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The Catskills heyday also launched a generation of comedians into the big leagues.
“This was a stepping stone for any entertainer,” said Mal Z. Lawrence, who got his start on Catskills stages before graduating to the Copacabana, Las Vegas, Broadway and the movies (he played himself in “A Walk on the Moon”). “We had a place to express ourselves, make good money and become somebody in the business.”
In the final scene of the 1987 film “Dirty Dancing,” set in 1963 at a fictional resort in the Catskills, Max Kellerman, the resort owner, stands backstage during the end-of-summer show. Peering out at his guests — an audience of gray-haired couples, parents and semi-bored teenagers — he sighs wistfully: “It all seems to be ending. You think kids want to come with their parents to take foxtrot lessons? Trips to Europe! That’s what the kids want.”
When people talk about the beginning of the end of the Catskills, they often blame the three A’s: air conditioning, which cooled off hot New York summers; the airline industry, which made it easier to vacation abroad, and assimilation, which brought a new era of acceptance for Jews. Yet the story of the region’s decline is more complicated.
By the late 1960s, the biggest resorts, such as the Pines and Grossinger’s, had expanded so much that guests had no reason to leave — until it was time to go home. This success had a downside: Smaller hotels attempted to keep up by spending money they didn’t have. Many fell into disrepair and eventually shut down.
“The area died, and people didn’t want to come up here anymore,” Conway said.
The Catskills were also not immune to the social and political upheavals of the 1960s and ‘70s. Economic prosperity, the Cultural Revolution and the anti-war movement reduced the appeal of the area for a new generation of young adults that had other visions of vacation and family life. The ’70s and ’80s brought yoga retreats and ashrams as well as drug rehabilitation centers and health care facilities. Then the Orthodox Jews arrived, founding yeshivas and buying up inexpensive land. Today, tourists visit the Museum at Bethel Woods, which celebrates the 1969 Woodstock Music & Art Fair, and New Yorkers who have been priced out of the Hamptons have discovered more affordable retreats.
Still, the area that once housed America’s great vacation destination is struggling to find its new identity. “Jews made this area very unique. It was the Borscht Belt! The Catskills! The entertainers!” said Alan Barrish, who co-founded the Catskills Institute and worked as the director of the Monticello Public Library for 25 years. His father, Abe Barrish, was the longest-running maître d’ at Kutsher’s. “Now they have the Orthodox Jews…. They certainly support local businesses, but it’s a whole different feel and culture.”
On a Friday morning in August, I took the 8:00 a.m. New York City bus to Monticello, 100 miles north of Manhattan, past billboards for kosher food brands and Torah study groups; past rundown motels, gas stations and fast-food joints, and into the heart of what’s left of the Borscht Belt.
At the Monticello bus stop, I found Scheinfeld wearing loose, baggy clothes — perfect for a day of exploring the Grossinger’s ruins. It’s a far more dangerous pursuit than I had imagined. The original buildings, at least what’s left of them, are in such a state of disrepair — sunken floors, caving ceilings, broken glass, crumbling foundations — that it’s not particularly safe to enter. There are also squatters, vandals and scrappers who traipse through, unannounced.