May 6, 2014

The Borscht Belt in Motion





Al Katz aboard the Island Princess. 
         
I’m home from fifteen enjoyable days on board the Island Princess.  After watching an old school comedian on our last night onboard, it struck me that this 2014 cruise trip must be much like a 1960’s vacation at a Borscht Belt resort. 

At the turn of the last century when middle class and working Jewish immigrants were not welcomed at the existing resorts, they started their own in the Catskills and Poconos.  Families like the Grossingers moved to the area because of the already established Jewish community.  They planned to farm, but soon they discovered they could make more money taking in guests.  They bought a larger farm down the street and began expanding.  At the height of their heyday, these resorts also offered ice skating, golf, swimming in a choice of pools, tennis, horseback riding, skiing, and the best Kosher cuisine in a number of restaurants or coffee shops.

When the resort owners discovered that their guests would stay longer, they began entertaining them.  Scott Eckers tells, “Everyone got their start in the Catskills, and Grossingers was the hot spot.”  Each resort presented guests with comedy, singers, music, impersonators, and wonderful headliners to keep you smiling throughout your stay and coming back.

The Island Princess main outdoor pool with movie screen.


On board the Island Princess, I could get off and explore exotic stops if I wanted.  I could take organized off ship tours too.  I could also enjoy my sea days aboard by swimming at one of four pools.  If I wanted to counteract my overeating there was a spa and a gym.  On an upper deck there were tennis courts that I didn’t use or a miniature golf course.  Other ships have climbing walls and devil-may-care slides into their big pools.  Not for us.  George and I really enjoyed the entertainers.  After dinner every night, we would trek to one of the two show rooms and get ourselves enchanted by the entertainers.

At Grossingers and the other Catskill resorts, all these things welcomed you back year after year just like they do aboard the modern cruise ships.  Much like the Borscht belt Hotels, dining venues are also scattered everywhere on board.  Our ship had two giant dining rooms with the kitchens connected to the rooms by escalators.  There was a lido dining area we often used, plus smaller a la carte dining rooms, and finally tiny places for pizza or hamburgers.  Tucked into corners, I found an ice cream parlor and a specialty coffee shop.  Most of the great resorts like the giant Concord, the modern Kutshers, and the Queen of the Catskills, Grossingers, offered all these restaurants and more. 




Just like at the Catskill resorts, today on shipboard you can find entertainment for kids in their own spaces, adult activities, and senior events that seem remarkable similar to the resort offerings that kept everyone occupied all day late into the night on land.  No full sized ice rink nor ski slopes yet, but one never knows.



NYT Grossingers indoor pool in its heyday.  All entries are copyrighted under the author's legal name under



By the early 1960’s, with invention of the jet plane, the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the diminished rail service, and rise of the cruise ships, the traditional Jewish family vacation lost its appeal.  With grandma and grandpa either dying or retiring to Florida, many new guests were not Jewish.  By the 1970’s even the convention business began to flag, and the bigger establishments began failing.  By 1986, Grossingers closed signaling the end of the era.



Grossingers indoor pool, 2013.  Copyright Joe Lehman, used with permission.

Ted Arison and Knut Kloster started the modern cruise industry just before the land based resorts began to fail.  After a split with Kloster, Arison began Carnival Cruise Lines, as we know it, in 1977 with his purchase of the ocean liner, Empress of Canada.  When he bought his second used ship, the Transvaal Castle, he was on his way to build an empire and change the way we all vacation.  Just like the Grossingers, he started with an idea and an older property.  Unlike Grossingers or the other Catskill resorts, his ideas and properties are still expanding.



The Empress of Canada on her speed trials.  Copyright Liverpoolships.org. Used under
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported.


Today Carnival cruise lines has become this world’s largest cruise line.  It has absorbed Cunard, Aida, Holland America Lines, Iberio, P&O, Princess Lines, Seabourn, and Costa.  Although a high percentage of resort patrons still go to Las Vegas and Orlando, cruising is number three in the resort business.  To overcome the capsizing of the Costa Concordia and a fire onboard the Carnival Triumph, Carnival has instituted a new marketing campaign and a new brand management style



Italian Divers on board the Costa Concordia: 2013.   Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported. 

The resorts of the Borscht belt have collapsed into the past.  Visitors to the Catskills now find only bulldozed acres or graffiti covered ruins.  Orthodox Jewish groups have moved into the area.  The great comedians of the fifties through the seventies, like Totie Fields and Mel Blanc are gone.  Wikipedia tells us that Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Dean Martin, Woody Allen, and Jerry Seinfeld were some of the many notable performers to grace the stage of Kutscher’s nightclub. Each Resort had their own string of famous headliners most long gone now.

Today, it's much harder to become a comedian.  Instead of the coming up through the ranks, young comedians break into the business through clubs, the college circuit, some classes, and comedy nights while keeping their day jobs.  Television is opening its doors to the young entertainers via the comedy channel, talk shows, and talent shows like America’s got Talent.  Cruise lines all hold auditions all over the world for these talented newcomers.

Agents and huge corporations that place the newcomer on cruise ships for a fee.  No more waiting tables and working the theaters at nights if you are good.  Singers, dancers, and musicians all are hired for a six to nine month contract.  Once the guest entertainer is a hit, not only will they sign them to a contract, they will fly the artist from ship to ship.  “Fly on” they are called. 

Did I know all this when I carried my bag aboard the Island Princess.  Not at all.  My curiosity led me to the algae filled monument called the Grossingers indoor pool.  The stunning architecture of the structure captured my imagination.  After a week of reading and researching, I came to the comfortable conclusion that my vacation on board the Island Princess was very much like a fifteen day stay at Grossingers or the Concord.  Only better.



Links and Research Material

Grossingers: 1916 – 1986  All the best of Abandoned Grossingers: Read this one first.

Grossingers Resort: Wikipedia; Grossingers history

Abandoned NY: Abandoned Grossingers      

Concord Hotel: 1935 – 1997 / Wikipedia

Jewish Forward: Rediscovering beauty amid the ruins


Carnival Cruise lines: Wikipedia: Photos of all Carnival’s ships from the beginning to now


BBC: A cynical view of the cruise lines: Wonderful film clip of Carnival CEO working undercover






9 comments:

  1. "Vehry Intrresting"....I knew a little of this, but you have made it real for me with the details and great photos. The only aspect I remember that is not in your cruise history is that of hiring men to dance with the lonely women on board the earlier cruises.

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  2. We have Comedy Clubs around here, but much of the humor today leaves me cold. Once a fan of SNL, I find the constant derision of other people ( politicians) disgusting. Unfortunately much of what youngsters learn before they vote they learn from comedy shows. For example, many of the things people repeated about Sarah Palin were actually said by Tina Fey.

    Phylis Diller was one of my favorite old time comediennes, but I only recall her making jokes about her husband (Fang). Given they had an enduring relationship that lasted until death, apparently he took her sense of humor with good grace.
    Years ago, I saw a play ...The Comedians. The question was...can we be funny without disparaging someone else? Women, Pole, Blacks, Jews, and others were off limits or beginning to be so, and with good reason. No more jokes about women drivers., or blondes,or dumb Pollocks. If you were one,those jokes hurt. Self derision was the only acceptable option. I've heard a lot of that in various meetings.

    Glad you had a good time on the trip.

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  3. Do smaller river boats have smaller acts?

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  4. A great and well researched piece. Very nostalgic about the demise of the Catskills! One detail to consider, there are now a sprinkling of high priced All Kosher cruises but it's a bit more of a challenge for Observant Jews on mainstream cruiselines. At Grossingers,the guests could confidently laugh,play, swim, and EAT!

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  6. Fascinating... I've never been on a cruise--I don't swim and am uncomfortable thinking about being on a ship with water all around, but I love reading about your trips. Thanks!

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  7. This was worth the research, wasn't it? I have never been on a cruise -- and probably never will now. My mother's sisters (unmarried) used to go to the Catskills often, and one year, when the Jewish holidays fell very late, my parents, my siblings, and I accompanied them.

    It was so late in the season that they had already closed but reopened for that one weekend. It was cold and not all the cabins were heated. (My dad waited each morning till the frost melted and then chamoised his car.) The entertainers were not bad at all, but no one I had ever heard of. I never heard of them later, either.

    If you find the memoirs of some of the famous people who started there, their stories are great.

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  8. Nice piece. I enjoyed it. Never had a chance to go as we lived on in L.A. and I think this was really an east coast Jewish adventure. But it was fun reading your research.

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