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 with 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 Catskills 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.