Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer

It Happened in the Catskills : An Oral History in the Words of Busboys, Bellhops, Guests, Proprietors, Comedians, Agents, and Others Who Lived It

(Harcourt Brace/Harvest Books, 1991 Hardcover, 1993 Paperback; ISBN: 0156002388)

(Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004. 245 pp; ISBN 0-299-20604-1)

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SEATTLE TIMES


For most West Coasters, the Catskills are something that passes on the Eastern seaboard for a mountain range. Many New Yorkers, however, attach great nostalgia to the vacation haven, which served as training ground for some of America's most beloved entertainers.

In this humorously sentimental oral history, Neil Sedaka, Sid Caesar, Jackie Mason and other stars, along with former busboys and cooks, describe summers spent in the great Catskill resorts (Grossinger's, Tamarack Lodge, the Concord) - where the mostly Jewish clientele ate kosher food, received expert dance instruction (a la "Dirty Dancing") and were royally entertained by top comics (Jack Benny, Milton Berle) and singers (Leslie Uggams, Sammy Davis Jr.).

Filled with snapshots of the famous and un-famous living it up lakeside, this is a kind of fond family scrapbook of a bygone paradise. There are still big hotels in the Catskills, and weary urbanites still patronize them. But it ain't what it used to be - and never will be again.

JEWISH JOURNAL


ONCE UPON A TIME, there were the Catskills. Yes, there are still a dozen famous
resorts there still open for business, but once upon a time there were more
than 500. Unfortunately, demographics and economics have changed that, and all
that remains of the "Borscht Belt" tradition is the fond memory of a bygone
era.

In "It Happened in the Catskills," the husband and wife team of Myrna and
Harvey Frommer skillfully recapture the 20th-century history and flavor of "The
Mountains" via the voices of 113 people. These "Cast of Characters," as they
are called -- the busboys and bellhops, guests and chefs, singers and dancers,
tummlers and agents, waiters and musicians -- help us understand and appreciate
the gone-but-not-forgotten world that was once America's most famous summer
playground.

"It will never be duplicated," says Arthur Shulman, who grew up in Liberty,
N.Y., a town in the center of the 250-square- mile area an hour-and-a-half
north of New York. "Unless you lived through it, you can never quite know what
it was like. It was an atmosphere, a time, an era."

Shulman was talking about the era of the mid-1940s through the late '50s, but
actually there were many eras. The whole history of Shangri-la with schmaltz is
lovingly celebrated here, from its 19th-century origins of the small Jewish
farms that turned into monster resorts, to the crumbling decline and sale of
many of those hotels in the 1980s.

We hear from and learn about Neil Sedaka, who showed up at Esther Manor at the
age of 19 with his band, the Nordanelles (for Norman, David and Neil), and
ended up marrying Esther's daughter, much to the chagrin of her family; and of
Eddie Fisher, who came up to Grossinger's in 1946 at 19, got "discovered" by
Eddie Cantor on Labor Day 1949 and married Debbie Reynolds there in 1955.

Lou Goldstein, legendary social director at the hotel for many years, remembers
the kid singer very well. "Eddie Fisher and I were roommates for a while -- the
Playhouse at Grossinger's, Room 5. We were both single and looking. We made up
a signal between us. If one of us was in the room with a girl, we would wrap a
towel around the outside door knob so the other guy wouldn't barge in ... I had
a lot of trouble getting into that room. It seemed like there was always a
towel there."

This handsomely designed black-and-white volume is more than a trip down memory
lane: it is an historic record that combines sentimental nostalgia with
historical information, giving the reader facts on what that bygone time and
place was all about as well as evoking the feeling it engendered.

To capture that feeling, the authors have utilized the discipline of oral
history, and rightfully so: there is no better way to tell this story then to
read what amounts to a session with your uncle Dave and aunt Rhoda sitting
around the kitchen table shmoozing and telling tales about some magical place.
Even the title -- "It Happened In The Catskills" -- suggests story telling, and
this collection of recollections does it perfectly.

That's the beauty of oral history, the eyewitness testimonies of events in the
words of the participants. They may not provide a scholarly historian's insight
and analysis, but the fresh and spontaneous reminiscences from the people who
were there gives the reader a view from inside that, if you were there, takes
you back, and if not, tells what you missed while making you feel as if you
were there too.

In the case of the Catskills, I suspect there was no shortage of eyewitnesses
who were willing and wanting to tell their stories. It is, after all, one of
the great fortunes of the Jewish people to be story tellers. The trick here was
in the editing, skillfully executed by the authors. They weave the stories
along briskly and seemingly effortlessly from one voice to the next, each
memory followed by other eyewitnesses and participants who further explain and
tell stories about that person or place.

The blending of voices makes it feel like they are all together in one room,
elbows jabbing ribs and hands slapping knees, as they refresh each other's
memories with tales from the Sour Cream Sierras. There is a chapter in the book
on some of the performers who played there, the great and the near-great (Danny
Kaye, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Red Buttons and Jackie Mason, to name a few of
the greats. The list of near-greats is too long).

Also chapters on Grossinger's Hotel and the Concord, the two giants of the
mountains; "The 10 percenters," the agents and talent bookers; the acts that
played the big rooms and the small ones; and a final chapter on -- what else -
- food. To thousands of loyal lodgers, the Catskills were nothing if not the
Garden of Eatin'. Up there, the most important question was what to order from
the seven kinds of herring available for breakfast (for the record: baked,
pickled, kippered, marinated, fried, tomato, and matjes).

And by the way, where did the phrase "Borscht Belt" come from, anyway? Paul
Grossinger, son of Harry and Jennie Grossinger, founders of the hotel,
explained: "Seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, borscht in a glass was served
at Grossinger's. Abel Green, the editor of Variety, got on us and coined the
phrase the Borscht Belt. Way down deep, we all thought it was an ethnic slur.
Maybe it was. But then there were some who took it as a red badge of courage."

Whatever you call it -- the Borscht Belt, the Catskills, The Mountains -- it is
all recaptured here, and not just in words. Throughout the book, the people and
places remembered are accompanied by remarkable photographs from the personal
scrapbooks of the participants.
 

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This book captures the flavor of the "Borscht Belt," that vacation area just "ninety minutes from Broadway." Summer romances, mambo time, menus with seven kinds of herring, musical and comedic greats getting their start, bungalows, and big hotels like Grossinger's all are remembered here. Through the power of oral history, more than a hundred voices share stories that span nearly a century. -- SHOFAR

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NEW YORK TIMES 

"Sparkling, captures the flavor of the Borscht Belt. The Frommers take the reader on a sunny cruise down memory lane."

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BOOK FORUM

(2004 EDITION)

It Happened in the Catskills (University of Wisconsin Press), first published in 1991, is an oral history of the Borscht Belt resort area from its advent in bungalow colonies with kochalyns ("cook-alone" cabins with kitchens) and family-run inns such as Grossinger Kosher Farm (1914) to its heyday in the '50s and '60s era of High Jewish Glamour--when Grossinger's and the Concord had blossomed into the kosher-style Waldorf and Ritz--to its eventual '80s eclipse, when the hotels were converted into convention centers or sold to Buddhists, New Agers, and, ironically, Hasidic Jews, for unschmaltzy retreats. It's also ironic that so many fabulously snazzy examples of midcentury design would bite the dust just a few minutes before hipster irony and genuine postmodern appreciation would probably have redeemed them. Now "no surer proof of the Catskills' demise exists," authors Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer observe in their intro to the new edition, "than the fact of its having become the subject of academic study."Long connoting schmaltz, unlimited portions, and B-list cheesiness, the Borscht Belt sensibility has finally caught up with a mainstream culture that can appreciate its unabashed celebration of glitz, whether real or fake, and its radically unsnobby democracy of enjoyment. The chapter titled "Order Everything" sums up fine dining à la the Catskills as "part of the pomp and circumstance of making it in the New World. You'd order everything on the menu because you never knew what you'd like. In this way, you got your money's worth," explains veteran eater and comedian Mal Z. Lawrence, who calls the Catskills "my Hollywood": "Even more than the food itself, it was the elegance . . . of asking for doubles, even if not eating it. Even if just tasting it and saying 'nah.' That was the luxury of it all." Visiting "goyisher journalists" would "sit down to eat, and there'd be this opulent spread," recalls Irving Rudd, former Brooklyn Dodgers publicist. "Their eyes would bulge--like 'How long has this been going on? . . . I tell you, . . . you Hebes really know how to live.'"

While up in the Jewish Alps--the Catskills in upstate New York--the Chosen People (fortunate enough to evade Nazis and pre-air-conditioned New York City) were playing Simon Sez ("Lou Goldstein gets the crowd at Grossinger's going," reads one of many hilarious captions), doing the mambo ("Very seldom would you see a shlep in Champagne Hour"), and thoroughly enjoying themselves in a manner that could be explained only by centuries of suffering. The "fountain at the entrance to the Concord's Imperial Room" identifies the sanctum sanctorum of shtick, featuring legends from Sid Caesar and Eddie Fisher to Neil Sedaka, Buddy Hackett, and Totie Fields; "Regulars prided themselves on how many acts they walked out on." Native informant Bob Melvin elaborates, "That was their mentality: to see a big star and not like him, to have a good time by not having a good time--that was what they wanted to do. They challenged every star who worked there." Entertainers used to call it "the Concord syndrome."

By AL ELLENBERG - THE JERUSALEM REPORT, August 8, 1991

THE MAGIC MOUNTAINS

Something happened to the Catskills about a century ago: The Jews started to come. Just a handful in the beginning, mostly Russians with a feel for farming and a repugnance for the filth and swelter of Manhattan's Lower East Side, 75 miles to the southeast.

The little farms barely provided subsistence, so their tillers turned to providing bed and board for landsleit guests from the city during the summer months. The Catskills, home of Rip Van Winkle, now bred a different kind of American legend: the Borscht Belt and its magic mountains of abundance. The ramsackle farms spawned colonies of bungalows, which in turn became satellites of larger and larger hotels, some of which took on the dimensions of self-contained towns. The fabulous Grossinger's, a Disney-land of Jewish opulence, had its own post office and airport. The Concord boasted the Monster golf course, 45 splendidly manicured holes. In the heyday of the 1950s and 60s, there were about 500 hotels and another 500 bungalow colonies strewn through "The Mountains" like poppy seeds on hallah.

"It Happened in the Catskills" is an oral history of this resort mecca, from the gritty 1890s through the homogenized 1990s, and the glory days in between. The oral approach is appropriate; so many of the activities described here relate to the mouth. Food and entertainment, kreplach and comedians, were the pillars of Catskills life.

Marvin Welkowitz, whose parents owned a hotel: "In my time as a waiter it was gimme-gimme-gimme, and the food would keep on coming out. Whatever you wanted, blintzes or fish or bagels, it kept coming. They ordered three or four of everything."

Literary agent Elaine Markson, who worked as a camp counselor in her teens, takes a stab at the sociology of conspicuous Jewish consumption: "The attention to food it's part of the vision of America as the horn of plenty, part of the pomp and circumstance of making it in the New World. The Catskills were the Jewish version of the country club or first class on the ocean liner. You'd order everything on the menu because you never knew what you'd like. In this way, you got your money's worth." As much as Jews wanted to eat, they wanted to laugh. For many, hard-working survivors of famines, pogroms and death camps, food and laughter were equally scarce. Unsurprisingly, they were often coupled, as in this primoridal gem:

"How did you find the steak last night?

"I picked up the potato and there it was."

A few of the Jewish staples entered the American culinary vocabulary (bagels and lox, blintzes, brisket, chopped liver and so on, ad nauseum); the comedians and entertainers (not all of whom were Jewish) who honed their shticks in the Mountains became dominant figures in show business. What a bunch of wise alecks! Joey Adams, Red Buttons, Red Skelton, Eddie Cantor, Jack Benny, Georgie Jessel, Henny Youngman, Danny Kaye, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Lenny Bruce, Zero Mostel, Jackie Mason, Woody Allen, Billy Crystal and on and on.

You want singers? How about Richard Tucker, Robert Merrill, Eddie Fisher, Barbra Streisand? There were super athletes who actually played for hotel teams, future basketball stars like Bob Cousy and Wilt Chamberlain. Olympic champion Buster Crabbe taught swimming.

"It Happened in the Catskills" is an insiders' blast from the past, crammed with marvelously nostalgic photographs and anecdotes by and about legendary and not so legendary hotel owners, performers, booking agents, politicians, guests, waiters and busboys. The tone is mildly self-congratulatory, but there are hints of a darker side: atrocious working conditions for hotel staff, the shadow of a Mafia presence, the sexual loneliness of wives whose husbands worked weekdays in "the city" and who frequently found fleeting consolation with college-boy waiters and busboys.

Thousands of such college boys from the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, the West Side and Lower East Side of Manhattan set tables and hoisted trays for 12- to 15-hour working days and obligatorily donned a white jacket and dark trousers after dinner to "keep the lady guests company." Recalls TV news anchor Marvin Scott, an ex-bellhop at the Raleigh: "You'd see a change in these women on Sunday afternoons when the husbands went back to the city, leaving them for the week. Suddenly, they became swingers." Scott tells a hilarious story about his night with a visiting stripper he calls Nanette. My own introduction to showbiz was a dancer at the Flagler named Rosie.

There are still hotels in the Borscht Belt; about a dozen major ones remain and prosper, with a clientele markedly Jewish only on the High Holidays or Passover. But hundreds of middle-sized hotels are derelict now, with weeds growing in the lobbies. Irving Cohen, maitre d' at the Concord for over 50 years, blames the death of the small hotels on the disappearance of reliable summer help, mostly college kids earning their tuition. "When you had to work to make money to go to school, Sullivan County was a good place. Today, it's different. The kids don't have to work so hard any more. I think we're too good to our children."

Al Ellenberg worked as a waiter in the Catskills during the 1950s.

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SIGNED EDITIONS 

"The magic of the Catskills comes back vividly in this lively collection of memories from those who were there when it was the place to be. Just "ninety minutes from Broadway," the Catskills were a training ground and showcase for some of the biggest musical and comedic talents ever. In this oral narrative, more than a hundred voices share stories spanning nearly a century and evoking an experience that in many ways exists now only as a memory.
Oversized and bountifully illustrated, It Happened in the Catskills, will delight and inform anyone who knows of the Catskills only through Hollywood portrayals such as Dirty Dancing and Broadway Danny Rose--and will be treasured nostalgia for all those who may have spent a summer or two of their own in the Mountains."

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BROWN UNIVERSITY CATSKILLS INSTITUTE 

"This oversize book is full of photos and graphics of the Catskills. It has good information on the entertainment aspect and on the workings and development of the big hotels. There are abundant quotes from the many Catskills entertainers, staff, owners, and guests that the Frommers interviewed. It Happened in the Catskills is a fun book to travel the Mountains with."

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WINDOWS MEDIA 

"The book's profusely illustrated 239 pages are loaded with reminiscences that are bawdy, rueful, whimsical, and profoundly human. Among the prime bits are tales of Eddie Fisher's hectic sex life, a story about a young Jewish girl falling for a forbidden Italian musician, and stories of lascivious old aunties with varicose veins putting the make on innocent young waiters. Most engrossing are the tales of sharp moguls, barely off the boat, building grand hotels out of brazen nerves and chutzpah. 
With interviews from over 100 subjects, the Frommer's have made a time capsule fascinating to anyone who savored "Broadway Danny Rose," wept when Jack Benny died, or would sell their souls for some good pastrami."

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BBC RADIO - London, England, June 19, 2001

A WONDERFUL BOOK ABOUT THE CATSKILLS

"The Frommers are terrific interviewees and their book is a history and an entertainment resource about the Catskills - what else would we expect from oral historians of their rank. (Above the Title Productions, London, England, June 19, 2001)"

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LITERARY LIFE, Cleveland

"The book's profusely illustrated 239 pages are loaded with reminiscences that are bawdy, rueful, whimsical, and profoundly human. Most engrosssing are the tales of sharp moguls, barely off the boat, building grand hotels out of brazen nerves and chutzpah. With interviews from over 100 subjects, the Frommers have made a time capsule fascinating to anyone who savored 'Broadway Danny Rose,' wept when Jack Benny died, or would sell their souls for some good pastrami."

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ALAN KING

"I enjoyed it. I should. I lived it."

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REGIS PHILBIN

"The definitive story of a time and a place."

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WASHINGTON POST 

"A fascinating history of the period."

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BOOKLIST 

"A vibrant oral history, spirited anecdotes."

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VARIETY 

"A wonderful oral history, cover a lot of territory."

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NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO

"A wistful look with hundreds of old photos."

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JOE FRANKLIN, February 12, 2001,

"YOU MUST GET A COPY - YOU WON'T BE ABLE TO PUT IT DOWN."

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NEW YORK POST, December 23, 1998,

"GREAT STUFF, LOVINGLY DESCRIBED"

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FT. LAUDERDALE SUN SENTINEL, December 22, 1998,

"Highly readable. Offers downright funny anecdotes seasoned with ethnic jokes and a plethora of photographs."

Advance.net/books/reviews/

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ATLANTA JOURNAL AND CONSTITUTION

In their heyday in the 1940s and '50s, the Catskills, in New York's Sullivan and Ulster counties, were less a place than a state of mind, according to the Frommers. In their wonderful collection of reminiscences by those who worked and played the mountains, anyone who ever vacationed there will find something between nostalgia and heartburn - or, perhaps, just hunger for borscht, the red-beet soup that became a staple at the region's most famous resort, Grossinger's.

THE WASHINGTON POST 

SUMMER WAS THE TIME, during the postwar heyday of the great resorts, to escape to the Catskills. A new book, "It Happened In the Catskills" by Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $ 24.95), is a fascinating history of the period, with reminiscences of the people who visited, worked and tried out their acts there. They include a dining room scene from comedian Mal Z. Lawrence, in the chapter "Order Everything":

"You know it's lunch because they see that other people are beginning to move. In the dining room, people who haven't read a newspaper in years begin to study the menu.

" 'Apple juice, apple juice. Who wants an apple juice? Apple juice, tomato juice, who wants? What kind of juice do you want? Who wants a schav? [a cold soup made from sorrel] You want a schav? Wanna schav?

" 'You want a borscht? Potato? No potato? One potato, two potato? Garni? What is garni? Did you ever eat garni? Jellied yellow pike ... Uhgghhh.'

"The more you read, the less you know what you want. People are really confused now. They look at each other with desperation. They say the same thing at every table.

" 'What are you going to get? You want to share something?'

" 'Come on, we'll split something. I'll have half of yours. You'll have half of mine. Because really, I couldn't eat the whole thing.' "

"And then there's 'For later.'

" 'These are for later -- these Danishes. No these are not for now. They are for later. We'll have them with coffee November 23rd.' "

Journal of American Studies, Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer, It Happened in the Catskills (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press).

Coming to certain oral history collections one is left thinking of a muddle of literary allusions, not least L.P. Hartley's The Go Between, with its famous ' the past is another country, they do things differently there '. When It Happened in the Catskills was first published in 1991 the authors shared the hope of developers mentioned in their Introduction, who were eager to see the Catskills relaunched as a family-oriented destination for foreign tourists, especially the Japanese. The new introduction for 2004 sorrowfully makes it clear that these dreams were not realized, and thus the iconic Catskills that stood for a certain kind of New York Jewish leisure-seeking and entertainment-loving class remains as nothing more than a memory : gone forever, like the cabaret stars, lounge singers and Hollywood legends that people these recollections along with those who worked as agents, waiters, money-men and housekeepers. With this book, to use another far-fetched literary reference, we are truly in search of lost time.

It Happened in the Catskills is neither a sentimental tribute to its time, nor an over-earnest analytical study, and thus could find a place on the shelf of the historian of New York's Jewish culture, or lover of the ''golden age'' of American entertainment. The index of contributors and the people they mention is invaluable, and includes appearances by such unexpected personalities as Marlene Dietrich, Edward R. Murrow and Henry Kissinger. The book is more than suitable for a general, nonacademic audience, and someone looking to discover the exact place Neil Sedaka and Debbie Reynolds occupy in American cultural history could not be better served. In 2005 these two survivors carry on something of the Catskills tradition in their residencies in Las Vegas, but the Nevada casino hotels of today otherwise owe little to the bungalow-colony resorts of upstate New York at mid-century. In the most entertaining and also the most universally appealing part of the book, comedians revisit their shtick about security huts, fences, Simon Sez and traffic cones. For those who remember the Catskills in their heyday, these details of life in the resorts, evoked by the contributing comics and MCs, will surely take them right back to the mountains of their youth.

TIMES-UNION/ALBANY, NY

If your knowledge of the Jewish resort area in the Catskills begins and ends with whether or not anybody can put Baby in the corner, have we got the book for you. "It Happened in the Catskills: An Oral History in the Words of Busboys, Bellhops, Guests, Proprietors, Comedians, Agents, and Others Who Lived It" (Harvest Books; 245 pages; $26.95) is another entry in the "It Happened" series by travel writers Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer.

 

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