TRR photos by Jonathan Charles Fox

Borscht Belt former Staffers Reunion organizer Robin Cohen Kauffman was one of many who met her future husband Michael at the Concord Hotel during the golden age of the Catskills.

Déjà vu

What do you get when you mix one part Marty McFly, one part Mr. Peabody and a dash of The Twilight Zone, sprinkled with a light dusting of History 101? A trip for two (that would be me and Dharma the Wonder Dog) down memory lane, courtesy of the Wabac Machine, which transported that other famous dog (and his boy, Sherman) back in time to visit important events in human history.


Heritage Landscape, LLC’s Peter Viteretto was on-site at the unveiling of the first phase of the Woodstock Music Festival's Bindy Bazaar restoration at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, which is now open to the public.

Our first stop last week was at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts (BW) where a ribbon cutting ceremony took place, celebrating the first phase completion of the ongoing restoration project recreating the “Bindy Bazaar”: the Woodstock Festival marketplace that sprung up for three days of peace and music in Bethel, NY, way back in 1969. Before dignitaries Erin Tobin, representing the Preservation League of New York State, and Jeff Bank officers Heinrich Strauch and Anna Milucky officially cut the ribbon, BW Museum assistant curator Julia Fell had a few words: “We are so thrilled to bring back to life this very exciting part of our site,” Fell said. “Discovering what Woodstock attendees have to say about the Bindy Bazaar has been a real pleasure. I’ve heard it described as a ‘magic forest,’ and it seems to have been just that.” In doing research, Fell learned that the Bazaar was described as “a whimsical place where all manner of vendors and attendees bartered for goods, met up with lost friends, and attempted to stay out of the [now famous] rain.”

 I spent a moment with Peter Viteretto of Heritage Landscapes LLC, the company responsible for ensuring that the layout of the original Bazaar is exact. He showed me a map of the entire site being recreated in several steps, eventually culminating in a total restoration. Museum curator Wade Lawrence was on hand to describe much of the process, pointing out temporary signage that asks visitors to contribute their thoughts, while he shared anecdotes from his vast storehouse of knowledge regarding the festival which took place on the grounds in August of 1969.

Feeling older than dirt, I headed for The Villa Roma Resort in Callicoon, NY where the “Borscht Belt Former Hotel Staff Reunion” dinner dance was about to commence. Spearheaded by chairperson Robin Cohen Kauffman, the three-day-long event included films, lectures, book signings and entertainment. It was all wrapped around a trip down memory lane that folks thoughtfully strolled, recalling the golden age of the Catskills and sharing stories along the way. When asked what prompted her to create the reunion, Kauffman expressed some thoughts. “I worked as a counselor in the children’s dining room of the Homowack Lodge Hotel during my college years,” she said. “I visited the area and met up with a few old friends in 2017, which took us back to the good old days… [that’s] when I got the idea to create an actual reunion,” she recalled. “The staff were always lowest on the totem pole and rarely given recognition for being the foundation of Borscht Belt culture, which supported the fantastic entertainment that the region became known for.”

“This was our Camelot, our Brigadoon.”

Spending time with guests and hearing some of their stories was a real treat for me, as my family visited the Catskills often back in the day. I have fond memories of our time spent at the Concord (Mom’s favorite) and Grossinger’s (where my father played golf) while we kids cavorted in the pool. A few years ago, I learned that my Uncle Sid and Aunt Ethel had actually met at the Concord in the mid-1960s. Surprised that I had not known, I was even more so to meet several couples at the reunion who shared a similar experience. Ronee and Eugene Weissman were one such pair, who met in 1967 at the Brickman Hotel, where he spent a year as camp director and she worked as a counselor, before his four years on the dining room staff. I also spoke with Jan and Jon Statt, who met at Grossinger’s, and have been married for 37 years.


Catskills royalty, in the form of local legend Jackie Horner, held court while petting the Wonder Dog during the Borscht Belt Former Hotel Staff Reunion held last week at the Villa Roma in Callicoon, NY.

Not to be outdone, Maxine and Gene Spadaro have been married for 39, and Maxine pulled up a wedding photo on her phone to show me. “We met at the Homowack in 1973,” she beamed. The reunion was peppered with similar stories and wouldn’t have been complete without Sullivan County celebrity Jackie Horner, whose real-life experiences during the Borscht Belt heyday inspired one of the characters in the film “Dirty Dancing.”

“Where’s my dog?” Horner playfully called to me while posing with Dharma, whom she has known since puppyhood. I hugged Jackie and recalled some words that Robin had shared with me earlier in the evening. “I’m quoting Patty Beardsly Roker [who worked at the Concord and] couldn’t have summed it up better,” Kauffman said. “This was our Camelot, our Brigadoon.” Patty said. “A place that has vanished, but still lives on in the hearts and minds of the thousands whose lives were shaped by this shared experience.” My time-machine tour of the Catskills was charming, and (IMHO) it’s okay once in a while to revisit what once was and experience déjà vu… all over again.

For more information about these and other events, visit www.bethelwoodscenter.org and the Borscht Belt Former Hotels Staff Reunion page on Facebook. To see photos of both, go to www.facebook.com/theriverreporter and www.riverreporter.com.

 

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