Lawrence Richards said he wanted to make a documentary about the seminal role the Jewish resorts in New York’s Catskills Mountains played in the evolution of modern American comedy because he thought its importance had long been given short shrift.
“I thought it was an important period that was totally underreported, and I wanted to write about it,” said Richards, who conceived of, wrote and produced the film, When Comedy Went to School, which is opening this week in Philadelphia.
Richards and his fellow filmmakers, Ron Frank and Mevlut Akkaya, spent years lining up the financing for the film, as well as the recollections of some of the comedians who worked during the golden age of the Catskills in the middle of the 20th century. “I wanted them to reflect on it from the rear view mirror of history — what is their take on it now?” said Richards, a 60-something New Yorker who has written and produced films, plays, miniseries and radio programs.
It sounds like it turned into the ultimate comedy fantasy camp rather than a production. Big-name participants included Sid Caesar, Mort Sahl, Jerry Lewis, Jerry Stiller and Jackie Mason. And Richards’ research team uncovered archival footage of many more, including Totie Fields, Henny Youngman, Lenny Bruce and Danny Kaye plying their trade on the stages of resorts like Grossinger’s, The Tamarack and Kutsher’s, which is the last remaining major hotel from that time.
The sheer number of marquee names who are shown in the film, not to mention the dozens and dozens who didn’t appear onscreen but also strode the floorboards of the region’s theaters and nightclubs, are a testament to the onetime power of the Catskills, which have also been known as The Jewish Alps, The Borscht Belt and Solomon County, a play on Sullivan County.
Known today primarily for its Orthodox enclaves and shuttered hotels in various stages of decay, the Catskills, which lay roughly three hours northwest of New York City, became one of the largest resort areas in the United States in the 20th century, thanks to the proliferation of hotels, resorts, bungalow colonies and kokh-aleyns, which is Yiddish for “cook-alone,” and referred to self-catered boarding houses.
Beginning in earnest in 1907, when Kutsher’s was built, the region developed rapidly to serve the needs of working-class and middle-class Jews who had precious few options when it came to vacations. “The Catskills was a necessary invention,” explained Larry Epstein, the author of a number of Jewish-themed books, including The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America. “There was such widespread anti-Semitism that Jews couldn’t get into hotels, they couldn’t get into clubs; so they decided, ‘If we can’t get into their places, we’ll open our own.’ ”
Epstein, who provides scholarly perspective in the documentary, said the timing couldn’t have been better for a new generation of comedians. The Catskills, he said, became a boot camp of sorts for those looking for an environment where they could learn and hone their craft like the one vaudeville provided to comedians of the previous generation.
“Vaudeville, which was the training ground for comedians, died in the mid-’20s because of radio and sound film,” he said. “There was no replacement until the Catskills came along.”
“Boot camp” may be an exaggeration, but only a slight one. As the documentary shows, a comedian who came to work at one of the hundreds of resorts dotting the treacherously constructed Route 17 as it hairpinned its way through Sullivan and Ulster counties had to earn his way onstage through work.
And they had to do more than just tell jokes. Before they headlined, Lenny Bruce and Buddy Hackett were busboys, Red Buttons was a bellhop, Danny Kaye was a tummler (Yiddish for someone who creates a lot of noise and tumult — basically, a good-time facilitator), Sid Caesar played saxophone in Benny Goodman’s band, and Jackie Mason, well …
“Busboy, lifeguard, social director: I stunk so bad at all of them that the owner had no other choice but to let me just tell jokes,” Mason recalled in an email interview. He was working on his routine long before he was officially hired as an entertainer. “They made me a lifeguard, even though I couldn’t swim,” he recalled. “I told jokes about my ineptitude as a lifeguard. ‘Don’t go in the pool, because I’m too busy guarding my life to guard yours’ — those jokes tore the house down.”
Once onstage, Epstein said, it didn’t get any easier. Like the other entertainers — and indeed, like every other employee — they were expected to work hours at a time. With so much time to fill, the comedians learned how to write reams of new material daily and how to improvise depending on the makeup of the crowd, and they were given the necessary luxury of trying out different facets of their onstage personas until they were well-honed. Sahl became the political and current-events satirist, Mason the caustic observer and Hackett the foul-mouthed joker.
The majority of these individuals are no longer with us, and it has been decades since the region was a desirable destination. It became the victim of a less segregated, prejudiced society. In the second half of the last century, once Jews could stay anywhere they wanted, and once cheap airfare made it possible to have a vacation anywhere in the United States or Western Europe for a price similar to one in the Catskills, fewer and fewer people vacationed there.
The resorts may have closed, but the importance of the Catskills as an incubator for modern comedy continues to resonate. For Cory Kahaney, acclaimed as one of the best comedians in America today, without the Catskills experience, she says she may not have embarked on a career that has included numerous tours, Comedy Central specials and producing the annual late December Moo Shu Jew comedy/Chinese dinner events in Philadelphia and other cities.
“The very first time I saw live comedy was at Grossinger’s, when I was 5 years old,” the 50-year-old Kahaney, who is also featured in the film, recalled in a phone interview. “There was the option of putting your child in babysitting so you could see the show, but I refused to go” — leaving her parents no choice but to sneak her into a Buddy Hackett show. Kahaney still sounded incredulous relating the story. “It had a tremendous effect on me — he was saying all these dirty words, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, from this you can make a living?’ ”
Although Kahaney jokes that she is one of the last four comedians who still work the Catskills — she did a show Aug. 3 at Hidden Ridge Resort in Monticello — she and her contemporaries never had the opportunity to develop their skills in the type of hard-working, collegial environment that Hackett and his compatriots did. Instead, they had Open Mike nights at comedy clubs, where they battled for mere minutes of stage time to develop what their predecessors could do for hours at a time.
Today, the new boot camp is a virtual one. With social media options like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, there are endless opportunities to practice the craft. And thanks to online archives and documentaries like When Comedy Went to School, there are just as many ways to absorb the lessons of past masters.
As Richards put it, “We can still learn from that creative time. People today stand on the shoulders of their predecessors, just as those guys stood on the shoulders of Mark Twain and so on, all the way back to Aristophanes.”
IF YOU GO
When Comedy Went to School
Opening Aug. 16
at Ritz at the Bourse
400 Ranstead St., Philadelphia