Festival to revive Catskills memories
For New Yorkers seeking to escape the heat of the city in the mid-20th century, there was only one destination: the Catskills.
The upstate mountains, just a two-hour drive from Manhattan, became a mecca for middle-class families with a little extra money to spend on a modest summer vacation. Many stayed in resorts where all their meals and social life were on-site; others lived in “bungalow colonies,” groups of small apartments with communal dining rooms, card games and Saturday night dances.
There was no air conditioning. Sticky tape hung
from the ceiling to catch flies that rushed in through the open windows. Comedians who would one day become famous, including Jerry Lewis, Mel Brooks and Buddy Hackett, performed for the enthusiastic, predominantly Jewish audiences, giving the mountains an endearing and enduring nickname, the Borscht Belt.
Women spent the summer in these upstate havens with their kids; husbands, who had to work Monday through Friday, joined the families on the weekends.
Yes, it was a long time ago. The Levis JCC Sandler Center in West Boca, aware of the many former New Yorkers in its midst, is preparing for a monthlong Catskills festival in February. The staff has issued a call for memorabilia from this momentous era. Sue Harrington, gallery director, said she is looking for any object that recalls the mountains’ heyday from the 1940s to the 1970s, including photos, posters, ashtrays, matchbooks, viewfinders, napkins and keychains.
“I want all the things that made it so much fun,” Harrington said. “I won’t turn anything away unless it’s too fragile.”
The festival will include films, lectures, entertainment and an exhibit of local residents’ souvenirs. A video booth will allow Catskills veterans to record their recollections.
While some families enjoyed the low-key communal living of the bungalow colonies, others favored the hotel-resorts, which had massive swimming pools, raucous nightlife and enormous dining rooms that served over-the-top kosher meals.
Several resorts became famous for their association with celebrities.
Rita Hammer, 87, of Boca Raton, remembers watching the entertainer Eddie Cantor play cards at Grossinger’s; her husband played handball at Kutscher’s, another famous resort, with NBA basketball coach Red Auerbach.
Hammer frequented many of the resorts that have since closed, including Grossinger’s, where she honeymooned; the Nevele, where she took golf
How to contribute
The Levis JCC Sandler Center is seeking memorabilia from the heyday of the Catskills, from the 1940s to the 1970s.
The staff is accepting photographs, posters, books, viewfinders, show tickets, clothing, matchbooks and any knickknacks South Florida residents have amassed from that remarkable era.
All will be cared for and returned.
The exhibit will be part of a show, “Greetings From The Catskills,” Feb. 3 to March 4.
The scholar-in-residence will be Phil Brown, founder of the Catskills Institute and author of “Catskills Culture: A Mountain Rat’s Memories of the Great Jewish Resort Area.”
There will be films, lectures, comedy shows and musical concerts.
Call Sue Harrington, the Sandler Center’s gallery director, at 561-558-2504, or email her at [email protected]isjcc.org. lessons; and the Pinegrove, site of her son’s bar mitzvah.
“I went through so many stages of my life in the Catskills,” Hammer said. ‘I was a little girl, a teenager, a honeymooner, a married woman. I feel so sad when I think about how it’s all gone now.”
The bungalow colonies and hotels began to decline in the
1970s and 1980s, when a new generation of families chose sleepaway camp for their kids or more exotic destinations for family vacations.
The final blow for many was the closing in 1998 of the
1,200-room Concord, a grand resort where the dining room sat 3,000.
Up-and-coming talents Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett and Judy Garland performed Comedian Stewie Stone, 79, of Wellington in Palm Beach County, talks about performing in the Catskills in the ’60s and ’70s. Listen to the Brooklyn-born comic’s take on the Catskills comedy circuit at there. Martin Luther King Jr. received a rabbinical award at the Concord in 1968.
Ann Schwartz, 76, of Boynton Beach, and her sister, Eileen Worst, 73, of Lauderhill, remember the Catskills’ heyday as a time of hard work that developed their lifelong devotion to family and financial independence. Their mother, Miriam Damico, owned a 50-family bungalow colony, the Moonglow Inn, on Route 52 near Loch Sheldrake, for 59 years.
Schwartz was in charge of the summer camp, while Worst ran the store, where vacationers bought provisions on credit. Worst lugged groceries to vacationers’ units by pulling a wagon behind her.
The sisters worked on the property for 49 years. But vacationers stopped filling their one- and two-bedroom units in the 1980s and 1990s.
Damico sold the property in 2002.
“You could feel the strain of that third generation not wanting to come anymore,” Ann Schwartz said. “It was a gradual decline, and we accepted that. But it was a wonderful time for us growing up.”
Don and Ann Schwartz were married June 14, 1964, at the Roxy Hotel in the Catskills. The Sandler Center in West Boca is collecting memorabilia, like this photo and the cocktail napkin below from Ann Schwartz, for an exhibit about the Catskills’ heyday. Comedian Stewie Stone, center photo, leads a game of Simon Says in the early 1970s at the Concord Hotel in the Catskills. At 79, he’s still performing.
Ann Schwartz, of Boynton Beach, who is donating Catskills memorabilia to the Sandler Center in West Boca, looks over some old photos.
Catskills nostalgia includes the popular 150-acre zoo that housed more than 2,000 animals. The Catskill Game Farm ended its 73-year run in 2006.
Stewie Stone, left, is shown with Tiny Tim, right, in the 1970s at the Concord Hotel in the Catskills.