Welcome to Kutsher’s: The Last Catskills Resort
Caroline Laskow, Ian Rosenberg
Tuesday, September 4, 2012 at 7:30pm
JCC in Manhattan, 334 Amsterdam Avenue

  • “With us it was never absentee ownership, it was always hands on.” Helen Kutsher, 2nd generation owner.
  • “They were a tough audience, but if they like you, they love you.” Freddie Roman, Dean of the Friar’s Club, of the Kutsher’s resident nightclub audiences at the all-inclusive hotel.

What begins as a history lesson, ends with cultural reflections, and extends during the showing at the Manhattan JCC with astute questions and observations from the Upper West Side audience members. Welcome to Kutsher‘s provides a glimpse into a time gone by — all you can eat, sabbath candles and prayers available, sports and entertainment for the masses in a family atmosphere in Kutsher’s in the rolling green of the Catskills and driving distance from Manhattan.

We experience Kutsher’s for most of the length of this film in its friendly but slightly dilapidated 2007 guise, when our filmmakers began filming the 2nd and 3rd generation Kutsher hoteliers shepherding this Catskill tradition past its 100th anniversary.  Some footage is provided of events after that date — a few years of hosting All Tomorrow’s Parties rock convenings, and more recent years hosting groups of conservative Jewish families. It’s a tradition in transition, and these filmmakers capture the verbalized stories. What these filmmakers don’t capture enough are the images of what this world was in its heyday.  The occasional post card and snippets of film provide a colorized, Technicolor sensation. Interpolated clips from  the 1987 film Dirty Dancing, set in a 1960s fictionalized version of one of the Catskills resorts memorialized here, provide a few hints at the world. Helen Kutsher’s quotes provide more.

Helen Kutsher in 2007 discussed being grilled about their pool and golf course decades before. Many of their guests didn’t swim or play golf, she reported. They just wanted to know that the facilities were there.

In a film edit mix that is heavy on contemporary conversation, lighter on historical footage, featuring lots of current day reflections (sometimes quite literal history lessons as delivered by young academics who are experts in the early 1900s Jewish farming cum hotel industry) — we are told much and not shown enough.  The pace of the editing is sometimes relentlessly similar and the filming appears to have transpired on similarly cloudy days.  The images feel real, perhaps, but not evocative for those of us who have never visited this locale. We return over and over to the long empty hallways and the tables filled with happy and aging residents and long sometimes redundant (yet loving) recollections of Kutsher family and long time employees. A business model that no longer fits the reality of the times is described over many minutes when the most evocative images are minimized: an elderly man eagerly making his way through several courses of food beside a young historian gamely articulating the eras of Jewish summer resort; an ice skating champion describing how she found, as a young divorcee with children, a working home on the ice rink she eventually maintained (her aging and athletic small frame driving the Zamboni in 2007 is worth the price of admission); discarded skates and posed skating pictures when we return to that rink once it has closed forever; long time clients describing their second full dinners — it was all included. These resonant human stories are touched upon, then danced by as we return over and over to the reflections of the owners.

The film served as an impetus for some fabulous observations in my JCC screening crowd, the majority of whom, it seemed, had spent time at Kutsher’s or Grossinger’s or the Concord resorts and have strong opinions about their demise.  One viewer mused on the possibilities of marketing the beautiful Catskill area around the hotels, as efforts to refurbish them proceed, as a cultural museum with people from the early 1900s — a kind of Jewish Colonial Williamsburg.  Audience members asserted that ironic New York Williamsburg residents might find farms with cows and rooming houses attractive.  Another viewer mused that the area might be offered as a campground for arts and cultural festivals. Have we heard of the Burning Man festival in Nevada?  A quipster offered that the Catskill effort could be called “Burning Mensch.”  One of the filmmakers offered through laughter: “with the right permit you could make it happen.” The area holds cultural and family history for thousands.  Gambling and gaming interests loom large, and the green hills are truly beautiful.  The filmmakers remarked that they were inspired to film these memories and this particular resort after visits in the early 2000s gave them the feeling that “history was passing before our eyes.” Kudos to them for capturing what they have done. There are more stories to tell.

© Martha Wade Steketee (September 5, 2012)

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