The phrase “Catskill Mountains” conjures up a variety of images. Some associate it with the so-called “Borscht Belt” humor of old time comics from that era such as: Alan King, Henny ‘take my wife’ Youngman, Totie Fields (whose daughter, Jody, was a friend of mine back then), and the various “Jacks and Jackies" (Carter, Mason, and Vernon, for example). Some associate it with the crooners who entertained at the hotels. Singers who included: Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé, Neil Sedaka, Louis Prima and Keely Smith, and possibly the various “Bobbies” (Vee, Vinton, and maybe even the late, great Darrin, though I couldn’t say for sure).
Others think of the movies, Dirty Dancing or Marjorie Morningstar when they think of the Catskills and perhaps, to some, the Catskill Mountains connotes nothing more than an association with stories written by Washington Irving. Stories such as Rip Van Winkle.
But to someone raised in New York during a certain period of time, any reference to the Catskill Mountains evokes so much more. A little background information is in order here. The Catskills of which I’m speaking is actually the southern western portion, an area of about 250 miles located in upstate New York in Sullivan and Ulster counties. When the 81 Hwy replaced Rte 17, what was once a day long journey northwest of New York City, became a much more tolerable one and a half hour drive. (I remember these winding drives vividly since, as a child, I was prone to motion sickness).
How did it all begin? In the late 1800’s, early 1900’s, some Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, left the tenements of the Lower East Side behind and migrated to the farmlands of the C.M. When word of the beautiful scenery and fresh air got back to their friends and relatives, others decided that they too would like to escape to “the Mountains” if only for a week or two. Italian families seemed to prefer the Poconos.
By the thirties, enterprising Jewish farmers were turning their farmhouses into summer boarding houses, where city dwellers would have the opportunity to feast on clean air and farm fresh food. I recall my mother speaking fondly of the summers she spent as a girl on “Mrs. Sandler’s farm”.
After WWII, bungalow colonies sprang up throughout the area. By today’s standards, these small summer communities offered little in the way of amusement: A baseball diamond, a swimming pool (whose only luxury feature was a diving board), a stroll down a country road laden with blueberry bushes, and a “casino”. The so called casino was home to pinochle and mahjong players during the day and to those wanting to listen or dance to a jukebox by night. Simple pleasures, yes. But people came in droves.
They came to towns called Ellenville and Liberty and Monticello and S. Fallsburg. They drove up in cars and station wagons and rented hacks loaded down with everything but the kitchen sink and they usually stopped along the way at the Red Apple Rest (a great place to snack on Drake’s Pound Cake). Some stayed for two weeks, others for two months.
Often, the wife and kids remained throughout the week and dad would drive up on a Friday night to spend the weekend before returning on Sunday. Incidentally, these weekly separations occasionally resulted in a “seven year itch” of sorts. Some husbands took the opportunity of dallying with their secretaries while on their own in the city and there were wives who got ‘up close and personal’ with the young men tending the pools.
The heyday of the Catskills was in the fifties and sixties, tapering off in the seventies.
By now, resorts had taken hold and hotels such as the Concord and Grossinger’s put the C.M. on the map, so to speak. Single men and women chose The Mountains as a destination when seeking romantic rendezvous, and college students worked summers as waiters, busboys, and counselors; the money made in tips helped put some of them through school.
An average couple might vacation with their children for a week or two. For one set price (this was before Club Med, mind you) they would get a room, three incredible meals a day (it would take an entire essay to describe the food), supervised care for their children from 7:30AM to 8:30 PM (and free, babysitting “night patrol”). They didn’t even dine with their kids – how’s that for a vacation? Amenities varied from hotel to hotel but could include: golf, discos, indoor ice-skating, spas, and horseback riding, to say nothing of the phenomenal nightly entertainment. (Sammy Davis Jr., Billy Crystal, Lucille Ball, Don Rickles, Barbra Streisand – the list is endless).
I spent many summers in the Catskills, both as a guest and as a counselor at various hotels. Though I didn’t go, I was there during Woodstock, which was only a few miles away. Once, I was the counselor for the young daughter of a “wiseguy” (he tipped very handsomely by the way). When Stiller and Meara performed one weekend, my cousin had charge of their son, Ben.
I’m told that there are still a few hotels in the area up and running, and it might be interesting to see what they offer these days, but the phenomena of the C.M. as it existed years ago is gone.
So what made the Catskill experience fade away? A combination of things. Maybe it was because airline flights and cruises became more affordable, giving vacationers other options. Maybe it was the fact that central air-conditioning allowed city dwellers to tolerate their apartments. Or maybe it just wasn’t seen as ‘cool’ by upcoming generations. Some say that legalized gambling might have given the Mountains the shot in the arm it needed. All speculation.
Perhaps it just comes down to its having been a time and place that was only meant to exist when it did. How fortunate for those of us who were able to enjoy it.
I’ve included a list of some of the most popular resorts:
The Brickman Hotel
Brown’s Hotel (where Jerry Lewis got his start)
The Concord Hotel
The Raleigh Hotel
The Nevele Hotel
The Windsor Hotel
The Nemerson Hotel
The Stevensville Lake Hotel
The Pines Hotel
The Paramount Hotel
The Eldorado Hotel
Have a great weekend and thanks for joining me on this week's journey along,
RHODES LESS TRAVELED