by Joe Dorinson
As I write, an excellent film, Welcome to Kutsher’s: The Last Catskill Resort is playing in the background. It is the third time today that I have watched this wonderful if ultimately sad saga. In 1963, during Passover week, I ended my career there as a waiter. The $270 that I earned that memorable week helped to underwrite my graduate school education at Columbia University. Subsequently, I returned to Kutsher’s Country Club for various alumni reunions and stimulating conferences in 2001, 2003, 2005, and 2007: all organized by Phil Brown, a former student at Long Island University, currently a distinguished Sociology Professor at Northeastern University, and a vital participant as “talking head” in your film.
The film’s opening sequences provides a mixed message. A news anchor announces that a wrecking ball will demolish the main buildings. Then, to dull the edge of sadness, Freddy Roman offers much-needed comic relief. Along with Roman, Phil Brown and Larry Strickler, former social director qua tumbler convey historical and cultural context. A kaleidoscopic cornucopia of food and entertainment follow. And this viewer was hooked so to speak. Roman deplores the anti-Semitic road mayvens who confine Jewish travelers to a single lane minus the promised improvements. While he astutely frames the Catskill experience as the third act of that hairy-dairyman Tevye, the farmer, in a minor miscue, Strickler refers to the surge (rather than scourge) of tuberculosis on the Lower East Side that prompted a mass summer exodus to the “Borscht Belt.” He more than atones with luminous commentary and a song at the film’s end that breaks your heart with a poignant rendition of “What I Did for Love.”
Indeed, this labor of love, begun in 1907 as a 200 acre family farm, Kutsher’s evolved. Clearly, the principal architect of its expansion, Milton Kutsher and his young bride Helen (they married in 1946) converted a once small hotel into a major force in the largest resort area in America reaching its apex during the halcyon 1970s and 1980s. The Kutshers treated guests as part of their extended family. I vividly recall Helen coming to our table during the Catskill Institute Conferences to chat and share plans for an upbeat future. Lamentably, as in a Yiddish song, “Vos is geveyn is geveyn, un is itzt nishtu.” The commentary issuing from guests, waiters, scholars, and especially Mark Kutsher with wry humor explains the tragic demise of Kutsher’s– the last resort. Cruises, air travel, gambling or the lack thereof are cited as prime reasons. Scholar Phil Brown also cites an important study by Deborah Dash Moore that pointed to Miami Beach and Los Angeles as having morphed into permanent vacation havens despite Borscht Belt alumnus Woody Allen’s warning “that the only advantage of life in LA was that when driving you can make a right turn at a red light.” Added to this mix were other less obvious reasons. Certainly, television cannibalized comedic acts once the staple of large hotels. Unlike their parents, third generation, highly assimilated youngsters no longer wanted to share this family experience. Europe, thanks to cheaper and more rapid airfare, beckoned to adventure-seekers. Dietary concerns and movement to suburban areas outfitted with swimming pools and air conditioning units rendered “Sour Cream Sierras” as well as “The Derma Road” less attractive.
One striking element in this film that invites greater attention was entertainment. Freddy Roman’s riffs elevated the script. More comedians, however, would have measurably enriched the narrative. Shortly before he succumbed to lung cancer, Alan King came up to Kutsher’s to replace an ailing comedian in August, 2005 during our conference. Earlier that day, I lectured on both King and Billy Crystal. Jesting about his own health, King borrowed a joke from comedienne Susie Essman who had roasted him at the Friars’ Club. “I’ve reached a point in my life,” he lamented, “when my prostate is larger than my ego.” That brilliant performance capped a wonderful moment in time, not to mention a brilliant career. Other greats like Sid Caesar, Jerry Seinfeld, Billy Crystal, and Mal Z. Lawrence graced Kutsher’s stage. They too merited more than passing mention in this captivating film
Among the many excellent features—performances, photos, activities, personal recollections—all expertly woven into the film’s fabric, I particularly enjoyed the presence of Wilt Chamberlain. The best bellhop in hotel history, the 7’ 1” star from Philadelphia could carry three suitcases under each arm. Under the aegis of Boston Celtic Coach Arnold “Red” Auerbach, Chamberlain dominated a very popular summer basketball circuit with his extraordinary talent. Here again, a larger segment on sports at Kutsher’s invited exploration. Legendary LIU Coach Clair Bee launched a sports academy at Kutsher’s that included future hall of fame coaches Mike Krzyzewski of Duke and controversial Bobby Knight of Indiana. Ironically, a major basketball scandal in 1950-51 that sullied the Cinderella CCNY quintet, double victors in the NIT and NCAA championships, was initiated in the Catskills. That tragic episode, laced with anti-Semitism, evoked heroic leadership from Milton Kutsher who defended hotel owners as well as the players against vocal detractors spewing venom. Equally heroic, as the film correctly observes, was Milt Kutsher’s annual Maurice Stokes contest to raise funds to aid the fallen African-American star. Arguably, this tournament constituted one of Milton’s finest hours among many. I addressed this very subject in my 2005 presentation, later published, “Ain’t No Mountain High: Borscht Belt Basketball” in which Kutsher’s plays a pivotal part. You can look it up.
Enough carping; I am not a cold (gefilte) fish liked those that we often served hotel guests on Friday nights. My criticism was meant to be constructive. If I exceeded my role in that effort, I apologize. Indeed, this film flooded my memory bank with mostly warm recollections. Therefore, to borrow a phrase from Bob Hope who regaled Catskill audiences too: “Thanks for the memories.”
To purchase or find out more about this wonderful film go to http://www.kutshersdoc.com/