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Laughter is the best medicine

John Conway
Posted 4/14/23

Like so many other Sullivan County hotel trends, from Mission style architecture to telephones in the rooms, it all started with the Flagler.  

In 1929, Asias Fleischer and Philip …

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Laughter is the best medicine


Like so many other Sullivan County hotel trends, from Mission style architecture to telephones in the rooms, it all started with the Flagler. 

In 1929, Asias Fleischer and Philip Morganstern, co-owners of the Flagler Hotel in Fallsburg, unveiled a state-of-the-art, 1500 seat theatre and hired two young men, Moss Hart and Dore Schary, to head their social staff. Because the Flagler was the most prominent hotel in the Mountains at the time, and all the other hotels wanted to emulate it, it wasn’t long before every hotel of any size and stature in the area was hiring aspiring entertainers and developing some kind of shows for their guests. The Sullivan County Catskills, the so-called Borscht Belt, would never be the same. 

Although entertainment at the Borscht Belt resorts took on many forms, including musical and dramatic, it was the comedy aspect of that entertainment that became synonymous with the region. And it wasn’t just any type of comedy, either, but a unique style of humor peculiar to the Jewish culture. It was the kind of humor that one observer noted, comprised jokes “that no goy can understand, and every Jew says he has already heard.” 

“For even the most assimilated Jew, Jewish humor can be an anchor not only to his history, but to the essence—stereotyped or not—of his culture and religion, his community and social life,” wrote Brandeis University professor Stephen Whitfield, who maintains that Jewish humor is different from any other type of humor, labeling it “a style that disarmingly proclaims that ‘we’ are still different from ‘them.’” 

Of course, regular readers of this column understand what many others do not: That there were two very different and distinct eras in Catskill entertainment history. There was the pre-war, pre-television era of the 1930s and early ‘40s, when aspiring entertainers worked full time on the staff of a specific hotel-- Hart and Schary at the Flagler, Danny Kaye at White Roe, Joey Adams at the Nemerson and Henny Youngman at the Swan Lake, for example— and then, there was the post war, post-television years, when many of those same entertainers, now made nationally prominent by TV, were hired to perform at the hotels on a show-by-show basis.  

Of the two eras, the first is by far the more interesting and significant, and attracted the most diverse group of talented entertainers, including comics like Jan Murray and Red Buttons, singers like Robert Merrill and Jan Peerce, show girls like Shelley Winters, and dramatic actors like Van Johnson and Tony Curtis. It was an experience that led Johnson to proclaim that for an entertainer, “the Catskills was the finest all-around training ground since burlesque.” 

So while Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and a handful of other venues can probably lay claim to rivaling, and even surpassing the Borscht Belt as far as the second category is concerned, nowhere was there ever an industry like the entertainment industry that existed in that earlier era here. 

Without question, the Borscht Belt’s contribution to American comedy is without equal. As a journalist from the BBC put it during a visit to Sullivan County years ago for a documentary about the development of comedy on this side of the pond, without the Borscht Belt, there is no stand-up comedy. 

In recognition of April as National Humor Month, the Ethelbert B. Crawford Public Library in Monticello is hosting a program beginning at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, April 18, entitled “Laughter is the Best Medicine: The Borscht Belt and American Comedy” hosted by this columnist, your Sullivan County Historian.  

The program will examine the two distinct eras in entertainment history at the Sullivan County hotels, and attempt to place the role of entertainment in the context of the resort industry as a whole. There will also be vignettes about some of the well-known names who got their start in the Catskills, some of whom might be surprising. 

The program is free and open to the public. Contact the library for more information.

John Conway is the Sullivan County Historian and a founder and president of The Delaware Company. Email him at jconway52@hotmail.com.  


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