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In the summer of 1949, 19-year-old Ruth Scheinfeld was hitchhiking with a friend to the Stevensville Hotel, just north of Monticello. Suddenly, though not entirely unexpectedly (it was the late ’40s, after all, a different era — a safer era), a car of young guys stopped to pick them up. The two girls, both rail thin and wearing heels, got in. A year later, Ruth married one of those guys, and by 1956, she and Jack Scheinfeld had two children and were spending summers immersed in the Catskills experience. They are the grandparents of Marisa Scheinfeld.
Jack worked in Manhattan during the week (he owned a fabric store on the Lower East Side) and joined his family at the bungalow colonies on the weekends. He played poker. His wife liked the nightlife. The couple went to the Concord for Jewish holidays and watched beauty contests at the pool. (The 1999 movie “A Walk on the Moon,” about a young housewife who rediscovers herself during the summer of 1969 at a Catskills bungalow colony, captured this experience perfectly.)
During the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, the Catskills claimed its place as one of the most popular leisure retreats in America. The region’s hotel industry spent around $4.1 million each year in new construction and guests spent $55 million in a single summer, according to New York Times reports in 1955 and 1954 respectively. Historically, Jews had not attended Christian resorts, and vice versa. Only as Jews assimilated and those ethnic barriers began to break down did the heyday reach its peak. By the 1960s, non-Jewish guests made up one-quarter to one-third of Grossinger’s annual visitors.
During this period of rapid expansion, larger resorts, like Grossinger’s and the Concord, sprawled across hundreds of acres. Each summer they jockeyed for big-name entertainers like Jerry Lewis, Sid Caesar and Red Buttons. Sports stars such as Jewish boxer Barney Ross and tennis pro Jack Kramer trained at the hotels, and future NBA stars such as Wilt Chamberlain and Bob Cousy played on the resorts’ basketball teams.
Under the large hotels’ shadow, smaller resorts and bungalow colonies thrived with family-sized staffs, a few buildings and a few acres of land. These modest retreats did not offer a full menu of entertainment, so their guests stimulated the local economies, visiting movie theaters, restaurants and shops.
Summering in the Catskills also presented an unrivaled social opportunity for throngs of young men and women: their sexual awakening.
“Every year, I had a new boyfriend,” recalled 59-year-old Jona Strauss, who works in fashion. Strauss grew up in Queens and started spending her summers in the Catskills in the 1950s. “Then you went home, and if you were a Queens girl and he was from Brooklyn, you were geographically undesirable,” she said.
Local kids caddied, worked in kitchens and served on wait staffs.
“I remember Monticello being just shoulder to shoulder with people on the streets into the wee hours,” said Conway, who spent his childhood working at his father’s gas station and romancing girls from the bungalows.
Phil Brown, 64, a professor of sociology and health sciences at Northeastern University, worked his way up, from busboy to waiter, at various Catskills hotels.
“As a young guy, it was very exciting to be there Friday nights,” he told the Forward. “Guests would check in, and you’d be waiting around for young girls to show up with their parents in the lobby, and meet them, and hope that they’d be interested in meeting you later and going to a show. It was like growing up quicker in an exciting, fast-paced way.”
Brown co-founded the Catskills Institute, which promotes research and education on Catskills history. “The whole culture of the hotels was very integrated. Black and white lived together and ate together in staff areas.”