'Dirty Dancing' and the Last Days of the Catskills

There was something special about being a guest in those New York State resorts, a certain quality I've never been able to find again

This year marked the 30th anniversary of the release of the 1987 hit film "Dirty Dancing." As a result, a new musical version premiered on TV and the stage show will continue touring through next year. In talking with friends about the classic movie—which looks at class differences and tenuous relationships among the guests and staff at a vacation resort—I've mentioned my own magical (and strange) experiences at the Catskills resorts as a budding teenager.

I've been met with surprise from younger friends, one of whom told me, "I thought those places closed in the '50s or '60s." Actually, the last resort closed just four years ago and several were still bustling through the early 1990s (I briefly worked at the Concord in 1991). The 1,300-acre Kutsher's, the last of them, shut its doors in 2013 after intermittent closures for renovations and attempts to add a casino. This past August, the owner of another once-great resort, Grossinger's—where Liberace performed in the 1980s and where Debbie Reynolds married Eddie Fisher in 1955—said he wants to reopen it with a casino.

There was something special about being a guest in those Upstate New York resorts, a certain quality I've looked for in my more recent vacations with family but haven't found. It wasn't just that they offered tennis lessons, tobogganing or dancing. There was a camaraderie, a cultural education and an old-fashioned quaintness that you rarely find anymore.

"Dirty Dancing" was based on screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein's experiences in the Catskill resorts during the 1950s, and was said to be inspired by both Kutsher's and Grossinger's. The hotels in that area burgeoned from the 1920s through the 1970s, until people had the means to travel further. (A Sullivan County historian told the New York Times this past summer that the three A's—airfare, air conditioning and assimilation—doomed the resorts. More on "assimilation" later.)

To take you back to my own visits, picture the dawn of the 1980s. Disco music had just given way to pop, people were buying personal computers and Ronald Reagan was president. I was almost a teenager. At 12, I was excited by what was to come, but—like Baby in "Dirty Dancing"—somewhat scared of my own shadow. Still, having consumed a steady diet of "Happy Days" and advice from "Dear Abby" ("Don't neck on a first date!"), I was sure I was ready to grow up.

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My family put my younger brother and me into our tan Chevy Citation in New Jersey to make the three-hour drive to the mountains. The economy was robust and people could get jobs at the resorts and even live there, as shown in the movie. The region was also home to a religious Jewish population who felt comfortable at the hotels because they offered kosher meals. (This is why "assimilation" took away one of the resorts' strong selling points.)

My mom excitedly prepped my brother and me for the trip. "In the dining room, you can order as much food as you want!" she gushed. "You'll sit with other kids at breakfast and lunch, and at dinner, we'll all sit with other families." I relished the rare chance for independence, to order food on my own. At night, babysitters would come to our rooms so the adults could mingle or take in risqué Borscht Belt comedians like Buddy Hackett and Rodney Dangerfield.

My parents were teachers who couldn't quite afford Kutsher's or the Nevele, which frequently advertised on TV. But they sprung for a long weekend at the Stevensville in Swan Lake, N.Y., which still had sprawling grounds, a pool with cabana house, a grand dining room and ample athletic equipment.

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The day we checked in, we almost checked out. A water stain crept up a wall. The Stevensville had been built in the 1920s and looked like it. But the people and activities charmed us.

I loved heading to the front desk to fetch the daily schedule of activities: trivia contests in the lobby, paddle-boating on Swan Lake, arts and crafts, concerts. A new video arcade beeped, blinked, and beckoned my brother and me.

Our first meal was lunch at the kids' table. Being almost a teenager, I decided to find someone on whom to harbor an impossible crush. A sandy-haired boy about my age sat across from me and seemed quiet and polite, except for the Led Zeppelin T-shirt. When he ordered a baked potato with his hamburger—which seemed very health-conscious and mature—I decided to secretly pretend we were engaged. We kids chatted about our schools and about the unusual items on the menu.

My brother and I dared each other to order borscht, which we slurped and promptly declared "grossinating." We helped ourselves to blintzes, lox, chicken soup and, best of all, cold fruit soup, a sweet Eastern European delicacy I haven't found since.

I noticed the same kids at each meal, soon joined by Gary, 14, who had perfect '80s feathered hair and looked like heartthrob Glenn Scarpelli from TV's "One Day at a Time." I was disappointed when he flirted with a pair of teenage waitresses. "I'm takin' ya both home with me," he announced in his Queens accent. I felt childlike and immature, trapped in red corduroy pants and a scrawny body. But I was thrilled to be among older teens.

In the lobby after lunch, I heard a woman ask, as she was checking in, "Are there any 12-year-old girls staying?" I quickly became friends with her daughter, Tricia. Our parents took us to the musical show that night, and Tricia and I amused ourselves by asking the waiter for rum and gin.

At school, my brother and I were loners, but in the mountains, we made fast friends. My parents dressed formally for the evening's entertainment, taking a break from their usual fighting to slap on cologne and perfume.

When we drove home on Monday, my brother said he wanted to cry. My parents promised we'd go back. Tricia and I exchanged letters for a while.

My parents divorced a few years later. My mom took us to the Catskills again, this time for a single parents' weekend. I felt funny about it, but my mom made a new single-gal pal, and my brother and I made new friends as well. The resorts were family-owned and always felt like family, too.

I suppose I'm not the only grown-up kid who waxes nostalgic for the Catskills, because the family that owned Kutsher's briefly opened a themed restaurant in Manhattan (Kutsher's Tribeca) from 2011 to 2014, serving everything from pickled herring to matzo ball soup. "It's kind of fun, and the food isn't bad," opined one customer in a review.

I've since visited modern resorts, water parks and theme parks, but they don't have the communal eating or sense of togetherness. "Take a cruise," my friend Brad advised, and perhaps that's what I'll do. But I sometimes miss the mountain hotels that were just far enough to seem exotic, yet still close to home. We formed bonds there that lasted long after checkout.

Tags: family

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