A film that informatively and entertainingly recalls the colorful era of New York’s Catskill Mountains resorts--the famous “Borscht Belt”—had a very limited release but is now available on DVD from Menemsha Films. It still deserves a wider release in theaters, given its important contribution to history of the period that remains in the affections of those who patronized Kutsher’s and other renowned resorts of those times. “Welcome to Kutsher’s: The Last Catskills Resort,” directed and produced by Caroline Laskow and Ian Rosenberg, is loaded with film clips and illuminating interviews.
While I never had the pleasure of vacationing at Kutsher’s, I did experience Grossinger’s and The Concord, two other major “Borscht Belt” hotels. The film about Kutsher’s reflects the same kind of activities and indulgences that I enjoyed. Interspersed throughout are excerpts from the funny routines of Freddie Roman, whose jokes enliven the movie and recall how the Catskill resorts were the jumping off point for careers of many famous comedians.
Kutsher’s was sold and torn down in 2014, but before then had a long and illustrious history. Oddly, it goes back to 1907 when it was, yes, a farmhouse started by Max and Louis Kutsher, and gradually it evolved step by step into the expanded Kutsher’s Country Club, eventually acquiring elaborate facilities including 400 rooms, swimming pool, golf course, skating rink, entertainment facilities and the obligatory food indulgence for patrons who could eat until they bulged.
(Not included in the film is the old joke about the woman who, sampling a Catskills resort to decide whether she should book for the season, started with breakfast, followed by morning snack, lunch, afternoon snack, dinner and late night snack, her never getting up from the table. When the owner asked if she was satisfied, she said no, complaining that the hotel only served one meal a day.)
What enabled the resort and others located In New York’s Sullivan County was the opportunity for New Yorkers, especially Jews, to find vacation opportunities close at hand. After World War II, when flying become more routine, the possibility of traveling easily to Florida, the Caribbean and elsewhere began to lead to the area’s decline.
Mark Kutsher is interviewed at length to recount the family history of Kutsher’s, as well as highlight the notables who attended and helped give Kutsher’s the reputation it acquired. Mark’s parents, Milton and Helen, inherited and ran the hotel, and after Milton died in 1998, it fell to Mark to assume managerial duties. (Helen died in 2013.)
We learn in the film that Kutsher’s attracted such celebrities as basketball star Wilt Chamberlain, who in his youth has worked there as a bellhop. Red Auerbach, the renowned basketball coach. reigned as sports director. It became a habit for boxers to go to Catskill resorts to train for their big fights, and among those who trained at Kutsher’s was Muhammed Ali.
Mark Kutsher’s is a congenial guide as he talks about all that Kutsher’s represented and offered. Interspersed are intriguing film clips. I wish there were more of those, but there was naturally a limit to what was available. Some of the talk might be trimmed a bit, as is the case with most documentaries, but overall “Welcome to Kutsher’s” is fascinating and stands as a celebration of the phenomenon of the resorts that gave such pleasure to so many. The demise of this last survivor is sad and commands regrets for what time and so-called progress can do to traditions. However, in the film there is always Freddie Roman to deliver a laugh with typical humor of the period, and Freddie Roman is still entertaining today. A Menemsha Films release. Reviewed July 6, 2015.