By Bruce F. Lowitt
OLDSMAR, Florida–Freddie Roman hasn’t been around as long as the Catskills, although it might seem that way. He is a living history of a region that gave birth to countless great Jewish comedians and a reminder of an era of American Jewish life long past.
There are the Catskill Mountains, ranging across six counties, about a two-hour drive north of New York City. Then there are the “Catskills,” not so much a place as a state of mind.
Or used to be.
Thirty or so years after the end of its heyday, it is more a fond memory than a summer resort destination for a million New York City Jews, and hundreds of entertainers cutting their teeth in front of raucous, demanding audiences.
“It’s losing its identity as the Borscht Belt,” said Roman.
Speaking to the Jewish Press recently, Roman recalled a previous visit to the Tampa Bay area.
“The West Coast of Florida has never been ‘Jewish,’ compared to the East Coast,” Roman said. “About 15 years ago I did a fund-raiser in Tampa and I met the mayor (Sandy Freedman).”
“So my opening joke was, ‘I just came from Boca Raton, where there are eight million Jews and the mayor is Spanish. Now I’m in Tampa where there’s four Jews and the mayor is Jewish.’ ”
Roman has been keeping alive, for most of his 72 years, the uniquely Jewish humor spawned in hotels and resorts a couple of generations ago, through his solo performances and in Catskills on Broadway, a show he created in 1991 starring, among others, himself and fellow comedians Marilyn Michaels and Mal Z. Lawrence.
“The next generation, I’m not sure if they’ll think about the Catskills as we do,” Roman said in a telephone interview from his home in Fort Lee, NJ. Or, if they do, many are more likely to know of it from the Patrick Swayze’s 1987 movie, Dirty Dancing.
“It’s different when you lived through that era. There are books, a few films about the mountains, but that’s not the same.”
The Catskill Mountains were mostly poultry and dairy farmland before the arrival of the railroad in 1872 and the opening in 1913 of old Route 17. Originally a two-lane blacktop that meandered north from just outside New York City, Route 17 took vacationers — mostly Gentiles seeking to escape the summer heat of the city — by car or bus into the mountains.
“The hotels and boarding houses back then had signs out front, ‘No Dogs or Jews,’” Roman said.
By the 1950s, though, Jews were opening their own – more than 400 of them. Most were modest hotels, bungalow colonies, summer camps and kuchaleyns (translation: cook alone), boarding houses with shared kitchens.
Then there were the lavish resorts that made the Catskills famous — Grossinger’s, Kutsher’s, Brown’s and Brickman’s – and less Jewish-sounding names like the Raleigh, Concord, Pines and Fallsview.
They were foodfests. Three meals a day, as much as you wanted. Two main dishes? No problem.
And they were the breeding ground of singers, dancers, bands, and novelty acts – but most of all, Jewish comedians born and raised in Brooklyn, the Bronx and Manhattan.
“What happened was, in the old days, all the hotels were named after the family,” the late Alan King said in a 2002 interview with this reporter. “When people started moving up in class, they changed their hotel names. Forman and Gatkin became the New Prospect Inn. What they felt was, it was class. It was a disguise.”
It wasn’t only hotels that changed their names to assimilate.
So did entertainers like King (Irwin Alan Kniberg), George Burns (Nathan Birnbaum), Jack Benny (Benjamin Kubelsky), Jerry Lewis (Joseph Levitch), Eddie Cantor (Edward Israel Iskowitz),— and Freddie Roman (Fred Kirschenbaum) and so on.
Many began as tummlers — comedians, buffoons, emcees and activities directors. More often than not, Yiddish was the local language of the Catskills.
Mal Z. Lawrence, like Roman, was one of those tummlers.
“I didn’t know how Jewish it was,” Lawrence, still going strong after half a century, once recalled. “My parents spoke Yiddish. I understood it but I couldn’t speak it. … The first place I worked, I said ‘Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,’ and some guy yelled out, ‘Oy, English!’ ”
Only a few of the old resorts survive, others reborn as golf courses, condominiums or private schools. Some have been torn down, burned down or abandoned. Second homes, vacation homes and corporate parks have sprung up.
“It’s depressing driving past the carcasses of the old hotels,” Roman said.
And the Catskills tummlers and comedians are virtually extinct.
“There aren’t many places left where you can be lousy,” he said.
Of the few remaining bungalow colonies, most have been bought by Hasidim, converted them to religious schools and taken off the tax rolls.
In the 1950s Roman’s uncle and grandfather owned a small Catskills hotel, the Crystal Springs (now a golf resort) and, at age 15, Roman became its tummler.
“I put up a tent nearby in the woods,” he said. “Then I’d gather up 50 or 60 guests and announce I was taking them to the Indian Village. When we got there, there was a sign on the tent that said, ‘Moved to Long Island.’ Everyone got a laugh out of it and we went back to the hotel. It was an activity.”
After a few summers Roman put aside show business to work in his father’s ladies’ shoe store, then opened his own.
“I hated every minute of it,” he said. At 20, after a few years and a few desk jobs, and with his family’s blessing, he returned to show business with more tummling, then as a standup comic.
“We would go from hotel to hotel, sometimes doing two or three shows in one night,” Roman said. “I hold the record, 90 in a three-week stretch.”
The decline of the Borscht Belt began in the 1970s with the arrival in Atlantic City of gambling (or “gaming,” which sounds more respectable). It drew away some of the Catskills’ clientele.
Then cruise lines began to flourish. Comedy clubs sprang up in big cities and small towns.
And as flying became less expensive and widely available, more and more eastern vacationers discovered Las Vegas, the Caribbean, Europe and other alternatives.
The Catskills have been trying for decades to attract legalized gambling but politics, opposition, and competition have conspired to keep it out.
“The mountains are magnificent, resplendent in autumn when the leaves turn, and fly-fishing lures. But let’s go to the mountains,” which once meant the Catskills, now are more likely to mean Aspen or St. Moritz.
Will there ever be a Catskills revival, where hotels and resorts flourish, the vegetable cutlets, sliced bananas in sour cream, and borscht flow freely, and Jewish comedians draw laughs and groans from a new generation of demanding audiences?
“It was an era that was wonderful and exciting and I miss it,” Roman said, “but I think it’s over.”
This article is reprinted from the Jewish Press of Pinellas County.