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Son tells seniors of dad’s Borscht Belt biz
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Son tells seniors of dad’s Borscht Belt biz

Jack Segal and his son, Mort, circa 1980    
Jack Segal and his son, Mort, circa 1980    

Sixteen years after his death at the age of 99, one of the pioneers of Jewish entertainment in the Catskills will be inducted into the Conference of Personal Managers Hall of Fame in Palm Springs, Calif., on May 12.

The honoree, Jack Segal, lived in Irvington before moving to Jewish Federation Plaza, the Jewish Community Housing Corporation facility in West Orange.

His legacy is being kept alive by his 86-year-old son, Mort Segal of Wayne, who grew up in his father’s business and now spends his retirement years giving talks to seniors’ groups at synagogues and residential facilities about “a time and place that don’t exist anymore.”

The conference is the trade association for people who advise and counsel talent and personalities in the entertainment industry.

In a 40-minute talk on April 4 at a meeting of the William Margulies Senior Center at JCC MetroWest in West Orange, Mort said his father “was instrumental in getting people like Joan Rivers, Jackie Mason, and Buddy Hackett started in show biz. He was an integral part of the entertainment in the Catskills.”

The elder Segal’s career began in the 1920s, when many of the Jewish-owned hotels were opened. They were born in reaction to the anti-Semitism of established area hotels, some of which, said Mort Segal, posted signs saying “No Hebes and no dogs.”

“So they put out their own signs saying, ‘Dietary laws observed.’ Most Jews driving up the highways said, ‘Oh, that has got to be a Jewish place.’ So they came.”

With them, inevitably, came shows and shtick that earned the Catskills the sobriquet “Borscht Belt.” One comedian, said Mort, suggested that New York’s Sullivan County — site of most of the resorts — “should be renamed ‘Solomon County’ and that the white line going up Route 17 be painted with sour cream.”

As Mort related, many of the jokes the Borscht Belt comedians told — often at the expense of the hotel owners — might make audiences groan — even then. He gave an example from the repertoire of Pat Henry (actually one of the few non-Jewish comics who worked for Jack): “They changed the sheets every day — from one bed to the other.”

Mort Segal entered his father’s business at the age of 17. Equipped with a driver’s license, he assumed the job of ferrying the entertainers from one hotel to another in the half hours between the end of a show in one venue and the start of another several miles away.

“I drove people like Myron Cohen, Norm Crosby, Freddie Roman, Sam Levenson, and Jackie Mason, who was working at a waiter in one hotel before performing at another. He would run out of the dining room as soon as he could and change into one set of clothes from another in the back of my car,” Mort said.

Among the Segals’ other clients was Red Buttons. Mort gave a favorite example of the Jewish comedian’s humor, a joke about “a real loser; he moved into a new neighborhood and got run over by the Welcome Wagon.”

As time went by, the Borscht Belt humor became increasingly X-rated, said Mort.

“Freddie Roman told a story about a 94-year-old man and his 91-year-old wife. She yells downstairs from the bedroom, ‘Sam, would you like to come up here and make love to me?’ He says ‘Sylvia, at my age I can’t do both.’”

Among their other clients were novelty performers Pegleg Bates, the one-legged tap dancer; Pierce Knox, a blind xylophonist; as well as piano-playing pigeons and a harmonica player who danced on a piano keyboard.

The growing popularity of television, a newer generation of assimilationist Jews, and the availability of air travel all combined to spell the gradual demise of what was called the “Jewish Alps.”

So Mort began booking acts for colleges and New York jazz clubs. “But I couldn’t make a living at it,” he told the Margulies seniors. So he went into the business of selling windows and doors before going on the lecture circuit two years ago.

As he ended his talk at the JCC, Mort reflected on the larger-than-life show business personality he most admired.

“Joan Rivers was Number One in my book,” he said. Most people only saw her for her foul mouth and the comedy she did on television. They did not know her as the person I knew, who graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Barnard College and majored in sociology. 

“She was extremely bright. You could talk to her about any subject. But from the small hotels we booked in the Catskills, most of them very haimish and Jewish, her type of humor didn’t fly that well. So she said to my father, ‘Jack, send me out as a lecturer, so that if I get any laughs I’ll feel much better about it. As a comedian I’m not getting any laughs at all.’”

Mort said his father told Rivers, who died in 2014, “‘You are very good. Stay with it.’ Two weeks later he got her a booking at a yacht club in Westchester and she was a success. When she returned to the mountains, he said, ‘I told you,’ and she never forgot that.”

Ten years later, after Mort had left the business, he met her at a nightclub where she was performing. 

“She asked that the house lights be turned on, and she pointed me out in the audience. She said, ‘If it wasn’t for that man’s father, I wouldn’t be standing here today.”

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