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Tag Archives: Borscht Belt

The Time Of Their Lives

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.

 
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Posted by on April 16, 2012 in Cultural Critique, Travel

 

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Shot Out Of A Cannon

The first person who dropped an olive into a martini or mixed chocolate with peanut butter?  They got nothing on Jim Caruso, who dreamed up the musical partnering of Aaron Weinstein and Christine Ebersole.  Birdland was packet to the rafters last night for this musically stunning, and very funny, cabaret of standards and bebop.

The premise of the show is Mr. Weinstein’s assertion that the violin is the instrument closest to the human voice.  The evening was ostensibly an array of duets featuring Mr. Weinstein’s violin (and electric mandolin!) and Ms. Ebersole’s voice.  The melding was such that on three separate occasions, I searched for Ms. Ebersole’s back-up singers.  Suffice it to say, Mr. Weinstein was right.

Perhaps upon first glance, one might be inclined to see more differences than similarities in this pairing.  Ms. Ebersol (Grey Gardens, 42nd Street) is a Tony award winning Broadway, film and television actress. She has some very impressive experience under her fashionable belt.   Mr. Weinstein (b.1985) is somewhat new to the scene.  Often compared to Groucho Marx, his stage presence and banter belie his age. The genius in this pairing is both musical and personal.  Never have any two people had such fun performing together!  They are both some of the best in their musical class and possess a delightful dry wit.  But oh, it’s their music.

Each time I have seen Mr. Weinstein perform, I am bowled over.  Perhaps jazz violin has been played like this before, but not in my recollection.   Ms. Ebersole is in ridiculously splendid voice.  She growled, purred, soared and even did a little Borscht Belt ditty.  Looking gorgeous and at ease, she confessed that after only two days of rehearsal, she felt shot out of a cannon.  Nothing about this show felt rushed or thrown together.  The evening was a lovely balance of (very funny) repartee and a gorgeous collection of incredibly interpreted music.  A great deal of care was taken to steer clear of any hint of a star solo act.  Ms. Ebersole seemed tickled to share the stage and spotlight and it payed off wonderfully.

As much as their beautiful music is still playing in my mind, its the beauty of the collaboration itself which will stay with me.  How wonderfully creative to pair these two, and what spectacular results!  Producing a creative show which artistically takes a chance will always get a standing ovation from me.

 
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Posted by on November 28, 2011 in Theatre

 

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