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Film Revives Memories Of Kutsher’s And New York’s Bygone "Borscht Belt"

“You think kids want to come with their parents, take foxtrot lessons? Trips to Europe, that’s what the kids want! Twenty-two countries in three days.  Feels like it’s all slipping away...”

So laments resort owner Max Kellerman, in the film “Dirty Dancing.”

It’s widely believed that the movie’s fictional Kellerman’s Resort was inspired by Kutsher’s, the longest-running of the so-called “Borscht Belt” hotels in New York’s Catskill Mountains. The resorts, which catered mostly to vacationing New York City Jews, reached their zenith in the mid-20th Century.

When “Dirty Dancing” was released in 1987, most of the other Catskills resorts – like Grossinger’s, The Nevele and The Concord -- were already in decline, but according to filmmaker Caroline Laskow, Kutsher’s was still going strong.

“It was still operating as a traditional Catskills Resort,” says Laskow. “Still offering guests the amazing abundance of Jewish food and all of those wonderful activities that you would fill a weekend with.”

Now, Kutsher’s is no more. Most of the hotel has been demolished to make way for a yoga retreat. And the days of Jewish families packing up the car for that 90-mile drive from New York City to the mountains are fast passing into memory. But Laskow and her filmmaker husband, Ian Rosenberg, are revisiting the bygone glory days of the Borscht Belt with their documentary, “Welcome to Kutsher’s: The Last Catskills Resort.”

The film begins a week-long screening in two South Florida theaters this weekend in Delray Beach and Lake Worth.

The documentary not only delves into the history of the 100-year-old family-owned Kutsher’s but also examines the role of the Catskill hotels in the entertainment world. Rosenberg says Kutsher’s and other Borscht Belt hotels are the places where American stand-up comedy got its start. Many prominent entertainers earned their comedy chops there, including Sid Caesar, Danny Kaye, Red Buttons, Joan Rivers, Jerry Seinfeld and Billy Crystal.

Laskow and Rosenberg also focus on the role of the Catskills in 20th Century Jewish-American culture.  What began as a vacation retreat for Jewish city-dwellers barred from other establishments by anti-Semitism eventually thrived as the summer getaway of choice for Jewish families.

So what happened? According to at least one person interviewed for the film, “air conditioning and air travel.”

“As the Jewish American population could go both to Europe affordably and have ‘permanent vacations’ living in Florida and California, the need for the Catskills resorts began to decline,” says Rosenberg.

You can watch a trailer for the film below, and find showtimes for this weekend by clicking here: MoviesofDelray.com.


Christine DiMattei is WLRN's Morning Edition anchor and also reports on Arts & Culture.
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