Big doings are underway down in Ellenville, where a coalition that’s been striving for years to create a Borscht Belt museum that will celebrate the golden age of Catskills tourism has purchased the former National Bank at 90 Canal St. and is reshaping the space into a showcase for memorabilia and interactive exhibits. And on the last weekend of July, they’re serving up a heaping helping of Borscht Belt love and goodness for all to enjoy.
A decade in the making, the Borscht Belt Museum will preserve and celebrate this important chapter in American history by showcasing artifacts, photographs and memorabilia from the Borscht Belt era through interactive exhibits and displays that capture the sights and sounds of the era. In addition, it will showcase the comedic incubator created on the stages of hotels and resorts that populated the region, providing an entertainment legacy that led to the careers of Billy Crystal, Jerry Seinfeld, Sarah Silverman, Jon Stewart and many more.
The entire endeavor is as grassroots as it gets. Many of the artifacts were preserved by the goodness of Allen Frishman, a plumber and onetime Fallsburg building inspector who managed to rescue lots of cool memorabilia. Frishman’s own Borscht Belt memories extend to playing the hotels and bungalow colonies with his teenage band.
The museum’s new home was once one of the only banks willing to lend to Jewish resort owners. In the early 20th century, many major resorts openly advertised that only white, Christian guests need apply. Turning evil into opportunity, Jewish, immigrant and Black entrepreneurs made a place for themselves in the gorgeous Catskills. During the heyday of the Borscht Belt, there were over 1,000 resorts and bungalow colonies welcoming guests and offering performers a pathway to the stars. It was the place for Everyone Else, including Black vacationers at Peg Leg Bates, crossdressers frolicking at Casa Susanna, and Irish and Italian folks opening their own villas and inns.
The bank is getting a new roof, and the museum’s official opening will happen in 2025. Meanwhile, though, organizers are throwing a major party July 28-29, when the streets of Ellenville will be filled with vendors and entertainment, and the stage at the Shadowland will host what may be the biggest comedy festival seen around these parts since Back In The Day. It seems as though just about everyone funny wants in on the act: the legendary Comedy Cellar Showcase, featuring a variety of stellar NYC comic talents, a fun-filled homage to Catskills humor with the Borscht Belt Classic, a celebration of everything cross-cultural and deliciously different with Lucy Pohl’s Immigrant Jam, fresh and funny perspectives from New Faces in Standup, and a late-night performance called “Weeding Out The Stoned: The Game Show of Sobriety Tests.”
The museum will be open as a pop-up entitled Vacationland!, offering festival goers a taste of what’s to come, curated and organized by a group from the Bard Graduate Center’s Museum Studies program with the help of a former curator from the International Center for Photography. The cuisine will include, but by no means be limited to, classic Jewish flavors and immigrant delicacies.
Alongside the festivities and hilarity, there will be discussions of Borscht Belt history, illuminating the culture of this unique time and place. To see the full lineup, visit borschtbeltfest.org – there’s a link to the budding museum there, too.
The Borscht Belt faded as air travel became affordable and excluding people from destinations fell out of fashion, but the legacy is still felt all over the Catskills – in bungalows and bakeries, in what is now the Hudson Valley Resort but was then the Granit Hotel. Beyond our neighborhood, the cultural impact can be felt in the blossoming of stand-up comedy and a long string of hit movies. As Gandhi put it, first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, and then you win – and in this newborn museum and stellar festival, the little village of Ellenville will have a major win that’s been a long time coming.