The towns are quiet now, deserted storefronts and abandoned buildings lining the streets that once teemed with action. The broad sidewalks, now barren, had been so crammed with humanity that, in July or August, it might take a half-hour to stroll a single block. There were ice cream stands and restaurants, variety stores, arcades, candy stores, haberdasheries and women’s sportswear stores. The merchants stayed open long into the night, cognizant that they had a dozen or so precious weeks between Memorial Day—or Decoration Day, as it was then called—and Labor Day, to accrue a year’s worth of receipts.
Monticello was the capital of the Catskills. But there were other towns that thrived, as well. Liberty, South Fallsburg, Woodridge, Woodbourne, Mountaindale, Ellenville, Loch Sheldrake—all these fabled hamlets enjoyed a booming summer season, courtesy of a torrent of vacationing New Yorkers, mostly Jews, to whom the sanctity of the mountains was second only to the Promised Land.
Each town boasted a movie theater, which bore closer resemblance to a fairy castle then they do today’s multiplexes. The movie houses were small palaces, illuminated by garish and glorious lighting—thousands of colored bulbs flashing and twinkling like so many novas in the cool summer night. Those bright and gaudy marquees are the indelible illumination of our youth. Behind my closed eyes those sweet summer nights are still waiting. Standing in line for a ticket, then at the candy counter, a cardigan buttoned against the evening’s chill, or else, at the height of a heat wave, the respite promised by the banner promising “Air Cooled Seating.” Then, inside, cradled by the spongy faux velvet seats—almost always red—and the salty taste of the movie theater popcorn, the syrupy sweetness of a fountain Coke, a few short subjects and suddenly, before us, magic: Ben-Hur, West Side Story, The Apartment, Bye Bye Birdie, A Hard Days Night.
After the film, back on the street, the evening glowing under a line of street-lamps, we found our favorite stop for ice cream, or pizza, or burgers, or roast pork sandwiches on hot garlic bread. A thousand people roamed the street. Small groups of teenagers, AWOL from a local bungalow colony, congregated on the benches outside the arcade. Older folks, companions half a century, still holding hands, slowly strolling along Broadway. Young parents also held hands, but those fingers they clasped were of their children, in shorts and PF Flyers, tee shirts and summer sun dresses, the toddler’s smiling faces highlighted by remaining traces of ice cream.
The sounds of the evening in town were a small serenade, a singular rhapsody—laughter and chatter and the pinball from the arcade, gossip and mosquitoes and crickets, car engines softly humming in the mist and lady’s heels clicking on the pavement. On the corner, by the luncheonette, a kid hawks newspapers to a line of men patiently waiting to give up their money to read the news from the city, half a day late but the news just the same.
Across the street, in the bagel place, vacationers frenetically point out their selections to a crop of fresh-faced kids who, as they hurry to keep up with barked orders, bathe in the sweat produced by the fiery ovens. Couples leave the store, their large brown bags crammed the next morning’s breakfast—bagels and bialys, smoked fish and cheeses, creamed herring and orange juice.
Inside the arcade the air is thick with smoke. The room is filled with the choice of that summer’s rock and roll; from Elvis to Buddy Holly, the Four Seasons and Bobby Darin, then The Beatles and The Beach Boys, The Lovin’ Spoonful, Cream and Santana, Sly and Joe Cocker. Kids bang pinball machines, their bodies moving to some silent rhythm, all hips and body-English and grimaces as the ball pings wildly off the bumpers. In the rear a crowd has formed around the Skee-Ball games. City kids mix with “townies”—the girls flirting and the boys trying to look so cool, their shirt’s unbuttoned, gold chained chais and mezzuzahs, Bar-Mitzvah gifts, catching the small bit of neon in the night, a cigarette in hand, nostrils flaring as the smoke slowly helixes to the ceiling.
Bars and nightclubs begin filling up with locals and tourists. In Monticello the Down Under, in Woodridge the Kentucky Club, each town boasting it’s own special spot, a welcome change of pace from the more opulent hotel bars and lounges.
These towns, dotted throughout the foothills of the Catskills, now mostly live in memory and legend. The streets stand there, still, as do most of the buildings, but they are as an elderly man beside a photo from his youth. What was then was magic, casting a spell, upon millions of vacationers each summer for well over a half century. And though the epoch has gone, the images remain, and the awe and wonder and enchantment live still inside of every man and woman who walked those streets, in summer, when we were yet young and all things were possible.