Monday, 25 March 2013

Borcht Belt memories

Lou Godstein, left, leading a game of 'Simon Says' at Grossinger's in 1985. He worked at Grossinger's from 1948 until it closed in 1986 as a tummler, keeping hotel guests amused. 

Lou Goldstein, borscht-belt master of 'Simon Says', dies at 90

written by Joseph Berger in 15 April 2012 for The New York Times.

Lou Goldstein was the consummate tummler, one of a zany species of entertainer who kept them laughing, or tried to, long ago in the borscht belt hotels of the Catskills.

A tummler (pronounced toom-ler) - the job title comes from a Yiddish word for someone who stirs up tumult or excitement - was a jack-of-all-trades social director who was supposed to amuse the hotel guests with jokes, songs and shtick that might be better described as slapshtick, as they sat by the pool, emerged from lunch or headed for bingo. 

Perhaps the classic illustration was given by Mel Brooks, himself a former tummler.

'A tummler wakes up the Jews when they fall asleep around the poor after lunch,' Mr Brooks said. 'One of the things I had to do as the pool tummler was, I used to do an act. I worwe a derby and an alpaca coat, and I would carry two rock-laden cardboard suitcases and go to the edge of the diving board and say, 'Business is no good!' and jump off.' 

But Mr. Goldstein was moren than a tummler. He was also probably the most famous impresario of Simon Says, a commanding figure (in a manner of speaking) in a game beloved by children as well as adults when they're in a playful mood; his act appeared on national TV and in sports arenas (at halftime). 

Perhaps the classic illustriation was given by Mel Brooks, himself a former tummler.

"A tummler wakes up the Jews when they fall asleep around the pool after lunch," Mr. Brooks said. "One of the things I had to do as the pool tummler was, I used to do an act. I wore a derby and an alpaca coat, and I would carry two rock-laden cardboard suitcases and go to the edge of the diving board and say, 'Business is no good!' and jump off."

But Mr. Goldstein was more than a tummler. He was also probably the most famoous impresario of Simon Says, a commanding figure (in a manner of speaking) in a game beloved by children as well as adults when they're in a playful mood; his act appeared on national TV and in sports arenas (at halftime). 

He died in 2 April 2012, at the age of 90 and had lived in Liberty, N.Y., at the southern edge of his beloved Catskill Mountains. His wife, Jackie Horner, said the cause was complications of Parkinson's disease.

Mr. Goldstein, a slender six-footer, performed his antics at Grosssinger's, perhaps the premier Catskills resort, from 1948 until the hotel closed in 1986. He'd hold absurd exercise classes. He' have a circle of grown men don silly hats and maneuver them onto one another's heads, with one hand and without letting the hats tumble to the ground. He'd tell jokes during pauses in a diving exhibition, or tell stories on tours of the Grossinger's grounds and kitchens (one for meat and one for dairy).

"He used to joke that the tour was 45 minutes and all downhill," said Douglas Lyons, 64, a lawyer and son of the columnist Leonard Lyons. The younger Mr. Lyons went to Grossinger's every summer from the time he was a baby until 1980, and Mr. Goldstein, he said, was the annual highlight.

In addition to Mr. Brooks, world-class comedians like Danny Kaye, Sid Caesar and Red Buttons put in summers as tummlers, according to 'The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America', by Lawrence J. Epstein. 

Mr. Goldstein did stand-up routines as well, Ms. Horner recalled, more than a few with borrowed jokes. There was the one about the mother whose son excitedly announces that he has been picked for the part of the Jewish husband in a school play. The mother replies, "You tell the teacher you want a speaking part."

But his forte became the Simon Says routines. (He spelled it Simon Sez.) Contestants stayed in the game as long as they did only what Simon told them to do, of course, and Mr. Goldstein, with a rapid-fire delivery was masterly at tricking them into doing what Simon had actually kept mum about.

As his renown spread, he began performing the act on "Wide World of Sports," "The Mike Douglas Show," ABC's "Superstars" and other TV shows, sometimes with sports celebrities like Reggie Jackson. He carried his act to halftime at professional basketball games, cruise ships and corporate and charity events like the Special Olympics.

"Simon says, move to your right," he would tell a group, or, "Simon says, jump up in the air," then whisper to a too-satisfied participant, "By the way, what's your name?" When the person answered, Mr. Goldstein would reply in a mock gruff voice. "You're out!"

Corny as it was, there was something about his patter, with its grumpy Yiddish inflection, that charmed. 

"They watched him more than listened to him, and if you watched him he would do the opposite and you would be out," Ms. Horner said. 

For his talents, Mr. Goldstein earned $600 a week and room and board at a hotel whose Jewish dishes were legendary for both their taste and their size. At one point the singer Eddie Fisher was his roommate.

Mr. Goldstein, the son of a taylor, was born in 8 September 1921, in a small town outside Warsaw. The family immigrated when he was 5 and settled in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn.

He was a basketball standout at Eastern District High School in Brooklyn and Long Island University. When the Catskills hotels started basketball tournaments to entertain guests, Grossinger' recruited him. And when he proved adept at other forms of entertainment, the hotel signed him up as its tummler

Ms. Horner, who was a consultant and something of an inspiration for 'Dirty Dancing', the 1987 film about a mountain resort not too different from Grossinger's, said she and Mr. Goldstein met when she came there as a dance instructor. They married at Grossinger's in 1960 and lived at the hotel, in Liberty, N.Y. for the many years they worked there. They stayed onin the town afterward.

Ms. Horner, her husband's only immediate survivor, has always enjoyed repeating some of Mr. Goldstein's tummler jokes, like the one about the wife who tells her husband after a bitter argument that when he dies she's going to dance on his grave. The husband goes to his lawyer the next day and asks for a new clause in his will. He wants to be buried at sea. 

Irving Cohen, Major-Domo in Catskills, dies at 95

written by Margalit Fox in 3 October 2012, for The New York Times. 

Irving Cohen, who was known as King Cupid of the Catskills for his canny ability to seat just the right nice Jewish boy next to just the right nice Jewish girl during his half-century as the maître d' of the Concord Hotel, died on Monday at his homes in Boca Raton, Fla. He was 95. His son Bob confirmed the death. 

By all accounts, Mr. Cohen, the borscht belt's longest-serving maître d'hôtel, worked at the Concord, in Kiamesha Lake, N.Y., from his early 20s until he was in his early 80s. He would have worked there longer, he said, had the hotel not closed in 1996. 

Officially, Mr. Cohen presided over three meals a day in the vast kosher empire that was the Concord dinning room, helping thousands of patrons navigate its towering shoals of gefilte fish, pot roast, potato pudding and a great deal else. 

Unofficially (though only just), he was the matchmaker for a horde of hopefuls, who flocked to the Catskills ostensibly for shuffleboard and Sammy Davis Jr. but in actuality to eat, drink, marry and be fruitful and multiply, generally in that order. 

Thanks to Mr. Cohen, many did. In the 1940s, he paired the Concord's original clientele. In the '60s, he paired their children. And in the '80s, he paired their children's children. It is no exaggeration, Bob Cohen said Tuesday, to say that thousands of marriages resulted from his father's sharp-eyed ministrations.

And thus, simply by doing his job - which combined Holmesian deductive skill with Postian etiquette and a touch of cryptographic cloack and dagger - Mr. Cohen single-handedly helped perpetuaate a branch of American Jewry.

Irving Jay Cohen was born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan on 11 May 1917. After graduating from Seward Park High School, he found work as a busboy at Grossinger's, another well-known Catskills resort. He eventually became a waiter there, serving the likes of John Garfield (né Jacob Julius Garfinkle), Milton Berle, Eddie Cantor and Irving Berlin.  

Mr. Cohen joined the Concord as a waiter in the late 1930s. In 1943, he became the maître d', commanding a dining room that seated more than 3,000. Before long, he was taking phone calls from a multitude of mothers, who beseeched him to seat their eligible daughters beside eligible young men.

Corresponding calls from mothers of sons were rarer, Mr. Cohen said, though not unknown. For making matches, Mr. Cohen relied on his keen ability to suss out subjects at a glance. Age, sex and marital status were of crucial concern, of course, but so too were occupation, tax bracket and geography. 

"You got to pair them by states and even from the same cities," Mr. Cohen told The Daily News in 1967. "If they come from different places, the doll is always afraid the guy will forget her as soon as he gets home."

To keep track of demographic information, Mr. Cohen used a specially built pegboard, 10 feet long, on which each of the Concord's hundreds of dining tables was represented by a circle. Around each circle was a set of holes, and as Mr. Cohen seated each diner, he stuck the appropriate hole with a colour-coded peg - pink for single young women, blue for single young men, white for older people and several other colours denoting characteristics so secret they appear to have been known only to him. 

Though Mr. Cohen plied his trade well into the computer age, the pegboard endured. "Can a computer get to the human element?" he said in the Daily News interview. "I ask you, can a nice widown, maybe a little on the plump side, but nice, can she tell all her aches and dreams to a computer? Never!"

Mr. Cohen's first wife, the former Sarah Berzon, whom he married in 1944, died in 1982. He is survived by his second wife, Christine Golia; 3 children from his 1st marriage, Bob, Arnie and Barbara Cohen Parness; 2 stepsons, Ed and Christopher Ventrice; and grandchildren, step-grandchildren and great-granchildren.

Mr. Cohen's dining-room savvy extended far beyond matters of the heart. As he recounted in the 1991 book "It Happened in the Catskills," by Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer, he was accosted one night by a guest, purple with rage.

"My wife almost choked," the man told him. "I'm going to sue the hotel for a million dollars." The offending object was a small metal tag, called a plumba, affixed to meat to identify it as kosher. The tags were normally removed before cooking, but this one, on a chicken, had been overlooked.

"What's your name?," Mr. Cohen asked the woman harriedly. "Your address?"

He raced to the dining-room microphone. "Ladies and gentlemen," he intoned. "Mr. and Mrs. Sam Weistein from Cedarhurst, Long Island, have just won a bottle of Champagne. Mrs. Weinstein is the lucky lady who wound up with the chicken with the plumb."

gorgeous swimming pool at the Kutschers in the early 60s. 
Floyd Patterson at Kutshers in 1958.
Duke Ellington swings with Jack Landman at Kutsher's in this photo from the Catskills Institute.

Mark, Helen & Milton Kutsher in the summer of 1977. 

Milton Kutsher, Catskills hotelier, dies at 82


22 November 1998

Milton Kutsher, who built Kutsher's Country Club into one of the leading resorts in the Catskills and kept it successful even as many other top hotels in the region lost their allure in the 1980's and 90's, died Monday in Monticello, N.Y. He was 82 years old.

Mr. Kutsher's life spanned the rise and fall of the grand Catskills resorts. He was born in Monticello in 1916, when the region was still a sleepy little mountain enclave of rooming houses where Jews in the garment trade could escape the summer heat of the city for ''the good air.'' 

By the middle of the century, the Catskills were world famous as the Borscht Belt, a place of large, often luxurious hotels and resorts where urban vacationers, mostly Jews still hemmed in socially by anti-Semitism, could relax and unwind, entertained by the most famous names in show business. By the time he died, the Catskills were in decline, a region seemingly made vestigial by jet planes, air-conditioning and the loosening of religion-based restrictions.

But while other resorts like Grossinger's, the Concord and Brown's have gone out of business or declared bankruptcy, Kutsher's continues to prosper, a tribute, many say, to Mr. Kutsher's vision.

He bound Kutsher's closely to big-time sports, attracting heavyweight boxers like Ezzard Charles and Rocky Marciano, who used Kutsher's as a training base in the 1950's. Professional basketball players still come to Kutsher's for the annual Maurice Stokes exhibition game, which raises money for needy former N.B.A. players and is now in its 41st year.

Amateur sports was a major attraction in the Catskills. Resorts would field basketball teams made up of staff members and compete against one another, drawing visitors up from the city to watch (and bet) on the games. Mr. Kutsher was an expert at hiring the best high school and college players to work summers, like a skinny high school student named Wilt Chamberlain, who worked there as a bellhop in the early 1950's.

''When I got Wilt, I was looking around for the right coach to work with him,'' Mr. Kutsher recalled years later. A guest told him about a man who had once coached his son, and might need a job. ''That's how I got Red Auerbach to coach Kutsher's basketball team,'' Mr. Kutsher said of the man who would later gain fame as the coach of the Boston Celtics.

Like the other resorts, Kutsher's in the 1960's had a roster of comedians like Shecky Greene and Alan King, but as the years passed Mr. Kutsher tried to keep the acts current. Until his television show took off, Jerry Seinfeld was a frequent performer at Kutsher's, said Mr. Kutsher's daughter Mady Prowler.

''This is one of the few resorts that continues to attract a crowd,'' said Myrna Katz Frommer, who, with her husband, Harvey Frommer, wrote ''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 Jovanovich, 1991). ''It's a very special place in that it has a true family feel. It's luxurious without being tacky, and he never allowed it to get run down.''

Through it all, Mr. Kutsher and his wife, the former Helen Wasser, were a constant, visible presence. They appeared at every meal, and they remembered the names of their guests. ''If she saw a piece of paper on the floor, she'd pick it up,'' Ms. Frommer said. ''She'd say, 'This is my home.' ''

Mr. Kutsher represented the second generation in his family to operate Kutsher's, which was founded by his father and uncle in 1907. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 1937 and serving in the Army in the Pacific during World War II, he returned to Monticello and took over Kutsher's, expanding it from a small operation into one of the region's biggest resorts; it now has 410 rooms.

Mr. Kutsher made sure that his children also became involved, and today his son, Mark Kutsher, runs Kutsher's with Helen Kutsher. In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Kutsher is survived by two daughters, Ms. Prowler of Philadelphia and Karen Wilson of Bryn Mawr, Pa., and seven grandchildren.

Besides the country club, Mr. Kutsher also ran Kutsher's Sport Academy and a summer camp for children, and was a trustee of the National Basketball Association Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.

One thing Mr. Kutsher did not like was the term Borscht Belt. ''I don't think he liked the idea that a place was depicted by a soup,'' Ms. Prowler said. ''He thought it sounded too cliquish and closed off to the world, though he had no problem with it being known as a Jewish resort.''

Helen Kutsher in 2002. 

Helen Kutsher, pampering matriarch of a grand Borscht Belt resort, dies at 89

by Joseph Berger, written for The New York Times - 23 March 2013. 

Helen Kutsher, the matriarch of the last of the grand Catskill resorts, who greeted guests with a “Welcome home,” made sure the regulars got rooms facing the lake, entertained them with comedians and filled them with blintzes and stuffed cabbage, died on Tuesday in Philadelphia. She was 89 and lived most of her life in Monticello, N.Y., in a house on the grounds of the hotel.
Her daughter Karen Wilson confirmed the death.

In the heyday of the summertime Catskills, the largest, liveliest resorts included legendary names like Grossinger’s, the Concord, Brown’s and Kutsher’s Country Club, and all but Kutsher’s have closed. They, along with hundreds of smaller hotels, drew a summertime avalanche of guests — mostly Jewish — to what was fondly known as the borscht belt. Kutsher’s is still owned by the family that opened it more than 100 years ago, though three years ago it was leased to another operator.

The secret to the longevity of many of these palaces was a motherly figure who made guests feel pampered. Jennie Grossinger and Helen Kutsher were models of the breed.

“The only way you could make a hotel work is to be a warm, gracious hostess,” said Phil Brown, who grew up as the son of a hotelier to become a sociology professor at Northeastern University and to write two books about the Catskills. “You had to make people feel this was their home away from home, because the truth was, they could go farther away and find a fancier hotel. What would bring them back was that the hotel felt like a place their parents and grandparents could have gone to.”

Kutsher’s had shuffleboard, bingo, indoor and outdoor pools, poolside dancing, an 18-hole golf course, a ski hill, an ice-skating rink open even in summer, and tummlers, the high-spirited provocateurs whose job was to keep the guests amused, or just occupied, with various high jinks.

The hotel had the full cholesterol-be-damned panoply of East European cuisine. In the early days the waiters were often Jewish students; they were later replaced by Latinos, who imitated the patter and shtick of their predecessors. Big tippers were known to get a second heaping of the entree on the sly.

The nightclub featured performers like Milton Berle, Mel Brooks, Joan Rivers, Jackie Mason, Jerry Seinfeld, Harry Belafonte, Billy Crystal and Tony Bennett. Mrs. Kutsher knew them all and wouldn’t hesitate to call one up as a last-minute replacement for an act that had failed to show.
About a decade ago, the hotel called the comedian Alan King at the last minute. He obliged. Flourishing his trademark unlit cigar, he began his act by telling the audience, “Welcome to the end of my career.”

The business side was overseen by her husband, Milton, who loved schmoozing with sports stars and local power brokers. One of his hires, for hotel athletic director, was a young Red Auerbach, who went on to coach the Boston Celtics. Milton and Helen also had a lifelong friendship with Wilt Chamberlain, who had worked at the hotel as a bellhop.

“They were his second set of parents,” said Mark Kutsher, Helen’s son and the hotel’s last president.

Milton Kutsher died in 1998. In addition to her son and daughter, Mrs. Kutsher is survived by another daughter, Mady Prowler; seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

She was born Helen Wasser on 11 July  1923, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. She went up to Kutsher’s, which was founded as the Kutsher Brothers Farm House in 1907, as a 10-year-old after her mother had died. Relatives felt that she and her brother Joe could benefit from time in the country. Helen became a favorite of Rebecca Kutsher, the widow of founder Max Kutsher, and introduced Rebecca to her widowed father, Sam. The grown-ups married, and Helen spent the rest of her childhood at Kutsher’s — and then never left.

She attended Monticello High School and what is now the State University of New York at Delhi. She married Milton Kutsher, Rebecca’s nephew, in 1946. The young couple joined the family business.

Ms. Wilson said her mother was the face of the hotel. It was Mrs. Kutsher, soignée with her trademark scarf, who would see to the guests’ contentment, circulating around the dining room, recognizing wedding anniversaries in the hotel newsletter, sending food baskets up to rooms, and, until a few years ago, handling reservations so she could make sure that regulars got the lakeside views year after year.

Fastidious, she would pick litter off the carpet or admonish a staff member, “It’s on your side.” She coached her staff members — some 400 — on greeting guests, advising them always to look a customer in the eye. Neat attire and well-coiffed hair were mandatory.

“No beards, she didn’t like beards, ” her daughter said. “She taught them how to be a mensch.”

Julius Slutsky, Nevele Hotel founder, dies at 94.

9 April 2006.

Ellenville, N.Y. Retired owner and operator of the Nevele Country Club, passed away on Friday, 7 April 2006, at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach, Fla. He was 94. 

Julius Slutsky was born in 9 February 1912, the son of Joseph and Yetta Rubin Slutsky, in a farmhouse just south of Ellenville, then known as the Nevele Falls Farm.

Later, with his parents and his brother, Ben, they expanded a small summer hotel known as the Nevele Mansion into The Nevele Country Club, one of the premiere hotels of the Catskills resort area.

A 1972 article in the Times Herald-Record credited him and his brother Ben, with developing the Nevele into one of the 'big three' resorts in the region, in addition to the Concord and Grossingers. "They really expanded it into what it is today," said David Slutsky, who ran the hotel until the family sold it in 1997. It now is called the Nevele Grand.

His father and other hotel owners helped form the Monticello Raceway as a means of attracting more guests to the area, he said. Julius Slutsky was a big man, standing 6 feet tall and weighing about 200 pounds. But his son most remembers his hands.

"He had big hands from working on the farm. As a kid, I worried if he ever hit me. He never did," David Slutsky said. "He was so kind and gentle and wise. He only wanted to protect us all the time."

Even at 94 and bearing the complications of congestive heart problems, his father went to Disney World and other places.

Perhaps the darkest moments for Julius Slutsky came in the early 1970s. The federal government charged him and his brother, Ben, with income tax evasion. They both spent time about a year in jails as a result.

David Slutsky, a lawyer, said that incident was a travesty. "My father bore that burden like Hercules. It never should have happened... My father was so amazing." 

He was a member of Congregation Ezrath Israel Synagogue, serving as its President for 19 years. Funeral services today, 9 April 2006, at 1 PM, in Congregation Ezrath Israel Synagogue, Ellenville, N.Y. Burial in Ezrath Israel Cemetery, Wawarsing.

He is survived by his 3 sons, Jeffrey, Richard and David, and his daughters-in-law, Lynn, Robin and Natalie, his 8 grand-children: Vicki, Jason & wife, Courtney, Adam & wife, Tracy, Sande, Kim Papke and her husband, Kevin, Amanda and Jordan; and his great-grand-daughter, Lilah; his cousin, Jeanette Shildkret, as well as many nieces and nephews. He was predeceased by his wife of 55 years, Alice; his brother, Ben Slutsky, and his sister, Lillian Regenbogen. 


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