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Barry Lewis

Catskills’ Lore lives on

Barry Lewis
Posted 3/18/22

They were 1,300 miles away and a good half century removed but that mattered little to the folks in Boynton Beach who came to hear me talk about the Classic Catskills.

I was speaking at Valencia …

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Barry Lewis

Catskills’ Lore lives on


They were 1,300 miles away and a good half century removed but that mattered little to the folks in Boynton Beach who came to hear me talk about the Classic Catskills.

I was speaking at Valencia Isles, an “active 55+ community” on the east coast of Florida that’s a winter retreat for snowbirds and a year-round home for those able to enjoy a life of perpetual sunshine. They wear the memory of the Borscht Belt like a badge of honor. You can practically see the projector rolling in their minds, flashing home movies of those summer trips when they left New York and New Jersey and took the Quickway up to the mountains, stopping for a midway bathroom break at the always-open Red Apple Rest. It might have been a one-time weekend getaway, the same few days at the end of July or a whole summer at the bungalow colony. Didn’t matter.

They were eager to listen and then share moments that were as memorable as the day they got married or the birth of their child. It was their life, and it’s forever part of their history. It’s what makes this place so special. It connects with generations who saw the Catskills as their only affordable escape from the sweltering summer sun. A place where you could feel a cool breeze in August that for apartment dwellers, was like finding a pool in the desert.

They watched snapshots of the Catskills‘peak in the late 1950s and ‘60s, when millions of mostly Jewish families loaded their Ramblers, Fords and Chevys to the Concord and Grossinger’s, to the Shady Nook and the Elm Shade, to the Murray Hill and the Majestic, when the New York Times said there were 538 hotels, 50,000 bungalows and 1,000 rooming houses.

When herring filled stomachs during the day and Henny filled them with laughter at night. When people went to the casino to see shows and not play the slots. When you were more likely to see a hackie than a hiker.

From the Aladdin to Zuker’s Glen Wild, our hotels were full. Guests were greeted with a warm smile, a welcoming hug and the kind of banter you’d expect from family at the Thanksgiving table — not in a hotel lobby and certainly not from the person who owned the place.

Helen Kutsher, Elaine Grossinger-Etess and Lillian Brown were owners who asked guests they knew by their first name, “How was your winter?” “Are the grandkids coming up?” “Do you need a fourth for mahjong?”

It’s not the only reason, but it sure was a key reason why generation after generation knew summer meant going to the Catskills.

The folks at Valencia Isles would later reel off hotels they worked at, where they stayed with their parents and where they honeymooned. Sharing stories they haven’t told in years. Their memories are as fresh as the flowers that lined walkways of these once-upon-a-time grand resorts. Or as fresh as the fish that came out of the dining-room kitchens.

They sat in silence when I told them all the grand old resorts are gone. The Concord, Grossinger’s and Kutshers are nothing but rubble, rust and overgrown weeds.

I’ll never get used to the low-lying white clouds on the horizon of Kiamesha Lake absent the white towers that stood above the green pine trees that gave the Concord its unique and commanding Catskills look. Or that the fabled “Jenny G” tower no longer welcomes motorists heading toward Liberty on Route 17.

It’s fine to look ahead. But we should remember when the Catskills wasn’t an outdated moniker, but an envied tourism mecca. Like the folks at Valencia Isles, I’m just not ready to forget.


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