There was a time when the Catskills were the summer destination of thousands of New Yorkers. The bungalows and hotels of the area were known collectively as The Borscht Belt, as the clientele was predominantly Jewish. Some families came for the entire season (the father coming up for the weekend) others for a week or two. The heyday was in the 1940s and 1950s, and started to ebb in the 1960s. Tastes change, the world changed. Today, middle and working class families rarely vacation together for an entire season. Private space is far more coveted than communal living and/or dining. The grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the Catskills take their families to the Hamptons, The Rockaways or down the shore.
A few of the Catskill’s famed physical structures still remain and have been converted for modern use, with varying degrees of success. But looking at them, it is not possible to even begin to imagine what that world was like. At least two movies (A Walk on the Moon and Dirty Dancing) capture the mood and social dynamics of both the bungalow world (A Walk on the Moon) and the resort (Dirty Dancing) world of the Catskills. There were two hallmarks of the Catskill experience; the food and the entertainment. Comedians, singers, musicians and dancers made a steady and hefty chunk of change by “playing the circuit” every summer. Few remember these icons of their time. Perhaps the exceptions would be Woody Allen and Joan Rivers. Almost everyone who had a hand in creating television (and by “creating” I mean ‘inventing the very concept of programming”) played the Belt; Milton Berle, Carl Reiner, Burns and Allen, Sid Caesar, Molly Berg. Theatre people played the Catskills too; Betty Garrett, Camden and Green, Molly Picon, Fanny Brice. All the big names played the Catskills; it was close to the city and it wasn’t a bad way to make some real money.
The entertaining in the Catskills went beyond the stage however. A tummeler (pronounced: toom-e-ler) was the court jester of their day. Tummelers were jovial, extroverted fellows whose primary job was to get the party started. They cajoled people into gaiety, usually while wearing something quirky. The recent death of Lou Goldstein, a tummeler’s tummeler if there ever was one, may be the last bit of spark to sputter from the Borscht Belt ash. (You may remember seeing Lou on daytime talk shows in the 1970s. He was famous for his Simon Says.)
The Catskills (as they once were) are gone and they’re not coming back, but tummelers are still doing quite well. Have you been to a Bar or Bat Mitzvah in the past 25 years? You can’t swing a rubber chicken without hitting some festooned guy or gal encouraging middle-aged guests to drop it like it’s hot. (Twenty-five years ago, Aunt Shirley was being told she was too sexy for her shirt.) The good news for tummelers is that the gigs are now all year long and women may apply.
It is interesting that the tummeler is the only thing to emerge from the rubble of the Borscht Belt. Seasonal communities don’t exist in the same manner. They do exist in an ad hoc manner, but not as a large collective and certainly not with the same degree of familiarity. Actors, musicians, comedians and the like, have nowhere to earn a stable income while perhaps trying out new material and cultivating new audiences. Performers were able to work (and play) with their friends and sometimes make enough money to make it through a lean year. Yes, today some do work cruise lines and casinos, but those are finely choreographed shows and are usually reserved for the boldest faced names on the B list.
There are new ways for entertainers to breakout and find new audiences, online and off. The proliferation of televised contests assures that a new finely coached belter/wailer will be discovered every week. Comedians have their pick of new media as well as consistent traditional outlets (someone will always have to prep live audiences to laugh at tepid television shows.) But what may never be replicated is a place for performers of different genres to perform in the same place at the same time. Like the Catskill guest experience, it’s the collective that will be missed.