[purchase the Woodstock box set]
I was only 8 when the original Woodstock festival took place about 75 miles from my home, and I have no recollection of it at the time. Of course, a few years later, I had seen the movie and listened to the album over and over again, and I had a sense of the importance of the event to the culture. And despite all of the great music, one of the most memorable things from the soundtrack was the little speech that Max Yasgur, who owned the land where the concert was held, gave to the assembled masses (see the video above). Yasgur started off with the phrase, “I’m a farmer.”
At the time, Yasgur, the New York City born son of Russian Jewish immigrants, owned one of the largest dairy farms in the area (and had studied real estate law at NYU). After other sites for the proposed concert fell through, Yasgur agreed to lease his farm in Bethel to the promoters for $10,000 (which he hoped would cover the cost of hay he needed to buy to replace what had been damaged by the summer rain). Interestingly, Yasgur was a registered Republican who supported the Vietnam War, but was also a believer in free speech and tolerance. He not only took an enormous amount of heat from his neighbors for allowing his farm to be used for the concert, he ended up providing as much free food and water as he could to the concertgoers. Although the family sold the land in 1971, and part of the property was later turned into the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, Yagur’s son Sam still lives nearby and is currently the Sullivan County Attorney. Max Yasgur died in Florida at the age of 53 of a heart attack.
The stereotype of the Jewish immigrant to New York is the Lower East Side tenement dweller, packed into tiny apartments on densely populated, pushcart lined streets. Of course, many of the immigrants did come from cities in Europe and were happy to be city dwellers in America. But many of the Jews came from farming backgrounds—think Tevye—and a number of them bought land to farm, often in upstate New York (or, like the ancestors of Woodstock performer Jorma Kaukonen, in Connecticut). By 1910, somewhere between 500-1500 Jewish farmers were in the Catskills’ Sullivan County, constituting 30% of all American Jewish farmers, mostly in the eastern part of the county. Yasgur moved his family’s operations in the 1950s to the western part of Sullivan County, where he encountered anti-Semitism.
Back in eastern Sullivan County, Jewish families like the Kutshers, Grossingers and Winarick/Parkers began renting rooms on their farms before creating the famous Borscht Belt resorts that catered, initially, to their vacationing co-religionists. By the time of Woodstock, though, the heyday of the Borscht Belt was already over, as the rising affluence of the local Jewish population, the increase in low cost airfare and the end of restricted resorts opened up more travel options. The era of Dirty Dancing, reportedly based on Kutsher’s, was on its way out.
When my father arranged for me to get a job working as a busboy at Kutsher’s during the summer of 1979, I really didn’t know what to expect. I knew I’d work hard and I knew that I’d make money, but other than that, I was in the dark. My parents drove me up, and the hotel, although no longer shiny and new, was large, and looked relatively prosperous and comfortable. My living quarters, though, were not—I had a room, in a building that was maybe—maybe—a half step above a sharecropper shack. I had a single bed with an old, crappy mattress, a dresser and a moldy bathroom. I’ve later been told that my mother left in tears, my siblings were horrified, and my father kept driving away and returning, before deciding to let me deal with the situation on my own.
It was quite the learning experience. I learned such important skills as lying, cheating and stealing. There were never enough bagels, or coffee cups or forks to go around, so you had to do what was necessary to serve your customers, and to hell with everyone else, because you needed the tips to make it worthwhile. I learned to deal with difficult people—my waiter, the veteran Dick White, who was demanding and had little sympathy for the college boy he was stuck with for the summer, the insane kitchen staff and most of all, the entitled diners, many of whom took the concept of “all-inclusive” to mean trying a taste of everything on the menu. I learned that the crazy amount of food being ordered meant that I could ask Dick White to order an extra steak or roast beef, and stash it away to eat after the meal, since the staff food was not so great. I learned that if I casually dropped the fact that I went to Princeton to the guests, I got treated better. I learned that it is possible, and maybe even preferable, to serve people when you are stoned, and that there were other people who did so, with varying degrees of success, on harder drugs. I learned that adults played Simon Says. I learned that if you steal a goblet or wine glass every few days, you can have nice things to drink from in your dorm room when you returned to college. I learned that if you don’t chain things to your bed, they will get stolen. I learned that I could survive this Lord of the Flies environment, and even that I could return for the Christmas to New Year’s period, freeze my ass off, get little sleep, and walk away with a big chunk of money.
I also learned that the Catskills were no longer what they had been. Back in the day, when the resorts were basically seasonal, most of the staff came up for the summer, and a large number of them were college kids. But when I was there, the hotel was a year-round operation, with full-time staff, many of them Latino immigrants, who cared little for the Anglo summer staff that augmented their numbers during the busy period. I learned that the social aspect of the summer consisted mostly of going to bars, getting drunk and smoking weed, and competing for the few women (unsuccessfully, on my part) before passing out for a few hours so that you could get to the dining room early enough to get a full allotment of bagels. Or sneaking into the Starlight Ballroom’s projection room, getting high and watching the actually pretty decent comedians and middle of the road singers that still performed at the hotel. I also read War and Peace that summer in attempt to keep my mind sharp. All I remember about the book, though, is what former Kutsher’s performer Woody Allen once said: “It involves Russia.”
When the time came to decide whether to return for another summer, I decided to find other opportunities. Although I have no regrets about my experience there.
The big Catskill resorts desperately tried to hold on long enough to see casino gambling be legalized in the area, and continued spiraling down through the 1980s into the 2000s, relying on their golf courses and other gimmicks, such as Kutsher’s hosting the All Tomorrow’s Parties rock festival. Kutsher’s is considered to be the last of the big resorts to throw in the towel, and it is the subject of a documentary. Here’s a little video about the hotel, and here are some pictures of its post-closing decrepitude. The hotel is being demolished as I write this, and the new owner, Veria Lifestyle, is planning to construct a health and wellness destination. Where, I suspect, you won’t be able to get stuffed on pickled herring, matzo ball soup, kasha varnishkes or pastrami.
Wednesday, November 19, 2014
[purchase the Woodstock box set]