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Introduction of the 2009 Edition of "It Happened in the Catskills"

Although most of the larger Catskill hotels had become year-round vacation destinations by the 1960's with indoor swimming pools, outdoor ice skating rinks, even ski slopes padded with (when nature refused to cooperate) artificial snow, the region remains locked in memory as a summer resort. To this day, when someone pulls up a particular Catskill recollection, more often than not it's preceded by the phrase "The summer of . . ."

For us, it was the summer of 1989, a particularly poignant time as Myrna's mother died June 9th of that year. Subsequently, we threw ourselves into the work before us -- gathering data for a history of the "Borscht Circuit" we had contracted to write for Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. And so it was that we spent many of the days and nights of the summer of 1989 up in the "Mountains," going from one hotel to another, stopping off at little bungalow colonies that were still in business, interviewing guests, proprietors, entertainers, boys in the band, tummlers, waiters, anyone with a story to tell -- and it seemed everyone we approached had a story to tell.

It was a helpful distraction from our loss. We became captivated by the people we spoke to, so distinctive in voice, so specific in recollection of detail, so accurate in description and evocation of time and place. Before long, we realized the story we were after was best told by them -- in their own voices, in their own words. Our job would be to transcribe the tapes, clear out the digressions and repetitions, decide what should go where, and then step back and let the narrative flow. After the book was published and a critic likened It Happened in the Catskills to "a conversation in a living room," we felt we had done our job.

It wasn't until some years later, however, after we had become de facto "oral historians," that we came to see how serendipitous our timing had been. Not only was the summer of 1989 a time when we needed to be involved in a project that would absorb our thoughts and energies, it was also a time when the story we were after was about to end. And to capture a phenomenon shortly before it disappears into the mists of memory, there may be no medium more effective than oral history.

Of course, none of this was apparent to us during the summer of 1989. The impending demise of the 100-year-old Catskill phenomenon was not articulated, and we saw little, if any, sign of it. Hotels were packed. The legendary Irving Cohen was still seating the minions in the cavernous Concord dining room. Lillian Brown was still bringing stars on the order of Jerry Lewis up to Brown's. Mal Z. Lawrence was still killing the crowd at Kutsher's with jokes about the endless Jewish appetite. True, the number of bungalow colonies and hotels had declined over the years. The overall age of guests was older than it used to be. And unbelievably, Grossinger's, the fabled pink castle on the hill, had recently closed down, although there were new owners on the site, and plans for a bigger and better Grossinger's were already underway.  

When two years later, "Catskills on Broadway," starring four of the best of Borscht Circuit stand-up comics, opened to an SRO crowd  at the Lunt Fontanne, the audience convulsed with laughter from the moment Freddie Roman stepped onstage until Mal Z. brought the house down.

Nevertheless, through the 1990s, hotels folded, one after the other. The Concord closed mid-decade. When in 1998, Milton Kutsher, the last of the old lions who had been around from the early days, died, it was the tolling of the bell.      

Today only a few of the old palaces still stand and, for the most part, they're for sale or already sold, re-named, having taken on new identities. The region, of course, remains. It has retreats, spas, wellness resorts, many second homes. But the Catskills -- as it was to those who frequented it down the decades of the 20th century -- it's not.

So, the summer of 1989 had been a twilight season. At the same time, it was  possibly the last season when the entire chronology of this singular sub-culture was still part of living memory. And there we were, just at the moment when it was possible to meet and talk to people who collectively had lived through the  whole long run.

They ranged from Dave Levinson who told us about growing up at Tamarack Lodge which his parents opened the summer of 1903, to Charles Brett, a retired stockbroker, who remembered traveling with his  grandmother from Brooklyn to a kochalayn in Mountain Dale by subway, ferry boat, railroad and horse-drawn buggy the summer of 1919, to Cantor Chaskele Ritter who recalled the small hotel his family went to in Parksville where his grandfather was the resident shocket (ritual slaughterer) during the summers of the 1920s, to Eddie Fisher who re-lived being "discovered" by Eddie Cantor at Grossinger's the summer of 1949, to Neil Sedaka who reminisced about being a piano player at a small Monticello hotel where he fell in love with (and later married) the owner's daughter the summer of 1958, to Errol Dante who remembered the night Judy Garland gave her comeback concert at the Concord the summer of 1961, to boxing promoter Irving Rudd who brought Muhammad Ali up to train at the Concord the summer of 1976, to Fred Gasthalter, owner of the Paramount in Parksville, who told us about a little old lady who had come up to his hotel this very summer of 1989 to see once again the place where she'd spent the summers of her youth: 1913 to 1917.

That was it. The whole geshecht (story).  The entire tale from beginning to end.

Snatched from the edge of oblivion, recounted, recorded, assembled and preserved, here -- in the words of those who lived it -- is what happened in the Catskills.

#  #  #

You can reach Harvey Frommer at:   

Email:  harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU 

About the Author:

Harvey Frommer is in his  38th year of writing books. A noted oral historian and sports journalist, the author of 42 sports books including the classics: "New York City Baseball,1947-1957" and "Shoeless Joe and Ragtime Baseball," his acclaimed REMEMBERING YANKEE STADIUM was published in 2008 and his REMEMBERING FENWAY PARK: AN ORAL AND NARRATIVE HISTORY OF THE HOME OF RED SOX NATION was published to acclaim in 2011.  The prolific Frommer is at work on When It Was Just a Game, An Oral History on Super Bowel One. 

His work has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, New York Daily News, Newsday, USA Today, Men's Heath, The Sporting News, among other publications.

FROMMER SPORTSNET (syndicated) reaches a readership in the millions and is housed on Internet search engines for extended periods of time.
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Dr. Frommer is the Official Book Reviewer of Travel-Watch. 
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Harvey Frommer along with his wife, Myrna Katz  Frommer are the authors of five critically acclaimed oral/cultural histories, professors at Dartmouth  College, and travel writers who specialize in cultural history, food, wine, and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. 

This Article is Copyright 1995 - 2014 by Harvey Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.


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