Borscht Belt blues

Borscht Belt blues

Remembering a bygone era in the Catskills

During a time when Jews packed hundreds of hotels and bungalow colonies in the Catskill Mountains to escape the summer heat and enjoy Jewish culture and food, Mort Segal had an insider’s view of what is now a bygone era.

Segal, who started working as a hotel busboy in 1943, rose to be head busboy and then assistant salad maker — but left at age 17 to become an assistant to his father, Jack, one of the largest booking agents for the Borscht Belt hotels. 

On an average Saturday night, there would be more than 120 shows featuring more than 150 entertainers, many of whom the younger Segal would come to know.

On July 26, Segal spoke of his memories, the headliners — especially the comedians — and a lifestyle that hit a familiar note with the crowd of seniors gathered at the Jewish Community Center of Middlesex County in Edison.

What created the magic of the Catskills? “It was the sociability,” said Segal. “It was being with your own kind and eating your own food.”

It was a time when more than 1,000 hotels — large and small — along with some 840 bungalow colonies were the stops for Jewish vacationers from the 1920s through their decline in the 1970s. Hotels featured lavish kosher meals, all kinds of sporting events, day care for children, swimming, and wildly popular “Simon Says” games — and, of course, the indispensable tummlers, hotel workers who were part comedian, part activities director, who made sure the guests joined in on all the fun.

“It was the three As that killed the Catskills,” said Segal. “Airplanes, because people could go to Puerto Rico for less money than the Catskills; air conditioning, because now people could stay in the city and be cool; and assimilation by Jews into society,” eliminating the need to vacation only with their own kind.

There were the huge resorts like Grossinger’s, with its 35 buildings, air strip, and separate post office, and the largest of them all, the Concord at Lake Kiamesha, whose dining room seated 3,000. 

“In 1946 you could eat all you want and stay at the Concord for $77.50 a week,” said Segal. Plentiful kosher food was a signature feature at the hotels. “There were 10 appetizers and five soups on the menu at any meal — and some ordered them all,” said Segal, a Wayne resident, who added wistfully, “The Concord’s gone 18 years now.” 

A gambling casino and water park to be operated in cooperation with a Native American tribe are planned for the site of the demolished hotel.

But it was a healthy dose of Yiddish in songs and Jewish humor in comedy skits that was a highlight for Jewish vacationers. Non-Jewish entertainers also performed, but not always with great success.

Performing in the Catskills, British singer Engelbert Humperdinck, popular in the 1960s and ’70s, was greeted by “bongo sticks,” said Segal, demonstrating by holding up a small stick with a ball on top that audience members would bang on the tables or bar — so they wouldn’t have to put their drinks down to applaud.

“Well, at that time in England, if they didn’t like an act they’d bang with sticks,” he said. Humperdinck “thought they didn’t like him and vowed never to come back to the Catskills — and he never did.”

However, “comics ruled” the Catskills, said Segal. “The comedy was what we would call haimish. It never crossed the line. There were no four-letter words.”

Segal gave an example — with panache — of what might be considered a “racy” joke, told by comedian Jack Zero. A woman, he would say, was wearing a sweater with a large “V.” When her friend commented on her patriotism, taking the “V” as the World War II-era sign for victory, the wearer corrected her; the V, she said, stood for “virgin.”

“But you have 15 children,” noted her friend. “Yes,” responded the friend, “but it’s an old sweater.”

It was Segal’s responsibility to shuttle the performers around since he had the luxury of having a car during the war years. He would maneuver his route, dropping off an entertainer in midtown, swinging back to pick up someone at the George Washington Bridge, going out to Long Island, and ending up in the Bronx.

Segal’s father, who also operated a rooming house for the entertainers he managed, worked with a number of black entertainers, “some of whom spoke and sang better Yiddish than some Jews.”

“They liked working for my dad because he had a place for them to stay,” said Segal, who also roomed for a while with comedian Buddy Hackett. (He was a client of Jack’s despite the fact he considered the comic “a loose cannon,” because his wife, Shirley, insisted).

Among the other star comedians Segal worked with were Freddie Roman, Red Buttons, Jackie Mason, Norm Crosby, Myron Cohen, Pat Henry, and Joan Rivers. 

“A lot of people don’t know that Joan Rivers had a Phi Beta Kappa from Barnard College and was extremely bright,” said Segal, adding that her humor wasn’t exactly suited to the Catskills even though the elder Segal encouraged her and helped her pursue her career.

Years later Segal was attending one of her performances and had a note sent to her saying that he would like to say hello afterward. Instead, after coming onstage, Rivers asked that the house lights be turned up and introduced Jack to the audience with a lovely speech thanking his father for all he had done for her.

“Now that’s a mensch who never forgot those who helped her,” he said. 

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