Al Hirshen Comes of Age in The Catskills

by Richard Bangs

As a young boy I would run home from school every day to turn on the TV and drink in whatever show or movie was playing. It turned out all my favorite performers were veterans of the Catskills, Borscht Belt comedians, mostly Eastern European Ashkenazi Jews, who cut their teeth in the Catskills at resorts like Grossinger’s, Brickman’s, and The Overlook. The catalogue is thick of the funnymen with Catskills cred who flickered in my living room: Woody Allen, Morey Amsterdam, Bea Arthur, Milton Berle, Shelley Berman, Joey Bishop, Mel Blanc, Mel Brooks, Lenny Bruce, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Red Buttons. Sid Caesar, Billy Crystal, Rodney Dangerfield, Phyllis Diller, Totie Fields, Shecky Greene, Buddy Hackett, Danny Kaye, Alan King, Robert Klein. Harvey Korman. Jerry Lewis. Richard Lewis, Chico and Harpo Marx, Jackie Mason, Zero Mostel, Carl Reiner, Don Rickles, Joan Rivers, Rowan & Martin, Mort Sahl, Soupy Sales, Dick Shawn, Allan Sherman, Phil Silvers, Arnold Stang, David Steinberg, Jerry Stiller, The Three Stooges, Jonathan Winters, Ed Wynn, Henny Youngman and on, as some above would say, ad libitum.

I often wondered what it was like to actually be in the Catskills during this seminal period, a time when folks sought sanctuary from the heat, dust and asperities of the city, and looked to the vital portal and pure waters and air, and the humor, of the Catskills.

So, when I reconnected with my old friend Al Hirshen, a former civil rights lawyer, member of the Carter Administration, and a development consultant in numerous countries, he happened to share that he spent his formative years working in the Catskills. So, I asked him if he could describe the experience, and he sent me this very personal, and profound, account:

“From the age of fifteen to twenty-four (1953–1962) I worked as a busboy and waiter in resort-hotels in the Catskill Mountains. The Catskills were also known as the Borscht Belt, or the Jewish Alps. In the fifties, over a million Jews took a yearly summer break from noise, heat, smells and disease. After driving 90 miles and about two hours on the old NY State Route 17, northwest of NYC, one reached the towns of Monticello, South Fallsburg, Liberty and Swan Lake. There were hundreds of hotels, cottages, bungalow colonies, and kokh-aleyns (Yiddish for self-catered boarding houses) in Sullivan and Ulster County, New York. Although these counties have beautiful lakes, walking trails, and densely wooded rolling mountains, the guests at the hotels came mainly for the food, rest, entertainment, and the swimming pools.

The Catskill had accommodations that matched people’s incomes. The more expensive hotels had nightclubs (one was named after Jerry Lewis), where top comedians Buddy Hackett, Mel Brooks, Jerry Lewis Sid Caesar, Jackie Mason, Danny Kaye, and Rodney Dangerfield learned their craft. Famous singers like Eddie Fisher, Eddie Cantor and Sammy Davis Jr. all played the Catskills. At the less expensive hotels, nighttime entertainment was “Simon Says” or Bingo in the “game room.”

I could make around $2000 for the summer, mostly from tips — usually $20 to $30 per person, per week. My earnings covered all my needs for a year, including my college fees at CCNY, and helping my mother with household expenses. My family was on the lowest rung of the working middle class, depending on your point of view. Compared to some of my friends I never considered us poor. My father and one uncle co-owned a candy store between the County Courthouse and Yankee Stadium on 161st Street in the Bronx. Since his separation from my mother when I was five, he contributed fifty dollars a month to our household. On the first of every month, my older brother, Sandy, and I would go to his apartment to pick up dad’s fifty-dollar bill. Sandy and I would joke that we were the “bag men” in a numbers operation. My mother was a sales lady and then manager in two different women’s dress or maternity shops. From the age of eleven until I started working in the Catskills, I covered most of my expenses as a delivery boy for a grocer and a meat shop. I never thought this was all that unusual. Sandy had done it and a few of my friends also had jobs. Only when I reached high school did I realize I was in a minority. My new friends did not have part-time jobs. They lived in the elevator apartments with uniformed doormen, where I delivered orders.

Sandy had spent two summers as a waiter in the Adirondacks at the Scaroon Manor Hotel. When I told him I wanted to be a busboy, he taught me how to hold two cups of coffee in one hand and stack three main dishes up my forearm while carrying a fourth in the other hand. He also told me the rules of service. Serve and remove plates from the left. Serve and remove beverages from the right. Never reach across a guest to do either. Then, armed with his draft card (you were supposed to be eighteen years of age) I visited the main NYC Employment Agency for jobs in the Catskills. I never thought about the skills needed to be a busboy beyond what my brother taught me. How hard could it be? It turned out I was right in not worrying about it. Later in life at the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, the Carter Administration, and as a Development Consultant in numerous countries, I mainly followed the same modus operandi: Be prepared and thoughtful, but do not overly worry about the direction you are taking. These lessons came easily to me because they fit my personality. Even at fifteen I was up for any new challenge. When asked at the employment agency where I had worked before, I spouted out the name Scaroon Manor and the name of the Maître D’ my brother had given me. I had no trouble lying since the Agency would only hire people with prior experience―as if busboys and waiters were “born serving a tray.” I thought the rule was absurd, and I had full confidence I could do the job without doing harm to my employer or the guests. My first job was as a busboy at the Long Beach Country Club over the Passover Holiday. Luckily, it turned out I was right; being a top-notch busboy was no big deal. The next time I returned to the Employment Agency to get a summer job I was able to add a real job to my resume.

Herbie Strauss, the Maître D’ of the Swan Lake Resort, in Swan Lake N.Y., happened to be at the employment agency that day. He was an easily excitable, stocky man with tight, wavy hair and a thick Viennese accent. He interviewed me and hired me on the spot. I worked for Herbie for nine years, one as a busboy, five as a waiter, and the final three as his headwaiter. Over time we became friends. A busboy’s basic job is to clear the dishes and serve beverages. A great relationship between a busboy and waiter is essential for first-class service. A waiter needs to be able to rely on a busboy to get a dessert, more salad or bread and butter. The busboy needs to fill in for the waiter when needed, expertly polish the silverware for him and sometimes do the set-up for the next meal. A waiter’s task is to keep the guests happy. This can take many different forms. Attentive, speedy service is paramount of course, but so too is creating a friendly atmosphere. Although being headwaiter paid me little more, it gave me status with the dining room staff and tightened my relationship with Herbie. Strauss by then already steered the bigger tippers toward me. I always had the greatest number of guests, serving thirty-two to forty people at tables of eight, whereas other dining room staff would serve a maximum of thirty-two guests. In exchange for his largess, and armed with my title of Headwaiter, I acted as mediator for any problems with the dining room staff without bothering Herbie. If my mediation did not prevail, vigilante justice would. One professional waitress tried to cut corners and save money. Rather than paying her busboy to polish the silverware, she stole polished silverware late at night from the drawers of other waiters. I told her to stop but she ignored me. When this was discovered, the waiters and busboys joined together and in the middle of the night moved her tables and chairs to the lake. I gave my approval to their revenge. When the waitress arrived in the morning ready to serve breakfast, she faced an empty space where her station was supposed to be. The stealing stopped. My work as headwaiter lowered Strauss’ stress quotient, kept him calmer, and allowed him to focus on the guests. I can still see the shaking in his hands and the flush redness of his face from heightened blood pressure disappear, as if by magic, when I said: ‘I will take care of it.”

We worked three meals a day, seven days a week, for fourteen weeks. The breaks during the day were short, from one to three hours. We were young and played just as hard at night as we worked during the day. Many nights I would go to sleep at one in the morning and awake at seven. After serving breakfast I sometimes took a one- hour nap before returning to the dining room. Many times I awoke to the sound of my alarm not knowing where I was. My sleep was very deep. My body was giving me a message: slow down. Some nights I would listen, but most nights I would not. On one occasion a nearly paid a high price for not listening.

My father, who could barely afford it, managed only one stay as a guest at the Swan Lake Resort. My mother never visited as she worked Saturdays and in any event did not have the means for such a weekend. Of course, I served my father’s table. It was great fun to see him taking pride in “his son the waiter.” He took many pictures of me in my uniform―black bow tie, black pants, white shirt and black cummerbund. At the end of his weekend stay I drove him back to the city to avoid his having to take a bus again. I did not take my morning nap that Monday but instead spent time with before serving lunch. Half way home I dozed-off for a moment and found myself hitting the brakes on the grassy highway divider. The incident could have been much worse; I could have easily veered into another car. It showed how draining the Catskills lifestyle was. On my first two nights home after the season I usually slept fourteen to fifteen hours.

Different groups of the staff went out together, dancing and partying at different hotels. The fact that I loved to dance and was good at it, was a definite plus. The evening usually ended with a late night lox and bagel or pastrami or corned beef sandwich at the always-crowded delis in Monticello or South Fallsburg. We told jokes about our guests, and the kitchen staff and laughed a lot. One of the bad jokes of the time was: Question: Why do seagulls fly over the sea? Answer: If they flew over the bay they’d be (bagels). There was a great sense of camaraderie among most of the Swan Lake Resort staff that did not exist at the larger hotels. In Jackie Mason’s one man show on Broadway he jokes that the Christians in the audience were whispering about where they would go for a drink after the show, while the Jews were trying to decide where to go for a meal. However, I was one Jew who kept considering both. Years later, my idea of a great night used to start with two martinis and dinner at Windows of the World, at the top of the World Trade Center followed by dancing at Club Le Jardin, at the Diplomat Hotel. I wished I could afford a black tie and tails outfit on these nights; nonetheless my fantasy of being Fred Astaire was fulfilled. It could not get more sophisticated.

Grossingers and its rivals The Concord, Brown’s, the Pines, the Waldmere, Kutcher’s, and the Commodore were among the bigger and better known hotels. Although I worked some of them during the Jewish Holidays and Passover, I returned to the Swan Lake Resort and Herbie Strauss each summer. The money I could make would be less, but the stress would also be substantially less, given my relationship to Herbie and the dining room and kitchen staff. When I worked at the bigger hotels, I was usually low man on the totem pole, with a station farthest from the kitchen and an inexperienced busboy. This made it very difficult to give good service and avoid guest complaints. In addition, I sometimes had to put up with a crazy owner. One of them, an older woman, would station herself by the juice dispensers, dressed in her best evening wear, and yell at any of us who made the mistake of filling the glasses too generously. Talk about the absurd. She was not saving any overhead that would matter to the bottom line. This same owner prevented the dining room staff from eating the same meals as the guests. We were served less appetizing, cheaper meals. She carried her policy to the extreme of positioning herself in the kitchen on steak night and counting the steaks ordered by the guests to ensure we didn’t whisk one away for ourselves. Her attitude inspired us to figure out ways to beat her system. One method was enlisting a trusted guest to order a second steak that was really for us. We called this “scoffing”. We would sneak the steak back to our sleeping quarters, a converted kitchen space. The owner in her evening attire, accompanied by the Maître D’, would then “sweep” our sleeping quarters to check for “scoffed food.” The waiters retaliated by setting off the smoke alarm, suppressing their laughter when she came rushing into the kitchen. The lesson I learned from this was to always treat my own staff with generosity and respect. This was not only the appropriate moral attitude but also made the most business sense ― a happy confluence of the practical and the ideal.

Aside from Passover and other Jewish weekend Holidays, the guests came for a week or two, a month or the entire summer. Couples, families or singles made up the mix. Different hotels marketed to different groups. Usually when families spent the summer at a smaller, less expensive hotel, the men commuted to New York City for work and returned for the weekend. It reminds me of a joke told by Catskill comics: “What are the three words a woman never wants to hear when she is making love? Honey I’m home”. It was not uncommon for the staff to “look after” the left-behind moms during the week. Singles came for a weekend or week to a hotel that catered to them, such as the Waldmere. The single women were looking for a husband, the men for sex. Both used to be successful. Husband-hunting single women were given the nickname “barracudas”. It was a time when attitudes toward women were, to say the least, not exactly enlightened. Many hotels wanted the staff to mix with the guests at night to create a fun atmosphere. The Waldmere even had the requirement that the dining room staff draw straws to see who had to dance with the “ugliest” woman. The waiters usually provided her with a good time no matter what! On the several weekends I worked there, the Maître D’ learned that I was a good dancer, and pressured me to go dancing each night at the Hotel’s nightclub. Luckily we had the option to bail out of the drawing if we were not going to the Waldmere’s nightclub. I could keep my relationship on an even keel with him by going to the hotel’s nightclub on one night, on a second night joining another dining room staff at another hotel nightclub, or on a third simply going to sleep early. I have always thought it wise not to bite the hand that feeds you. As I only worked brief shifts at the Waldmere, the Maître D’ accepted my “nightclub solution.”

The main reason people came to the Catskills for their vacation was the food. Except for self-catering hotels, guests did not pay per dish for what they ate; all three meals where included in the daily price. You could not opt out of a meal and pay less. Of course, this meant everyone overate. Each meal consisted of hot and cold main dishes, salads, appetizers, melons, juices, and desserts. We labeled certain guests, “Eat the menu” folk. This was not a figurative term. These guests literally ate every item listed on the menu. All the juices, melons, appetizers, salads, hot and cold main dishes, and desserts were consumed. This was an almost unbelievable feat to observe. Astonishingly, the “Eat the menu” men and woman were not always fat.

People were often extremely picky around food, and very demanding. I remember vividly the first time I returned a hand-carved piece of roast beef because it was “not rare enough” for the guest. The Chef dipped a brush in a cup of blood, painted the meat and gave me back the plate to serve. At other times a guest requested his roast beef “well done” and he then complained: “I ordered well-done!” In this case the Chef took a bowl of “au jus” and rubbed it into the meat. I repeatedly heard a guest exclaim that for the first time in many years the roast beef was just as he wanted! This revelation then resulted in a bigger tip. I would chuckle to myself because peoples’ fussiness was a function of their personality rather than their sophisticated taste. They simply were “complainers”!

Similarly, some of the older guests, especially women, were never satisfied that their tea was hot enough, even when you had washed out the cup in scalding water. In an extreme case, after discussion with the Chef, the cup and water were put in the oven and served on a cool saucer. Needless to say, the unreasonable demands stopped without a word being spoken. To paraphrase a Catskills joke:

“Question: What did a waiter say to a group of [older Jewish women]? Answer: Is anything OK?”

We never wrote down the orders, but simply memorized them. Many times I earned extra money by betting a guest who sat at a table of eight that I would remember not only the entire order, but also each individual’s choice. I found it all easy to recall by starting from the person I bet and going to his left, not taking anyone’s order out of turn.

The better tippers were usually, but not always, the nicer guests. One guest stayed a month and tipped me $200 per week for him and his wife. He owned a bakery in NYC, and when his employees joined him for different parts of the month, he checked to see whether they had sufficiently tipped me. Even though I always responded in the affirmative, he would give me an additional tip for them. Of course I loved him, not only for the money, but because he genuinely cared about me. He wanted to know all about me: Where was I from, did I have a girlfriend, what did I want from life, how did I pick Philosophy to study and teach? He also liked to laugh, something we had in common.

The Swan Lake Resort could accommodate four hundred guests. You entered the hotel via a long driveway that ran from the public highway wrapped around Swan Lake. The dining room was in the main building, as were the reception, a recreation hall for entertainment, and rooms for two hundred guests. The other guests were housed in a series of bungalows at a short distance from the main building and the swimming pool area.

The hotel’s guests were 99% Jewish; the other 1% were Christians who found themselves lost in the Catskills and needed food and shelter. Saturday night was lobster night. Yes, you hear me correctly. The Resort did not keep a kosher kitchen (lobster is a shellfish and not kosher) and the guests knew this beforehand. They looked forward to lobster night. “It tastes good, it’s probably not kosher,” is an old joke. The Catskills mirrored Judaism itself, running from Chasidic to Orthodox, and from Conservative to Reform, with the many different gradations in each branch of the faith. But there were many “cultural” Jews who did not observe the rules of any of these Divisions. I called these folk, of which I am one, “the sour kosher pickle, corned beef sandwich and Nazi movie Jews”. There were also the Zionist Jews whose only tenet was belief in and support of the State of Israel. All these Jews were held together by two important facts: 1) in the best Talmudic tradition, they were all part of a “religion of lawyers” who loved to argue; 2) they were all subject to anti-Semitism, all “children of David” and survivors of the holocaust. The Catskills had a Resort for each and every type of Jew. Although the kitchen staff did not mirror the guests’ ethnicity, the dining room staff did.

Getting back to the popular lobster night, it was very tricky to properly build up the bulky, very heavy plates stacked on your serving tray and carry them without incident to your station to serve to the guests. A way to prevent a lobster from falling off the tray was to limit the number of plates on it. Because of my relationship with the Chef and Herbie, the Maître D’, I was allowed to exceed the limit that was in place for other waiters. I had the skill to properly stack the awkward plates, and the strength and dexterity to maneuver the tray through the narrow pathways of the dining room to my station dresser. This allowed me to give faster service to the guests. I remember the disapproving look from the Chef the one and only time a plate dropped off my serving tray. He ordered his staff to clean up the peas and liquid butter that had splattered all over the kitchen floor. He never said a word about it and I continued to carry the maximum amount of lobster plates I could handle. Accidents did regularly happen over a season. A waiter or busboy would slip on a wet spot in the dining room and all heads would turn to the sound of the crash and the breaking plates. One time a busboy carrying a pot of hot coffee slipped and splashed a small amount of coffee down the front of a woman’s dress. I heard her shriek and I was just in time to see a quick-witted guest at the next table jump up and pour the contents of a cream pitcher over her dress, successfully cooling off the coffee. Wow, I thought, bravo and, “I hope I could think and act that fast.”

The man who prepared the Maine lobsters for the Chef to cook was the first person I met with a number tattooed on his forearm. Yes, a survivor of the concentration camps. He was a short, wiry man with a heavy Slavic accent and an ever-present stubble-beard. He did not talk much, but as he hacked each lobster into the proper size he shouted, “Himmler, Eichmann, Bormann, Hess, Goring, Goebbels!” He repeated these names in the same order until his lobsters were done. Strangely, he never mentioned Hitler! We never had a conversation and I never asked him for the name of his concentration camp. In retrospect, I chalk this up to the self-centeredness of youth. To paraphrase an old TV program intro: “There are a million stories in the Catskills,” but this was one story I did not get to know.

The Sous-Chef Paul was a very large, well-educated man. He had been an engineer in Czechoslovakia and a leader in the Prague Spring Liberation that Russian Troops crushed in 1968. Fearing for his life, he fled to Argentina, leaving his wife and child behind. As he could not find work as an engineer he became a chef. He was unable to get his wife and child out of Czechoslovakia. When things changed there it was too late―life had taken his profession and family away. He continued on in the States as best he could, with an underlying sadness that was visible and ever-present. My eyes began to open as to how many people had much more difficult lives than mine.

I also learned to be careful about assumptions. My long-term busboy of six- years was an eighteen year- old who had escaped with his family from Hungary, after the Russians forcibly ended the revolution. To my surprise, he deeply resented that he had to leave. He had been a top- rated wrestler, had a life of privileges and a bright future. He lost it all when his family forced him to leave with them. He continued his resentment throughout the time I knew him. In direct contrast to my assumptions, he thought privilege was more important than freedom. Later in law school I was taught that assumptions were the enemy of a good lawyer.

One summer, a blond young man from a rural area in Kansas became the lifeguard at the pool. He told me he sought out the job so he could see for himself if Jews really had horns and tails. His story just made me laugh. He found out that he liked Jews.

Friday night dinner service was always a challenge. The kitchen was slow because each piece of roast beef was hand-cut. Unlike other days, when the guests came in at the same time, on Friday nights they would drive up from NYC and enter the dining room two, four, or eight at a time, usually over a period of thirty to forty-five minutes. This meant I sometimes had to be at the roast beef cutting station, the salad counter, and the dessert station at the same time. Coordination with my busboy was essential. If I got stuck on the main dish line, he had to pick up salads or desserts for the guests who had already finished their roast beef. Because of the Friday tension the kitchen usually decided to serve only one flavor of ice cream. One week it was butter pecan and of course a number of guests requested chocolate. I had just explained to these guests that we were serving only butter pecan ice cream, when the kitchen ran out of butter pecan and started to serve up chocolate. Come on, why not vanilla, which at least looks like butter-pecan? My eagle-eyed guests who had requested chocolate ice cream and spotted the “brown gold” being served at nearby tables, demanded to know why I had said there was no chocolate ice cream. There was no way to quickly or satisfactorily explain the “why,” and I had to expect a reduced tip because of kitchen stupidity.

While waiting for my next orders of ice cream at the counter, I started to curse the absurd system that gave me problems with my guests. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the dessert assistant, a French Canadian, come at me from the back of the serving station and swing his fist at my head. He thought I had cursed him. I jumped back and he missed. My Hungarian busboy gripped him as he tried to jump over the counter to get at me. He shouted he was going to get his gun as soon as he could and shoot me. We all knew he had a gun. Most of the assistants on the kitchen staff, as well as the pot and plate washers, were guys down on their luck for different reasons. The majority of these men were alcoholics, aggressive, arrogant and deeply insecure, often quick to take insult where none was intended.

Of course the Chef and the owner came rushing over to see what was happening. I told them my busboy would continue the service while I would take a brief walk to the lake to cool off. I needed time to recapture my equilibrium. I imagined a headline in tomorrow’s Herald Tribune — “Catskill Waiter Shot dead over a Butter Pecan Ice Cream.“ By the time I returned to the dining room a few minutes later, the local police had already put the guy on a bus back to Quebec. During my absence my busboy had expertly handled the dessert requests. Yes, this included chocolate ice cream. “Thanks a lot, folks,” was all I could mutter to myself. Everything had happened in the kitchen out of sight of my guests, so they had no idea about my pending demise.

A word about the Chef whose name was Frank. We worked together for seven summers. He was a very talented, handsome, diminutive man who ran his kitchen with a strong hand, but without the temperamental outbursts of many other chefs I worked with. He and Herbie taught me about food and wine. One of Frank’s specialties that he would make as a treat for the three of us was carved melon balls soaked overnight in brandy. I learned about Kirschwasser, Riesling, German Pinot Noir, and life. They also taught me about formal silverware set-ups and which knife and fork to use first. They regaled me with stories of their life, of growing up in Austria and Germany. I learned about wives they hardly saw, and their divorces. Like the professional waitresses I worked with, they led nomad lives. In the winter they worked in Miami Beach, and in the Catskills in the summer. Separation apparently did not make the heart grow fonder. I remembered this lesson years later when I too led a nomad life, working as an international consultant in numerous countries such as Russia, Albania, Moldova, India, Indonesia and Cambodia. I tried very hard to keep my absences from home down to three weeks at a time.

Breakfast chefs were essential to the hotel kitchen. Often they were of Asian background. One or two breakfast chefs would handle the orders of 200 to 600 guests. They prided themselves on remembering each order and to which waiter it belonged. They remembered whether it was fried, poached or shirred eggs, omelets, pancakes or waffles. They would bellow a string of expletives, sometimes in Chinese, at anyone who tried to pick up another waiter’s order. It was great fun to yell in an order of “huffin on the makin” and watch them pick up an omelet pan, put in some butter and then strain to remember what the order was. When they got that I was joshing them, they would threaten to throw a hatchet at me, but with a smile on their face.

In the big hotels, we did not have any protection against someone stealing our boiled eggs. Waiters made their own boiled eggs. We placed up to two eggs in a metal container of a machine that automatically lowered them along a metal spine into boiling water. Each machine had individual timers from two to four minutes. It was impossible to tell whose egg was whose. So taking whatever eggs were ready was the order of the day. Sometimes this resulted in a shouting match between waiters. It was as if a Rube Goldberg cartoon had come to life.

My summers at the Swan Lake resort were enhanced by my relationship with the owner who, Herbie informed me, wanted me to marry his daughter. Although she and I went out dancing a few times, there was no click. Dancing told me if there was a sensual spark that would act as a touchstone for a deeper, meaningful connection. Her father was a decent man with an intellectual bent. His desire for me as a son-in-law was probably influenced by who he thought I was: Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago. As I had lied about my age when I started working in the Catskills, over the years I developed a story to match my “adopted” age. I was still in high school when my brother helped me purchase a Columbia University sports jacket. It made sense to say I was attending Columbia University. Didn’t the jacket prove it? My reality was Taft High School in the Bronx, and then CCNY. After starting law school at the University of Chicago, I changed my school and title because it’s easier to remember details of a lie that are based on facts. Another reason to perpetuate the myth of being an Assistant Professor was my giving poolside lectures to the guests on Existentialism, especially Camus. I remember the guests in bathing suits, some in their minks in spite of the summer heat, gathered next to the pool. They usually numbered between thirty and fifty. They were mainly women. To my surprise they often asked pertinent and insightful questions. Juxtaposed to the lectures were martial art lessons conducted once a week by my Hungarian busboy, George. My soon to become wife Linda, who was a waitress at the Resort, and I alternated as “attackers” with fake knives to allow George to demonstrate how to disarm us. Linda and I, after flirting, laughing and dancing together over many nights, became a couple midway into the firs summer we worked together. In the second summer, we rented a room and lived together across the road from Swan Lake. We married in 1963 and divorced in 1996. It was another youthful summer romance “without legs.”

The lectures were a success and the Herald Tribune wrote a flattering article about them. The incongruity of this once a week scene at the pool was not lost on me. What was also not lost was the fact that this article gave me too high a profile. Afraid of more press coverage and being “found out”, I abandoned my “professorial” lectures at the poolside.

My time in the Catskills ended more with a whimper than a bang. Increased income, especially among the guests of the middle and smaller sized hotels, the development of the airline industry and the availability of resorts elsewhere that were open to Jews helped begin the slide that resulted in the demise of the Catskills. By 1961, my guest load was down by one quarter. And in the summer of 1962, Linda and I took a two-week break from the hotel due to lack of guests. My nine-year run in the Catskills was over. One of my favorite jokes from the Catskills is:

“Let me give you a short summary of every Jewish Holiday: They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.””
Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Richard Bangs’s story.