Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The Borscht Belt

Today while writing an email, I rekindled some old memories, some of them not even mine. Memories of a place I grew up, from stories told to me that made me feel as if I had been there. Stories about places I drove by, weathered billboards I would read every day, and hotels that now sat empty, the days of laughter and fun as much of a memory for the buildings as they were for me. I was writing about my family restaurant, The Dodge Inn, the Catskill Mountains, and all the people that my step-father had seen in his years of owning it.

Taken from the menu celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Dodge Inn:

"Fifty years doesn't seem like a long time as America celebrates its Bicentennial Year. But in fifty years the Dodge Inn has compiled a colorful history while delighting thousands of guests at its tables.

Originally a country roadhouse, the old Dodge Inn began its life as a summer boarding inn. For twenty-one dollars a week, guests were treated to an abundance of fresh air, home-cooked meals, and nightly entertainment with a Victrola record player.

During the late 1920s, a young Italian immigrant named Charlie Porpora took his life savings and his Irish bride and bought the Dodge Inn. In a short time, "Uncle Charlie" and "Aunt Margie" traded the Dodge's reputation for good lodging and built a new one for great food.

Like many of America's early inns, the Dodge Inn was simple in its decor and the menu was basic. In fact, for the first forty-seven years, no printed menu existed. Yet the Dodge Inn became the favorite dining spot for all celebrities who entertained the Catskill's visitors.

Uncle Charlie's basic menu of family-style steak, giant potatoes, chef's salad, and luscious onions kept the whole regalia of nephews, nieces, and cousins busy on summer vacations...and it still does! In fact little changed over the years, until 1968 when a fire destroyed the original inn.

The new Dodge Inn promises its guests the same tradition and family-style hospitality that has kept it alive and growing for three generations.

We know Uncle Charlie was very proud to be an American, in a land where opportunity and

 freedom still abound. And we think he would be just as proud of the Dodge Inn as we are, as we continue a fifty year family tradition."

During his years at the restaurant, my step-father has the great pleasure of having many celebrities dine among his regulars. Several of them came back again and again, whenever in the area.

Among those famous people were Marlene Dietrich, Lee J. Cobb, Frankie Lane, Red Buttons, legendary comedian Pat Cooper, Milton Berle, Alan King, Perry Como, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, Don Rickles, boxers Rocky Marciano, Rocky Graziano and Michael Spinks, Tony Bennett, Buddy Hackett and singer Billy Eckstein.

My step-father Frank Porpora with his first wife, Pam Porpora, and comedian Pat Cooper.

In fact, one time when my parents were in a Las Vegas audience to see Don Rickles, he told the audience that our restaurant was one of the best in the "mountains" for a good steak. What better endorsement can you get than that of Don Rickles??

In this picture you will see comedians Milton Berle on the left, Phil Silvers (in the glasses) and way in the back on the right, Red Buttons.

We had pictures of all of the people who came in,on the walls in the lobby of the restaurant, some of the pictures taken right at the table while they were enjoying dinner! My step-father even had a familiar name for Al Capone, another very famous person who frequented the restaurant; he used to call him “Uncle Al”.

Our restaurant was an old boarding house that used to be owned by an aging woman who drove a Dodge before it changed hands to my step-father's Aunt and Uncle as told above in the excerpt from the menu. They eventually passed it down to him. The restaurant was in the heart of Catskills, an area nicknamed The Borscht Belt and The Jewish Alps.

In the photo above, on the left is Jimmy Demaret, the first three-time winner of the Masters Golf Tournament and on the right, comic actor and writer, Sid Caesar.

The Catskills were a haven for people to get away from the city and enjoy the summer with their families. People mostly from Brooklyn, many from the Bronx, and some from Queens would retreat to the bungalows or hotel rooms of the mountains. A New York Times article said that the hotels and bungalow colonies in this area became the summer world of over a million Jewish New Yorkers in the 1950's and 60's. Imagine that?

Of the many of the hotels these people stayed at, the following are some of the most well known.

The Concord was one of the big ones. At the time, it was owned by Ray Parker and family, but is sadly now closed and in a state of desperate repair. I was recently up there and driving around the place, seeing curtains waving through broken windows was a little eerie, almost ghost like. Plans to re-open the hotel have been in the works for years. At one time, Westin Hotels was looking at making it a golf resort but the plans for gaming in the area haven't been approved yet, so everyone is hesitant to sink the money in. My step-father was a personal friend of the Parker family and they would come into our restaurant quite often to eat. They were the ones who brought all the celebrities to the restaurant...the ones that used to play the showrooms.

Kutsher’s, which was owned by Milton and Helen Kutsher, was a fixture in the early years of the hotels in the area, just as Milt and Helen were fixtures in the hotel. I remember seeing at least one of them almost every day, strolling through the lobby or dining room areas, during the time I worked there.

I also remember going to
The Raleigh, dancing with the young people up from the city. I had a friend who worked there and he would sneak us in the back door. I also once worked at The Pines in South Fallsburg, which seemed just as old twenty years ago when I worked there as it is today.  I remember it had a beautiful lobby area, with an imposing staircase.

The Nevele, located in Ellenville, was owned by the Slutsky family, who were also very close personal friends of my step-father. Not only were they personal friends, they were also very good customers. They would come to the restaurant religiously (at least once a week) for a good steak. Back in that day, our steaks were unlimited and came with family style servings of salad, bread, potatoes and stewed onions. The Nevele, the word 'eleven' spelled backwards, has been rumored to have gotten its name because there were eleven original members of the family when the place was founded, but who knows if there is really any truth to that. What I do know, is that the family were always wonderful when they came to our restaurant.  The Nevele is the most unique-shaped resort in the Catskills area, and operated for 106 years before closing in 2009.

And then we have Brown's hotel in Loch Sheldrake, which was owned by Charles and Lillian Brown. Phil Brown, a member of the Brown's Hotel family and Professor of Sociology at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, has founded
The Catskill Institute which, according to their website is "an organization promoting research and education on the significance of the Catskill Mountains in American Jewish life." The information on this site is fascinating and has brought back so many memories about places that I had forgotten even existed. While searching this site, I came across this page of books filled with stories of the Catskills, Sullivan County and the hotels and bungalow colonies that made this place what it was.

For those of you not familiar with the area, you have to only look to movies like
Dirty Dancing, famous for its depiction of the Catskill Mountain area at that time. The story, written by Eleanor Bergstein, is based on her experience at Grossinger’s, the resort she used to spend summers at when she was a young girl.

Another movie that came out about six years ago named
A Walk On The Moon, also set in the Catskills. Diane Lane and Viggo Mortensen really gave life to a time where the women stayed at the bungalow colony for the week with the kids and the husband would come up during the weekends, showing what it was like spending the summers with the people they came to know as an extension of their families. I wasn't alive back then, but it made me feel as I felt over 20 years ago, just seeing the hotels and bungalow colonies that are still in existence in some areas and also the hotels that had not closed yet. As a side note, Viggo is totally hot in this movie.

I go back to New York quite often and when I do, I love to visit this area. My family still has ties there. My cousin owns a jewelry store in Monticello and a pizzeria in Rock Hill. Our summer home is in Masten Lake, just minutes from the hub of Monticello. I have friends from Ellenville, family living in the area, and memories that flash before my eyes whenever I get close to that neck of the woods. Driving up the Wurtsboro mountain, stopping at
The Canal Towne Emporium for some Atomic Fireballs, swinging by Masten Lake to see the sandy beach area that my family owned, where I used to swim and make friends with the camp kids, and driving by Fialkoff's bakery in Monticello make me feel like I'm 16 years old again.

Now they want to bring people back into that area by building resorts and casinos. I love the idea of people experiencing the Catskills once again, but it can never be the same as in the days when it was known as The Borscht Belt. I have felt such joy writing this post and I am going to make an effort to preserve whatever I know about my time there and dig some more stories about my step-father. The history will always be there, we just have to uncover it.


lime said...

what a great post and terrific idea for future posts. thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

What great memories, thanks for sharing.

Katie said...

Wow, what a great post! It is very interesting to read about your past memories. Did you step-father's restaurant close, or did he sell it to someone else to run?

Anonymous said...

What a great drive up and down memory mountain! My grandparents took me and my sister to the Catskills as kids. I wonder if we ate in your family's restaurant? It would have been a place my grandfather could not resist.

Thanks for sharing!

alwswrite said...

Thank you so much for writing this; I'm going to send it to my Dad and I'm sure he'll bring it up to my Grandma's place this weekend. This coming summer may be her last in the Catskills -- the pressure is on for them to sell those bungalows now. This post is a wonderful sendoff after decades of family memories.

Doublebogie said...

Woweee! What a trip down memory lane! I still live here in the beautiful Catskills and I know very well of the places you speak of.
I still remember my mom teaching swimming at Gossingers. I used to go with her.
Thanks for the reminders!

Anonymous said...

Great post. I have been to every one of those places numerous times as a child and teenager. I had my first kiss at the Concord. My parents met at the Nevele. I know they're trying to get casino gambling into those places to revive them, but I think that era is probably gone.

Anonymous said...

Okay, just have to say you are FABULOUS! I'm a friend of Grace's, we work together. She turned me onto your blog, after we realized we are both sarcastic bitches, she thought I'd appreciate your story telling, which I do. I'm originally from NY and live in Tucson, for about 8 years now. I totally agree about the heat thing, what are these people nuts, it's freakin 75 degrees out, I have my windows open for god's sake.

Anyway, keep up the good work. Happy Holidays! Steff (shopndiva@hotmail.com)

Anonymous said...

I am doing some family research and my great grand parents used to own the Dodge Inn. I am looking for information about them since I did not know them at all. Does the AVERY name mean anything to you? Feel free to contact me if you know any information. politicl1@aol.com. THANK YOU!!

Anonymous said...

As a member of the Slutsky family, thanks for the memory of The Dodge Inn Loved going there with my folks, and have never found a "steak place" to replace it

The Daily Rant said...

I was just re-reading this post and I wanted to say thank you to everyone who left a comment.

The Catskills hold some of the best memories of my life and to be part of a family whose business was part of a wonderful era makes me proud.

There will be nothing like it again.

Randy Resnick said...

Great article. My name is Randy Resnick and I owned the Dodge Inn for 9 years. I used to love the stories that people would tell of how much the restaurant meant to them. I now own Bernie's Holiday Restaurant in Rock Hill and we still serve the Dodge Inn Steak on the menu and it's still our best seller.

Anonymous said...

I worked for my Uncle Frank Porpora at the Dodge Inn during the 1970's and I remember waiting on the Slutskys! We had great times at the "Inn" and I loved waiting on all the celebrities who came thru. Billy Eckstine was one of my favorites!

Anonymous said...

I never get tired of reading this article. Brings back wonderful memories of a great era. Almost every weekend was spent visiting Aunt Pam and Uncle Frank (and the cousins). Helping out in the restaurant. I am talking about the late 1950’s, 1960’s and into the 70’s. I can remember one time in particular being in the kitchen and Uncle Frank walks in with this gruff speaking gentleman. He said I want you to meet my nephew from Connecticut! He bopped me on the head and said hi there young fella! It was Phil Harris! Many fond memories of Masten Lake, Lake Louise Marie and the resorts where we went horseback riding and skiing at Holiday Hill. Thank you for the memories! Anthony M.

The Daily Rant said...

Thank you for the response! I love hearing the memories of Pam, Frank, the Dodge Inn, Masten Lake the family. Weren't you doing some family tree stuff? Are you still doing that? Drop me a line sometime - salenalettera@gmail.com Take care of yourself! ~ Salena