Anyone who has ever spent a weekend at one of the great Catskill resorts most likely has fond recollections of overeating, enjoying a variety of wonderful day programs, and going to the hotel’s nightclub. You paid a flat fee that entitled you to most of the amenities and free admission to the evening entertainment.
For much of the middle part of the twentieth century, hundreds of thousands of Jews fled the hot urban centers for the fresh air and cozy atmosphere of the Catskill’s so-called Borscht Belt. And since at least 1950, filmmakers have tried to provide a flavor of what life was like there. Josef Berne’s 1950 Yiddish film, “Catskill Honeymoon,” about a newlywed couple celebrating in the Catskills, followed the same year by Joseph Seiden’s “Monticello, Here We Come,” were showcases for a cascade of entertainers.
Emile Ardolino directed Eleanor Bergstein’s 1987 “Dirty Dancing,” about a Jewish family’s vacation in the Catskills, and the encounter between Baby (Jennifer Grey) and Johnny the dance instructor (Patrick Swayze), is a wonderful dance film that remains popular to this day. Twelve years later, Tony Goldwyn and Pamela Gray gave us “A Walk on the Moon,” a film that starred Diane Lane, Liev Schreiber and Viggo Mortensen, providing a look at a Jewish woman who lived in a bungalow colony, where her husband would join her on weekends. Mixed with these films are movies that documented or celebrated Woodstock, the grand musical event that happened on a farm just a few miles from Monticello.
Some wonderful cinema has used the summer Catskill landscape as the canvas, but what was the story waiting to be told? Was it the need to escape to a cooler climate in the summer, before there were air conditioners? The communities that developed either at the resorts or at the “kohk-aleyns”? The Jewish summer camps? Why Jews chose to vacation only with other Jews? The various intrigues, relationships, and marriages that grew out of these summer encounters and how that affected American Jewish life? Communities of Socialists, Communists, Zionists, Holocaust survivors, and others who found the Catskills their summer home? The rise of the Catskill summer phenomenon and what brought about its collapse? There is so much material to draw on!
Film directors Mevlut Akkaya and Ron Frank and writer Lawrence Richards chose as the central story of their movie “When Comedy Went to School” the question of why there are so many Jewish comedians, going so far as to posit that the birth of modern standup comedy began in the Catskills. Were the Catskill nightclubs indeed a boot camp for what the filmmakers label as “the greatest generation of comedians?” They make their argument over the course of their 83-minute documentary film.
Robert Klein, who was one of those comedians who cut his eyeteeth in the Borscht Belt nightclubs, shares wonderful memories and provides a superb narration and framework for the film. The movie’s creators faced the problem of how to pull together a vast assemblage of great recorded comedy moments, give it structure and a historical framework, and incorporate commentary from an impressive group of comedians ready and willing to share their experiences. The filmmakers rose to the occasion, giving us an entertaining look at the heyday of Jewish comedy. They do their best to include just about everyone, though of course there are some omissions. Footage from the Catskills was not always available, so photographs are integrated along with clips from a few memorable cinema moments. Seeing Danny Kaye do his impressive work on film is always a treat, but understanding how these film clips push forward the film’s premise is not always clear. On the other hand, seeing a Jerry Lewis segment from his 1960 film, “The Bellboy,” gives a visual portrait of Catskills life, because so many of the comedians who performed in the clubs at night waited on tables or were bellboys or tummlers during the day.
This summer, I had an opportunity to spend a few days teaching at the new Kutcher’s Resort near Monticello, where new management is trying to revitalize one of the grand Borscht Belt resorts. Going into that nightclub to watch a performer brought back so many amazing memories! The moviemakers try to recreate this experience, as Robert Klein describes what it was like for him, when he was young, to watch and learn from the amazing talent on stage. For a few moments, we are spectators at Kutcher’s, watching the greats experiment with comedy onstage. As we listen to commentary from the resort’s grande dame, Helen Kutcher, who died recently, and from her son Mark, we come to understand how these resorts were a training ground for much of the talent that would soon move on to television, the comedy clubs and Las Vegas. What could be better than watching early vignettes by Klein, Mort Sahl, Woody Allen, Jackie Mason, Joan Rivers, Mickey Freeman, Lenny Bruce or Totie Fields, to name but a few? Watching Sid Caesar, who goes off on a tangent and does his unparalleled pretend-foreign-language routine, alone is worth the price of admission. Jerry Lewis shows us his comfort level as a Jew, reminiscing about what it was for him to go onstage with his parents when he was 6 years old. Jackie Mason is classic Jackie Mason. Veterans Larry King and Joe Franklin provide thoughtful insights.
At times it seems that the filmmakers try to do too much. Indeed, what is this film about, comedy or the Catskills? But the two are intertwined. We are offered a fun and highly entertaining look at comedy at a time when four letter words rarely were uttered, and most of the audience was Jewish.
The film is now playing in New York City.