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“We were carnies…”

John Conway
Posted 11/24/23

In August of 2015, the Liberty Museum and Arts Center’s 14th annual conference on the history of the Catskills was entitled, “Small but Grand Hotels: The Backbone of the Catskills Tourism …

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“We were carnies…”


In August of 2015, the Liberty Museum and Arts Center’s 14th annual conference on the history of the Catskills was entitled, “Small but Grand Hotels: The Backbone of the Catskills Tourism Economy.”

The focus of the conference was the hundreds of smaller hotels—those accommodating 300 or fewer guests—that had a major economic impact on the area’s downtowns, as their guests, absent the 24-hour-a-day entertainment found in their larger competitors, made their way to the main streets of neighboring communities for movies and an occasional meal in a delicatessen or diner. 

The Charlow family’s Hotel Irvington in South Fallsburg was one such hotel, and now it is getting its due.

Retired non-profit CEO Bart Charlow, who now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area of California, is a member of the family that founded and operated the Irvington, and he has just published “A Catskill Carnival: My Borscht Belt Life Lived, Lost and Loved,” a 198-page journey through the Golden Age of the Sullivan County hotel industry.

Charlow was born in Monticello, and grew up in South Fallsburg, graduating from Fallsburg High School. His father, Frank Charlow and his uncle, Julie Charlow, who once served as Fallsburg Town Clerk, were also born here, and along with their older brother Irving, spent their lives here. Charlow’s grandparents, Herman and Rachel Charlow, started renting rooms on their farm in Woodridge, then operated the Hotel Glass in Fallsburg briefly, before purchasing the hotel they called the Irvington, which they ran for 50 years.

Bart Charlow worked at the hotel alongside his siblings and cousins, performing myriad jobs over the years, doing basically whatever needed to be done to keep the guests happy.

“But as you’ll read in my book, I also worked at many other hotels as a hotel photographer and more.” he says, “Busboy, waiter, lifeguard, camp counselor, babysitter, office staffer, groundsman, photographer, bellhop, carhop.... everything!”

His experiences at the many hotels that made up Sullivan County’s resort industry as its heyday was fading away have provided ample material for the book, which is just enough different from the other recent books on the Borscht Belt—a very hot topic these days—that it does not seem in the least bit repetitive.

In fact, it is Charlow’s recognition that while there was a certain mystique about the hotels that thrived during that era in the Catskills, the mystique was largely cultivated if not entirely manufactured, that makes his book so refreshing.

“We were ‘carnies’—carnival people—only we didn’t move the tents. That’s the Borscht Belt in a nutshell,” he writes in the book.

Indeed, it is that less than reverential attitude, along with the fact that he lived the story he is writing, that makes Charlow’s book so genuine. After all, as he writes, “it’s all real.”

“I realized that most of the nonfiction about the hotel era was written from only two major viewpoints: the entertainment industry, and especially the hotel families from the biggest hotels,” Charlow says. “For years I’ve tried to get people to realize that the literally millions [of visitors] who experienced the Borscht Belt overwhelmingly participated in the smaller hotels and bungalow colonies, not the Concord, Grossinger’s, etc. The preponderance of visitors went to places like the Hotel Irvington, though they may have also sneaked into the Concord and its ilk. That’s the story I wanted to tell.”

Charlow says that the book published earlier this year by his friend Patti Posner (“My View From the Mountains: A Catskill Memoir”) about her family’s Brickman Hotel, and a subsequent conversation with her, proved to be the final impetus he needed to get the book done now.

“If anything spurred me on it was my friend Patti Posner Daboosh’s book,” he says. “I’ve given talks about the Borscht Belt before, but always had writer’s block about putting it on paper. After Patti published, and we had many conversations about her opus, she kept urging me to get my own story out there.”

So here now is “A Catskill Carnival,” different from pretty much everything else you have ever read about the Borscht Belt hotels. The book is independently published and is available on Amazon in hardcover and paperback format, as well as in a Kindle edition.

“My story is a bit different from some of the other hotel brats, because I did not idolize it as a kid, I was truly ambivalent” Charlow says. “It wasn’t until adulthood that I realized how great it had been, how much it influenced and enriched not just my life, but all of American culture. The book isn’t just about the hotel life, it’s more about my evolving relationship with our unique era.”

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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