Live tech demos are notoriously dangerous. Something inexplicable always goes wrong. Wanderlust Projects is subject to this phenomenon, too. No matter how much we scout a location, no matter how carefully we plan, something unanticipated and nerve-wracking happens the day of the actual production. With the Candyland Trespass Safari, we spotted security in the defunct factory for the first time only after our 50 guests had fanned out across the facility. Before the Illicit Couple’s Retreat, one set of joyriders after another pulled over to nose around the property as we were setting up. Luck had been with us though. My collaborator N.D. Austin and I always managed to pull it off in the end. I’m sad to say that luck left us recently.
We found out about the fate of the last of the grand Borscht Belt resorts in December. Kutcher’s Country Club will be razed to make way for a yoga retreat. We visited and were captivated by the sprawling, outdated complex: the massive gathering spaces, the kitschy carpeting, the suits left as if room service had been through just yesterday. Kutcher’s felt like something.
Even though I grew up just on the other side of the Hudson River, I had no personal relationship with the Borscht Belt, a collection of 1,000 bungalows and resorts that catered to Jewish New Yorkers from the 1920s through the end of the 20th century. We had to do some research to make sense of Kutcher’s. Borscht Belt lore is a treasure trove of memories. People had good times there that they recount in numerous books and news reports. I was knee deep in library books on the “Jewish Alps” when I found a haunting video on YouTube. A man explored the dark and vacant Kutcher’s just before the estate auction recording nearly a half hour of POV footage, narrating aloud about the memories each spot brought up.
I used to go swimming here plenty of times. And the Deep End Lounge… Beautiful chandelier… And now for the first time ever, I’m gonna go into the offices. As you see, the bingo cards which we’d play with Tom and Barry. Yea, good old Tom and Barry Bingo… [video 1 of 2, 4:42]
Yup, and the card room is right over here, just as I thought. Some chairs from the night club. I guess this is where they moved the shul… Don’t ask me why I am doing this. (He picks up the ripped out phone handset off the floor and places it back on the hook.) [video 2 of 2, 5:23]
Is that sound of sniffles him crying?
Wanderlust Projects designed an experience (codenamed “The Mambo”) based on the resort’s heyday. We signed on bands, comedians, a bartender, and even a tummler. The two dozen guests were ready to bring their children for a day in the country.
Despite scheduling the experience on Easter and Passover weekend, the property was suddenly crawling with demolition crew. It was impossible to sneak our sizable group onto the property.
We left the city behind and headed north on I-87, intermittently chatting and dozing. An hour went by before we pulled over into the parking lot of a rest stop. Benedetto hopped out of the van and asked everyone to gather for a quick pow wow.
[Benedetto] had just received a call from Austin, she said, and it turned out bulldozers and construction workers had beaten us to the event location. Today’s adventure would have to be rerouted. The guests, who just had arrived at Grand Central with even fewer details than I had, were being sent home. She looked genuinely distraught.
We managed a solid save for the crew, who were already en rout. Some of the band members said that if we hadn’t said anything, they would have thought that the detour to the Widow Jane Mine was the plan all along. We unfortunately had to disband the guest before they set out on the road. We mailed each family or couple a care package with a personal letter explaining what happened and memorabilia from the resort.
I was sad that our plans to offer Kutcher’s a final farewell were foiled. I was so steeped in the complex emotions the place stirred up for people who visited and worked there that I began to feel those sentiments, or at least some shadow of them, myself.
The Gothamist gave us the opportunity to write about Kutcher’s. We shared the insights of our research with enthusiasm and appreciation for the larger cultural impact the Borscht Belt had American culture. The heartfelt comments on the post have been a delight to read. Here are a few of my favorites:
Sent this to my Mom. She says, referring to her late father:
“i guess that says it all. end of an era. the last time i was at Kutshers with Saba there was a fight between 2 rabbis at the saturday service and Saba won the raffle and got the weekend for free. a fitting end.”
I waitressed at the coffee shop there in the early 90s. A guy I dated in college is from the area and we used to drive down and work crazy hours a couple of weekends a month. We stayed in the employee quarters that are hidden away behind the hotel. It really was like Dirty Dancing. Except for the dirty dancing part.
I have a fond memory of serving coffee to polka legend Jimmy Sturr. He was wearing a purple lamé shirt.
Dad’s Catskills memories were from the early days. He & his parents were musicians, who played in the house orchestras in the 1920s and 30s. One of his earliest memories was of driving up to Joe Slutsky’s Nevele Mansion c. 1925, as a small child. He played in Catskills hotels in the 1930s, when he was a student at Juilliard. He remembered being at some hotel in 1936 or 37, when Naftule Brandwein came to play. After the show, the whole orchestra went into Monty, they go to the deli, and Brandwein starts to play. All over town, windows pop open, and cries echo of “Naftule’s back! Naftule’s back!”
Thanks for the memories, Kutcher’s.