

Singer Eddie Fisher greets enthusiastic fans stageside at Grossinger’s during a performance in 1964. For the world’s great singers, dancers and comedians, working in the Catskills was a must in the 1950s and ’60s

Vegas. Atlantic City. The Catskills.

In the ’50s and early ’60s, the Catskills were one of America’s top entertainment hot spots, at least on a par with their glitzy cousins. The Catskills of Sullivan and southern Ulster counties were such a force in American show business, just about every star of the 20th century – from Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and James Brown to Milton Berle, Woody Allen and Barbra Streisand – played resorts like the Concord, Grossinger’s, the Raleigh, Pines and Kutsher’s.

“The mountains” loomed so large in America’s cultural life, “Dirty Dancing,” “Sweet Lorraine,” “A Walk on the Moon” and “Catskills on Broadway” were just a few of the Hollywood movies and Broadway shows about the region.

“Its influence on entertainment, the way it shaped it, is unrivaled,” says Sullivan County historian John Conway, who compares the impact of the Catskills – where comedians like Allen, Sid Caesar, Jerry Lewis, Billy Crystal and Jerry Seinfeld got their start – to the “Saturday Night Live” of the ’70s and ’80s that produced stars like John Belushi, Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd.

Yet despite several attempts to preserve the Catskills – particularly what Conway calls the “Golden Age” from the mid-to-late ’50s – there is no one place that’s comprehensive enough to do justice to what scholar Phil Brown, of the online Catskills Institute, calls “this monumental Jewish American cultural phenomenon,” otherwise known as the Borscht Belt.

Certainly, there’s nothing remotely on a par with the museum devoted to Sullivan County’s “other” cultural phenomenon, Woodstock, which is the focus of the Museum at Bethel Woods.

“Nothing has come to fruition,” says Brown, who teaches at Northeastern University and last held a Catskills Institute Conference in 2008. As if to underline the far-reaching significance of the Catskills, Brown is completing a book, “The Catskills and the Holocaust,” due out in September.

Fact is, most of the memorabilia of the Catskills belongs to individual collectors and aficionados like Brown.

Fallsburg’s Ira Steingart and Monticello’s Bernie Cohen, who both printed brochures and other promotional material for the resorts, have boxes and files galore. Liberty’s Dorothy Shapiro, who with her husband, Irving, owned Sullivan’s department store in Liberty and whose family owned a bungalow colony near Ellenville, has files, artwork and photos.

Mountaindale’s Allen Frishman, whose grandparents owned two bungalow colonies, has a house chock full of Catskills stuff. Albert Bitjeman of Liberty, who worked the ski slope at Grossinger’s and owns Albert’s Liberty House restaurant, which served Grossinger’s workers, has a home and restaurant full of Catskills memorabilia. It ranges from the 1966 album spoofing President Lyndon Johnson’s stay at the Nevele, “LBJ in the Catskills,” to Grossinger’s turquoise chairs and woodsy signs and a blue and gold road marker that claims the Concord was “the first ski area in the world to offer daily skiing on man-made snow.”

And thanks largely to Nancy Levine, the Swan Lake Historical Pavilion, which sits in the shadow of the rusting frame and broken windows of the once grand Stevensville hotel, does offer a comprehensive illustration, through photos and news clips, of such Swan Lake resorts as the Stevensville, the President (rooms $11 to $16 in 1953) and the Commodore in its cozy space overlooking Swan Lake.

And of course, Sullivan County historian Conway is THE keeper of the Catskills flame.

But as far as a world-class museum devoted exclusively to the Sullivan and Ulster counties’ Catskills?

So far, there’s nothing.

Even the Sullivan County Museum in Hurleyville only devotes a tiny corner to what it calls “the Borscht Belt.” And a video devoted to that era wasn’t even working a few weeks ago.

But it’s not that Catskill veterans and aficionados haven’t tried.

The Catskills Entertainment Hall of Fame?

Never took off – even though in the ’90s, it got a few thousand dollars in grants and staged an exhibit of Al Hirschfeld drawings of Catskills veterans like Tony Randall and Carol Channing at SUNY Sullivan.

“We just couldn’t raise enough money to get it off the ground,” says Cohen, one of its backers. “There was no real interest in the area.”
The Catskills Bungalow Heritage Museum?

A few folks spent more than a year “to preserve and present an important physical and cultural heritage of Sullivan County,” according to a letter from bungalow-goers Frishman, Evadne Giannini and Raymon Elozua that ultimately explains why the museum they wanted to start was not going to get off the ground.

The reason?

Same as the Catskills Entertainment Hall of Fame.

“The level of community and financial support is not sufficient to warrant moving ahead.”

Then there’s the long-proposed Catskill Resort Museum.

Jack Godfrey of Ellenville has been trying for years to get that project off the ground. He has one last hope, at one last spot: the proposed Nevele casino outside Ellenville. Ironically, it’s dependent on the one thing resort owners hoped would save them – at least one old Catskills resort landing a casino.

“The simple reality is without the Nevele our museum project is down the toilet, and the preservation of Catskill history will be a series of websites and little else,” Godfrey says.

Fact is, the most ambitious – and perhaps last – attempt at preserving the history of the Catskills may already be here. It just needs a space big enough to call home.

The 6,000-square-foot exhibit, “The Best of Both Worlds: Ethnic Resorts of the Catskills,” is in storage above the Liberty Museum, where a 200-square-foot slice of it is on display. The show, created in 1993 by Linda Norris for the Delaware County Historical Association, is not, however, exclusively devoted to the Borscht Belt. It also focuses on the Bocce Belt (Greene County) and the Irish Catskills (Greene County), along with German and Greek resorts.

Right now, the quarter-room exhibit features everything from a Concord waiter’s red jacket and a Concord gin rummy scorecard to photos of the blonde bombshell Jayne Mansfield and a honeymooning Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher at Grossinger’s.

The building where the bulk of it is stored, upstairs from the exhibit, is, fittingly, itself an old Catskills hotel. The Poellman House was built in 1894, when it boasted 30 rooms heated by steam. Before it housed the museum, the building was home to one of the Catskills’ most prominent businesses, Katz’ Bakery.

In fact, it’s in the rear portion of the building, where the massive ovens still sit, that Liberty Museum President Robert Dadras hopes to install the exhibit after the space is renovated.

“If it’s just the Liberty Museum, it’s only of interest to some, but if we’re a museum of the Catskills, then you have a bigger audience and cast a bigger net,” he says. “There’s a need for a Woodstock-quality museum devoted to the Catskills. Nobody’s done anything so far. It’s time.”
But that time may have to wait.

Dadras says he hopes to open the Catskills exhibit in five years.


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