At last! A reunion for Catskill hotel employees - BlueStone Press
March 26, 2019

At last! A reunion for Catskill hotel employees

Posted

Maybe it won’t make the headlines. But the planned reunion of everyone and anyone who worked in the Borscht Belt hotels of yesteryear will be news of interest to the thousands of former waiters, busboys, chambermaids, lifeguards, social directors, et al., who remember the jobs of their youth vividly.

The event will take place at the Villa Roma Resort in Callicoon next May. It’s an idea dreamed up by Robin Kaufman, a Rhode Island resident who vacationed in the Catskills as a child, worked in various hotels as a young adult, and met her husband at one of them.

The heyday of the Nevele, the Granit, and big hotels in Sullivan County like Grossinger’s in Liberty and the Concord in Monticello was over by the early ’80s, but there are still many around who remember them fondly – this writer, for instance. I grew up in Monticello when the hotels and bungalow colonies were the biggest business in the area. Like so many locals, I started working at the hotels during summers while in college. I can still close my eyes and smell the cigar-smoke-saturated lobby of Grossinger’s, or the complex aroma of alcohol, cigarettes and carpeting that permeated the Granit nightclub.

I had tried waitressing at a local diner and didn’t last long; cocktail waitressing was much easier. All the drinks were made for you in a bar in back of the nightclub. All you had to do was remember which drinks to give to which party, get the cash, and then remember who got what change … very simple. I still remember my first night at the Laurels, a big hotel near Monticello that burned down around 1978, wandering among the tiers of tables at the huge nightclub while the show was going on, asking in a loud whisper, “Excuse me, did you order a Tom Collins?” with increasing desperation to multiple people who shook their heads and gave me dirty looks.

I did manage to learn to be fairly efficient after a few months, and I made money that way for a couple of years, ending up at the Granit and living in High Falls while pursuing college and the creative life. My dream, though, was to play guitar in a band. Eventually I got my big break at steady music work – the Pine Grove show band, which also functioned as the poolside band and the lounge band. (The Pine Grove, being one of the smaller establishments, could only afford one set of musicians.) We played for such acts as Jay Green the juggler, or George Sands, the magician, or Bobby Gold, a comedian whose act was so unvarying that we would stand behind him mouthing the words of his jokes like Catholics reciting the Mass by heart. Some of the musical acts would get seriously annoyed when they realized that the piano player was the only one who could actually sight-read their arrangements.

I was determined to move up in the world, and after a few summers at the Pine Grove managed to land a spot playing guitar in a lounge band at the Nevele, a year-round gig. Unfortunately I hated the band, particularly the leader, whose ideal seemed to be playing exactly the same thing the same way every night; but I enjoyed hanging out with the guys in the show band and learning from them. A few of us musicians boarded at a little motel-type arrangement down the road from the hotel, and we got to eat in the main dining room. Those legendary dining rooms! Here is where the hotels would pull out all the stops, at least as far as quantity goes. I will let Glenn Pomerantz, Kerhonkson native and former waiter at Kerhonkson’s Brookside Hotel, pick up the story.

“Roast chicken, brisket … Saturday night was always prime rib … Friday night always started with wine and gefilte fish … matzoh ball soup … flanken [boiled short ribs] with horseradish.” Desserts? “There was always a baker on site in every hotel. They made big fancy cakes, trays of little eclairs and cookies. People could eat as much as they wanted, they could order several mains. Lunch was everything with sour cream. Vegetables, fruit with sour cream. Once a week they had smoked whitefish, and of course it was expensive. As a waiter, you’d get in trouble if you had more smoked whitefish at your station than you needed!

“I worked at the Brookside Hotel. I was a waiter there for five years, until it burned down in ’83. Besides the dining room, there was the coffee shop. It opened after breakfast, stayed opened till dinnertime, then it reopened before showtime, about 9 o’clock, and stayed open till after showtime. Just in case they didn’t get enough to eat in the dining room! It was like a little Jewish deli. Pastrami, corned beef, salami, a soda fountain. There would always be a late-night rush as soon as the show let out. When I say there was a rush – everybody came in at once. You worked your butt off!”

Pomerantz credits his waiter days for giving him a solid foundation in dealing with people. He started as a busboy. At his first breakfast service, he was told to ask people if they would like some juice. “The first couple starts yelling at me, ‘I didn’t have my coffee yet!’ Next couple comes in, I offer them coffee. ‘No, I gotta have my juice!’” Pomerantz chuckled. “Besides being a waiter, I was an EMT. Whenever anybody would get sick, they’d call me. On Friday night, they’d all come up, start drinking the sweet Jewish wine and eating like a pig, and invariably somebody would go down in the dining room. One particular night, a lady passed out and slid under the table. So I said to the waiters, let’s move the table away from her. All the people stand up so we can move the table, except for one lady – as the table’s moving, she’s continuing to eat. That tells you the priorities of the folks who came up here!”

Suzanne Friedman Jordan also remembers the Brookside – her parents owned it, and she grew up there. “It was a smaller-scale, very family-oriented hotel. There were people who would check in for the whole summer. The wives would stay up with the kids, the kids would all go to day camp. The men would go back to the city after their vacation time was over and come up Friday nights, leave on Sunday and go back to work.”

Jordan described the kitchen and dining room jobs as a class system. “Cooks, saladmen, dishwashers, busboys and waiters. It was kind of a microcosm of the world. In the kitchen, you'd have the skilled staff – cooks and bakers – and then, you’d have a lot of people who were brought up by what were called agents. They'd go, basically, to the Bowery, to pick people up and say, Do you want to work? They were very often people who would be considered homeless today. Street people. The dining room represented college kids, middle-class kids, kids who grew up coming to the hotel. They'd start by drying silverware for the busboys and work their way into the dining room staff as they got older. Or they might be a bellhop first and work their way up. The money was made in the dining room. A lot of the people who worked for my parents put themselves through college by working in the dining room.

“Then of course you'd have the day camp. There were times we’d have over 75 kids. I was a counselor. In those days it was very sex-identified. The girls became counselors, that nurturing kind of job, and the young men went into the dining room.”

The Borscht Belt hotels catered specifically to Jewish New Yorkers, offering an all-inclusive vacation. They strove to provide so much in the way of food, entertainment, athletic activities and other services that guests would hardly ever feel the need to leave the grounds. The glory days ended when the price of plane tickets came down enough for the middle classes to vacation in Florida or the islands, leaving very few resort hotels in business today.

The Villa Roma of Calicoon, where the big reunion will take place, is one survivor, traditionally a part of the Italian Catskill circuit rather than the “Jewish Alps.” Nobody knows how many people will show up at the reunion, but news about it will be spreading via word of mouth and social media from now until May. Pomerantz has already decided to attend. “It should be fun. One of my brothers is going. I’ve never been to the Villa Roma.”

If you are a veteran of the hotel scene – or know someone who is – the important information about the reunion is as follows:

Catskill Hotel Reunion

7-11 p.m. Saturday, May 4, 2019

Villa Roma Resort, Callicoon, N.Y.

For more information: rmkauff100@cox.net

Comments

No comments on this story | Please log in to comment by clicking here
Please log in or register to add your comment
Self Service Advertising