As resort staff that inspired ‘Dirty Dancing’ prepares to reunite — can the Catskills come back as well?
Many are fascinated by the lore of the Borscht Belt/Catskill resorts in lower New York State, either because they stayed there as guests before the hotels’ eventual decline in the 1980s and 1990s, or because they’ve seen “Dirty Dancing” or the much-talked-about recent episode of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” As a child whose family stayed at the resorts in the 1980s before the fell into ruin — and who worked at the Concord briefly during the summer of 1990 — I remember a special quality about the resorts that’s not often found in vacation spots today. Perhaps it was dining at long communal tables with families who were strangers at the start of a weekend and friends by the end (it helped that there was near-perfect attendance at all three meals each day). Perhaps it was being allowed, as a child, some freedom for the first time, whether to roam the hotel hallways or to order as much as we wanted of new foods (my brother and I dared each other to try borscht and developed a great love of the traditional Jewish cold fruit soup). Perhaps it was fetching the daily schedules at the front desk and joining the various recreational and trivia contests, or getting all dressed up to see a comedian or live band in an intimate setting.
But some of what made the resorts so unique was also part of what spelled their doom. A Sullivan County historian noted in a 2017 New York Times article that the hotels became less unique in the latter 20th century because of “3 A’s”: assimilation (early on, other resorts discriminated against Jews while the Catskills welcomed them); air travel (which became more accessible and affordable as the century went on), and air conditioning (Manhattanites used to head for the mountains in the summer to stay cool, but no longer needed to get away when they had A/C). One group of historians believes the resorts actually began their decline around the summer of 1965.
The swath through the Catskill mountains boasted sprawling resorts like Grossinger’s (where Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds wed in 1955), Kutsher’s (known for its recreational programs) and the Nevele (rumored to be named for 11 schoolteachers; Nevele is eleven spelled backwards). But when the resorts closed, thousands of jobs were lost (some staff had lived in dorms at the hotels), and the region became economically depressed. Photographers with a flair for exploring abandoned buildings have since dedicated entire websites, photo essays, and even a book to the ruins of these once grand resorts, showing empty pools full of graffiti and chandeliers that one wouldn’t dare risk standing beneath.
Many former guests and staffers, like me, miss the family atmosphere and welcoming feeling of the region, and hope to see it thrive again. Last year, a former employee of the Homowack Lodge, Robin Cohen Kauffman, was inspired by discussions about the Catskills Resort Museum planned for Ellenville, N.Y. and had another idea: to schedule the first-ever reunion for all hotel staffs. As many of the alums are getting up in years, it also may be the last reunion on its scale — but never say never. Kauffman, who met her husband at the Concord, hired an old-time Catskills bandleader, arranged accommodations at the Villa Roma resort — a family vacation destination in the Catskills — and scheduled talks and panels, including a presentation by Jackie Horner, 86, a female dance teacher whose story inspired “Dirty Dancing.” The reunion will take place on May 4 and has been described as a “once-in-a-lifetime event.”
Future attendees are already sharing stories and memories on Facebook pages dedicated to the Catskills, stories that give a clear sense of the resorts as a place to fit in, an oasis against antisemitism and against being a small fish in one’s hometown. Where else could a 5-foot-5 Jewish kid become a basketball hero? Among those reviving the area, Bob Malkin, who started a quirky resort called the “Tiny House Resort,” said in an article in Curbed NY that he remembers staying in the nearby bungalows and fitting in: “I think it saved my life. I felt like crap about myself in Brooklyn, but in the bungalow colony I didn’t.”
“Dirty Dancing” itself (which was filmed in Virginia but was said to be based on Grossinger’s) shows the sheltered “Baby” (Jennifer Grey) finally gaining a little confidence in the arms of Patrick Swayze. Besides the recreation, there was clearly romance in those hills. Two Catskill alums have written books inspired by their fond resort memories: Steve Zetlin, who met his wife at the resorts and was a head lifeguard at Kutsher’s in the 1960s (his website is here), and Beth Allyson Kern, who hopes to publish her novel and has details here.
The younger generation has tried to keep the traditions going: Zach Kutsher, the grandson of late Kutsher’s matriarch Helen Kutsher, served up traditional Catskill foods like pastrami and matzoh ball soup at his Kursher’s Tribeca restaurant from 2011 to 2014, generally earning good reviews for both the eats and the kitsch. (Kutsher’s also inspired a delightful documentary.)
Articles often appear in the New York Times about the region’s possible rebirth, and there’s certainly heaps of potential. When I was a member of the housekeeping staff at the Concord during college, I looked around — at the dorms where year-round staff lived, at the nearby family bungalows, at the ski areas — and was glad there were so many opportunities to work and play in one enclave two hours from the city. It would be nice to see those opportunities return.
More Borscht Belt reunion chatter can be found on Facebook. There’s even a discussion by former employees of how the Catskills had its own lingo among workers: a “tummler” was a Yiddish word for entertainer or “tumult maker” (comedian Buddy Hackett got his start as one in the region before he went overseas to serve in World War II). Who knows — the reunion might even bring back borscht.