The Birthplace of Standup Comedy and One of its Offspring Come Together at Yeshiva University Museum Borscht Belt Event
More than 100 fans of the Catskills braved severe winter weather to warm themselves with a nostalgic evening of Borscht Belt comedy at the Yeshiva University Museum on Monday, February 2, at a program that dovetailed exhibition Echoes of the Borscht Belt: Contemporary Photographs by Marisa Scheinfeld with the viewing of the film “When Comedy Went to School.” The event, presented by the YU Museum and the Center for Jewish History, was followed by a discussion with Robert Klein, noted comedian, singer, actor and the narrator of the film.
The film lightly sketches the development of standup comedy, and the preponderance of Jewish practitioners, in the Catskill hotels during the early and mid 1900s. As cited in the film, 600, hotels, bungalow colonies, and summer camps made their home in the Catskills then, in Sullivan and Ulster Counties, known as the Borscht Belt. These hotels also became, according to comedian Jerry Lewis a “laboratory” for stand-up comedy.
The event, said Dr. Jacob Wisse, director of the Yeshiva University Museum, was inspired by Scheinfeld’s contemporary photographs of Catskill hotels, many of which have been abandoned and fallen into disrepair. In their heyday, the Catskills teemed with Jewish patrons seeking a respite from the heat and congestion of city life and a vacation that included good food and entertainment, including the noted Borscht Belt comedy.
Scheinfeld’s exhibition documents vivid colorful images of once opulent hotel spaces, with furnishings scattered as if the residents left in a hurry reminiscent of the destruction of Pompeii. The photographs display the past glory amid the decay: a row of green bar stools in what was Grossinger’s coffee shop, a pink rotary phone on a mattress, a pair of ice skates at the Homowack’s ice skating rink, empty pools, all decaying, with grass and weeds breaking through walls and floors.
“The Borscht Belt gets labeled as the birthplace of standup comedy,” said Wisse, “but it was much more than that. It became an important communal resource for Jews from the 1920s to the 1970s, when many of them couldn’t afford to go—or were banned from going—elsewhere. The Borscht Belt became a community where they formed bonds and could vacation ‘like Americans.’
“The movie offers insight into why there have been—and still are—so many great Jewish comedians, as well as how the hotels, resorts and bungalow colonies of the Borscht Belt came to serve as a kind of training ground for the greatest generation of these comics.”
The film traced Jewish comedy to the birth of biblical Isaac, whose name means he will laugh, and as a survival mechanism, according to professors and comedians quoted in the film, over the course of Jewish suffering through history.
The immigrants from Europe established Yiddish theatre in America and vaudeville. Each Catskill hotel had a “tummler,” a clown to entertain the guests, who worked 18 hours a day and of necessity, always developed new material, in physical and verbal comedy, explained Klein in the film. Many well known comedians, in vignettes in the film, including Jerry Lewis, Danny Kaye, Robert Klein, Buddy Hackett, Rodney Dangerfield, and others spent their teenage years working as busboys on the hotel circuit and watching the comedy shows in the back of the clubs, said Klein, listening and learning.
Klein grew up in the Bronx, New York, and studied political science in college but was drawn to the drama department. He had worked as a busboy and lifeguard at some Catskill hotels, he said, and was very impressed by the live comedy acts he saw there, thinking then that making people laugh would be a wonderful life. He returned to the area later after establishing a reputation as a comedian, to perform at the Concord and Kutsher’s Hotels. His career included honing his comic skills at comedy clubs, roles on Broadway, television and movies.
After the film, Klein, joined the film’s producer and writer Lawrence Richard and producer/director Mevlut Akkaya, for a discussion on the importance of humorists, observational humor, the death of vaudeville and the growth of stand-up comedy.
Klein recalled saving “a kid’s life when I was a lifeguard and the father gave me a five-dollar tip. I could’ve gotten $15 from the staff to let him drown, he was such a pain.”
“Laughter is therapeutic,” he added, “you forget your troubles.”
Echoes of the Borscht Belt: Contemporary Photographs by Marisa Scheinfeld is on display through April 12 at the Yeshiva University Museum, 15 West 16th Street, New York City.