Of the innumerable comedians that graced the casino stage of our colony through so many summers, most were pedestrian, their weary jokes inciting raucous laughter mostly because and it’s level of inebriation, the half numb audience might have giggled at a five car pile-up on Route 17. Also, after a time working the Borscht Belt, many of these comics were plying the very same routines they’d originated a decade before, so much so that it was not uncommon for the crowd to scream out the punch line, the entertainment then more closely resembling a sing-a-long than a monologue. “Okay, everyone, all together now, two Jews walk into a bar…”
The comic was usually the “headliner,” if being the featured of two acts in a stuffy, un-air conditioned bungalow colony casino, replete with splintery folding chairs, dim lighting, battalions of moths and mosquitoes, the sour smell of rye, bourbon and pretzels, and a permanent haze of smoke can be called “headlining.” The better comics knew just how to use their humble and desolate surroundings to best advantage. “After twenty-five years in show business,” one might say, “after opening for Dean Martin, Vic Damone and Perry Como….finally, here I find myself, at the pinnacle of my career: Goldenberg’s Paradise Cottages….”
The singers preceding the comedians were never very good. They could carry a tune, but they’d brought with them arrangements that the colony band—usually three or four teachers on the lam from the NYC Board of Ed—had scant time to absorb, but it was quite a stretch to consider the ensuing cacophony emanating from the stage as “professional.” Usually these singers opened with an upbeat, lively number, like “For Once in My Life,” or “Hey Look Me Over.” They proceeded through a litany of tunes—show tunes, ballads, bluesy torch songs, an occasional Yiddish number, usually “My Yiddishe Mama,” “Rumania,” or the ubiquitous “Bei Mir Bish Du Shain.” Other staples were “The Impossible Dream,” “My Way,” and of course anything at all from Fiddler on the Roof, especially “Sunrise, Sunset.”
The comedians never faced the challenge of having a tough act to follow. One recalls Jackie Mason, one Sunday evening on the Ed Sullivan Show, having the daunting and unfortunate task of immediately following an appearance by The Beatles. The Beatles, close to inciting a near riot amongst the teens seated throughout the audience, had run slightly over on their time. As Mason moved center stage, Sullivan, from the wings, held up two fingers, to indicate that Mason had just two minutes to shpeil. Jackie, for his part, turned to Sullivan and ad-libbed, “Yeah, and I got one finger for you…” It was his middle finger, and thus, according to show-biz lore, did Mason never again appear on a Sullivan broadcast.
The comedians were of the old school, mostly retelling weary, time-worn jokes about henpecked husbands, disrespectful children, infuriating mother-in-laws, odd and curious friends and neighbors. Occasionally the humor turned blue, but not too off color, and often there were a series of jokes possessing Yiddish punch-lines that were understood by perhaps half the audience but which managed to gather the loudest and heartiest laughs of the evening. These comics had fashioned their craft over a thousand Catskill summer evenings, performing two, three, and sometimes four and shows in one night. On a typical Saturday night at the height of the season, a comic would work a hotel as an opening act, and then do successive gigs at two bungalow colonies, occasionally finishing off with a late show at yet another hotel. What is amazing is not that they managed this hectic routine and still seemed fresh at each gig, but rather that they didn’t fall asleep behind the wheel negotiating the narrow, twisting Sullivan County back-roads, and wind up pitching their cars into a stream or cow pasture.
Much has been written about the Borscht Belt influence on American-Jewish humor, and thus on the nation’s taste for comedy as a whole. We know, for instance, that small hotels and resorts were the breeding grounds for Danny Kaye, Alan King, Mel Brooks, Sid Caesar, Neil Simon, Carl Reiner, Moss Hart, Red Buttons, Jerry Lewis, Woody Allen, Buddy Hackett, Jackie Mason, Shecky Greene, and countless other talents. But the mainstays of the bungalow summers were those that enjoyed a modicum of success, without ever truly breaking out into the big time. These men were named Jack Eagle, Freddie Roman, Charlie Callas, Joe Mauro, Jack Wakefield, Stuie Stone, Lenny Rush, Mal Z Lawrence, Lenny Schultz, London Lee, Van Harris…so many others whose names slip from memory. They plied an ancient trade—genuine descendeants of the court jester—moving across country roads in the dead of night to bring a small dose of cheer and merriment to those who otherwise might never experience live, in the flesh, “professional” entertainment.
While still in college, a friend and I had initiated an event on the campuses of several New York City University (CUNY) campuses. It was called “Coffehouse.” On alternate Friday evenings we presented a musical act and a comic, not very much different from what we’d grown to know as children in the Catskills. The exceptions were few, but significant. Working with the funding of a student activities fund was far less constraining than the limited dollars of a bungalow colony entertainment budget, and so we were able to book “name” music acts—popular folk singers, nostalgic fifties groups like Dion and the Belmonts, the Coasters, the Drifters, Jay and the Americans. But where were we to find the comedians?
Nowadays every small backwater American town boasts at least one comedy club, but in the early 1970’s, in New York City, there were but two showcase clubs: Bud Friedman’s Improvisation and Rick Newman’s Catch a Rising Star. Here comics had a chance to hone their craft, to sample new routines, to be, well, bad, if they needed to be, in the pursuit of somehow being better. My friends David, Larry and I haunted the clubs, especially on Thursday evenings, when one could see ten, twelve acts in a night. We booked comics for our Coffehouse shows right from the back table of these clubs—usually $200 for a Friday evening appearance, two shows. And these comics, seldom receiving more than a meal and cab fare at the showcase clubs, were grateful for the work. Over time, as we provided them with semi-consistent work, we developed friendships with many of these fledging comedians.
We then had a brainstorm to canvas the Borscht Belt in early spring, stopping in to each and every bungalow colony, and offering the opportunity for the owner to break away from the aged assortment of Catskill comics, and present comedy that was new, cutting edge and, we believed, the wave of the future. We pitched our hearts out, but we might as well have been Confederate war bonds—the colony owners were sticking with their reliable agents, the Rapps, and the tried and tired comics of yore.
So it passed, then, that while the Catskills may boast having honed the talents of those previously listed here, bungalow colony experiences are sadly absent from the early resumes of those we know as Billy Crystal, Robin Williams, Jay Leno, David Letterman, Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, Elaine Boosler, Andy Kauffman, Robert Klein, Richard Belzer, Richard Lewis, Steve Landesburg and Gilbert Gottfried.
Years later, as adults, my very same friend David, and I were placed in charge of arranging for the Saturday evening performers at our Monticello bungalow colony. All of the comedians we’d known a decade or so earlier were now stars of film and television, well beyond our meager budget. Still, young, hungry talent is always available, if one knows where and how to forage. Through the few summers we booked the acts, we were fortunate to have been entertained by a large group of gifted comics, several whom have moved on to wider renown. It is with a sense of pride that we’ve witnessed the emergence of comics like Ray Romano and Kevin James, because in some small and curious way, we feel a sharing in their successes.