The former Kutsher's Hotel and Country Club in 2013. Photo by Flickr user Forsaken Fotos.
I suppose we could say Jerry Seinfeld is returning to his roots when he plays an upcoming gig in the Catskills. He certainly is returning to mine.
I was in the last generation of non-Orthodox Jewish kids from New York City who spent summers at a “bungalow colony” in the hills roughly 90 miles northwest of the city. Through most of the middle 20th century, but especially in the 25 years following World War II, moms and kids would spend about eight weeks in the unwinterized, one- or two-room cottages that often started as a sideline by Jewish farmers before turning into the main family business. Fathers would stay in the city to work during the week, then clog the highways on Friday night as they joined spouses and offspring for weekends of beer, baseball and barbecues. At least, that’s the part that we kids saw.
Initially, a big impetus for this ritual was to get the children away from crowded and sweltering tenements before polio swept through in its annual peak season. I am just young enough to have escaped the polio terror; we were given Salk vaccine, as it was called, on sugar cubes in kindergarten and the lower grades. It took a while for the custom of bungalow colonies to fade away from secular Jewish life. But by the 1970s, it was more common for mothers to join their husbands in the work force, while jet transportation brought exotic destinations like Walt Disney World and Puerto Rico into reach for middle-class families. Many of the bungalow colonies closed, while others were acquired by Orthodox Jewish groups and continued to cater to their more traditional way of life. Some still do to this day.
I don’t know whether Jerry Seinfeld ever spent a summer in a bungalow, but I know that he, like many other comedians (and musicians), used to play the Catskills. The area boasted famous hotels like Grossinger’s, Kutsher’s and the Concord, and those were the rooms where these comics – some already famous, some on their way up, and more than a few who were on their way down – played on Friday and Saturday nights.
But for some performers, the hotel show was not the end of their night’s work. Many of the bungalow colonies were only a short drive away from the bright lights of the hotels, albeit over unlit, winding country roads.
The bigger colonies all had multipurpose rooms that they called “casinos,” where our parents would gather for drinks and dinner after putting the kids to bed on weekend nights. Teenagers picked up pocket money babysitting the little tykes. Older siblings, myself included, were called upon to look after younger brothers and sisters. None of the bungalows had televisions, but we all had transistor radios. I used to tune in to nighttime broadcasts from New York, and even places like Baltimore and Boston, and listen to baseball games while my little brother slept and I waited for my parents to come home. They would bring me a small plate of cold cuts to show they had not forgotten me amid the revelry.
After some dining and, I expect, some drinking, the parents would settle in for a performance. Comedians who had finished their hotel shows would play a second gig at the bungalow colony casinos, often starting around 11 p.m. or midnight, and finishing at 1 a.m. or later. I have no idea where the comics spent the night after their sets. The pay could not have been much, but I expect it at least helped cover gas for getting back to the city. Plus it must have been a great and undemanding audience on which to try out new material.
Seinfeld’s return to the Catskills will also take place in a casino, but not the bungalow colony type. He will appear for a one-night engagement on May 12 to celebrate the grand opening of Resorts World Catskills, an 18-story hotel and entertainment complex with approximately 100,000 square feet of casino floor, according to the property’s website. The resort opened in February, but the comedy performance will mark the debut of several new amenities and the beginning of what its owners doubtless hope will be a busy summer. Local officials have said they hope the casino will revitalize the region’s tourism industry, which suffered as bungalow colonies and Borscht Belt hotels vanished.
So in May, Seinfeld will be the first performer to take the stage at the resort’s “Epicenter” venue. While the 2,500-seat event space is brand new, the site may still evoke ghosts of comedy shows past; Resorts World Catskills occupies the site that once housed the Concord hotel.
I am very skeptical that modern casino gambling will be the economic salvation of my childhood summer haunts. After the novelty wore off, it hasn’t helped Atlantic City, and there is a lot of competition in the Northeast. At best, it may just help draw attention to a region that has other advantages to offer. The old hills are scenic and, by East Coast standards, unspoiled. There is some excellent trout fishing. The area won’t compete with the Rockies or even Vermont for skiing, but there are still winter sports to be had. And you can get there from any big Northeast city without having to go through an airport security line.
So break a leg, Jerry. And give a nod to those old bungalows for us.