- playwright of Last Chance for Happiness
a play set in a Catskills bungalow colony in 1959.
Interview conducted by Lauren Bass
- Lauren Bass: Why the Catskills?
Joe Greenhouse: Because I spent a summer in the bungalow colony when I was a kid, the same age as Marshall (in the play). It left such a vivid impression in my mind. I wanted to write a family play. I thought it was time. I had been thinking about it for a long time. I needed a time and place. We always went to the Catskills when I was a kid. Every summer we would go to a hotel. My aunt would be in a bungalow colony. When I was looking for a place to set my play, I kept going back to that summer we spent with my aunt. It was a very dramatic summer. My aunt was crazed. My mom had just had surgery and we were staying with my aunt until she recovered. My aunt’s son actually eloped.
This play is loosely based on a true story. What happened was she had some strange incestuous, not sexual, relationship with him (her son). They were actually saving to do something. I don’t know what it was. But they did have an account together. It may have been for school. But it was an account separate from the one she had with her husband. And her son eloped and cleaned her out. There was none of this stuff about California; I made that up for the play. But, she went nuts. She was like a lunatic all summer. And that was when we were staying with her.
I was not used to the bungalow colony. We were upper-middle class. We lived in Pennsylvania. We weren’t part of the New York Jew crowd. We were a bit more refined. But the colony was just so colorful to me. You know, with the loudspeaker. I think they have phones now. You know though: “Mo Goldberg, telephone call. Telephone for Mo Goldberg.” And all the people. All the women. When I was a kid I loved to listen to my mother and all her friends. All the fighting and carrying on. I thought it was a great place, a colorful place. And dramatically, it was an interesting story, I thought, about my aunt. We lived on the top of the hill that summer. My aunt was crazy. She fought with everyone. Everyone would try to shut her up. But you couldn’t shut her up. She just wouldn’t shut up. When people would ask about the hill, they’d say, “you mean where the sisters are?” They were infamous because they fought so much. I just embellished after that. When I first started writing it was about my aunt, and then I changed it all around because it just wasn’t working; it wasn’t going where I wanted it to.
- You mentioned that you spent summers in the Catskills. Where did you stay?
It always depended on the food. If my mother liked the food, we went back. And then all of a sudden, they’d decide, “the food’s not good this year”, and we’d find a new place. Brown’s, Brickman’s, these are just names I remember. I can’t even remember what they look like. I just have vague memories. I remember the shows, the casinos. I remember I didn’t like going because I had to go to camp. I didn’t like the day camp. They had the children’s dining room, which I hated.
I remember going to the Granite. Then we went to the Concord, but not for long. We didn’t have that kind of money. We’d go for two weeks. My father would get two weeks off every summer. The hotels were where the whole family would go for two solid weeks. We didn’t like it. My two brothers and I didn’t like anything. The little one, I don’t remember whether or not he liked it. But the two of us who were close in age didn’t want to go to camp. My parents loved it, though. My mother liked to play mah johng. My dad liked to golf.
I remember the food, too. I remember getting up in the morning, and you could smell the rolls and the eggs. I liked the food and the shows. The only thing I didn’t like was the day camp because they made me play with other kids. I liked to do my own thing. I think I would have liked the hotel better if I could have gone to town and gone to a movie. I loved when they showed movies at the hotel.
- How old were you went to the Catskills?
I was a kid, pre-teen. My family actually stopped going when I was a teen. We’d go for weekends occasionally. But by then, my parents felt we were old enough to stay home while they went up for a week.
- Have you been back since you were a child?
I went to summer school one summer in Monticello because I was such a horrible student. I had to take some classes because I flunked freshman year. Then years later I went back to the bungalow colony.
A couple years ago, a friend of mine was looking for houses up in the Catskills, so I went with her. I saw the bungalow colony. It was kind of sad. It wasn’t what I remembered. During that trip, I went back to Fialco’s. It had changed quite a bit. It looked uncared for. I used to love looking at the billboards for the hotels and the entertainers. I haven’t been there in many years.
When I think back on those years, I think fondly. Because it was funny. I’m a comic. My brother and I would do routines, mostly about the food. I couldn’t believe how much food was consumed. My mother would order everything. To taste a little of everything. All the desserts. And she’d always bring cookies back to the room. It was a nice memory when I think back.
I remember getting dressed up on Saturday nights. I loved Saturday nights. Everyone had these mink stoles. I remember the nightclub where we’d get these tall drinks. I remember seeing Totie Field.
- In the play Marshall is interested in acting. Was he based on you and your desire to be an actor?
I made him like me, who was effeminate as a child and loved theatre. But I was always shy. I harbored secret feelings, but never did anything . I was actually more of an artist. I painted. But I really wanted to be an actor.
- Did you ever try acting?
Yes, when I got older. For many years I was involved in comedy troupes. I was involved with many groups.
- Did you do any Catskills schtickshtick?
I worked with this woman and we used to do these two Jewish characters: my mother and my aunt destroying a waiter. We did cabaret. We started in the village and then toured for 6 years. I just got tired. We were growing apart. A steady diet of nightclubs will turn you off to performing. I just got tired of performing. But I loved the writing. So that’s what I’ve been doing since.
I’ve been part of a playwriting lab at the Terry Schreiber Studio and I created the play within the context of the studio.
- How did people respond to the play?
They loved it. This play has always done well from the very beginning. I’ve done a lot of other things. You always know when a project will work and when it doesn’t work. I think it works because of the character. When I did it for a staged reading, people who weren’t Jewish came up to me and said it was just like their family. You know people who were Italian or Irish. So, I think it’s universal. It just happens to be in a bungalow colony.
- What I loved was the way you captured the rapid fire of the way this family speaks and relates to one another. From page one it’s a big rolling snowball.
That’s how I wanted it to be. That’s my family. No matter what situation you are in, there’s always an opening for a line. With my family, we were always negative. My family was very funny. My mother was hysterical. Humor was so much a part of my family. Even my aunt, though she was mad as a hatter, had a great sense of humor. I always remember my mother and aunt when they’d get together and laugh, they’d laugh till they’d start crying. They were always fighting, but the laughter is what made the difference.
- Was it important to have actors who were Jewish?
Before the auditions, I wanted to use mostly Jews because I thought they’d understand the humor. But it didn’t work out that way. We just went for the right people. Not simply who was Jewish.
- Has this production been a work in progress?
I’ve been working on this for three years–off. Off and on. A year ago I decided I was ready to listen to this. We did a reading and then Terry offered me a production deal. From the first time I did a first couple of scenes, I just knew this was going to work. I had a feeling. This was right. From the beginning, I said this is workable.
- Did Lester (the director) or the rest of the cast have any experience in the Catskills?
I don’t know. I know he’s been involved in Jewish organizations in Cleveland. His sensibilities were right.
I don’t think that anyone in this cast even heard of a bungalow colony. But we just sat down and explained it to them. We showed them that great oral history book-the Frommers’ book It Happened in the Catskills. We made people familiar with the Catskills InstituteCI Website. It’s been so long since the real Jewish Catskills, so I don’t know how important it was to have actors who were familiar with it.
- What is your favorite scene? Your favorite character?
They are horrible people, but they are likable. I like them all. I like writing for them because I enjoy them. I love Loretta because she is direct. Tells everyone exactly what she feels. I would have loved to be like Loretta when I was younger. I love Marshall because he is so sensitive. He’s the nicest person in the house. I like them all. I understand them all.
- You said you wanted to write a family play, but what inspired you to write this family play?
One of the reasons I wrote this play, was because my mother was very ill. She was bedridden in the hospital. She couldn’t even speak. She would have this board and would point to letters. I remember that growing up she was always talking about this novel she wanted to write. But, of course, she never got around to finishing it. One day in the hospital she said to me, if I ever get out of here, I’m going to write that novel. So I began writing in honor of her spirit and that of her sister. That’s what inspired me to write the play.