The Shmooze

Robert Klein on When The Catskills Were Comedy Central

By Masha Leon

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Ever wonder what Jerry Lewis and Jerry Seinfeld have in common? Then go see the Borscht Belt flashback express a/k/a “When Comedy Went to School” a film written by Lawrence Richards directed by Ron Frank and Mevlut Akkaya arriving in New York City on July 31 at IFC and Manhattan’s JCC. A 77-minute history-packed narrative touches on anti-Semitism, immigrants, Yiddish theater and the evolution of the Catskills as a comedic crossover breeding ground. Sample: Alan King and Billy Crystal who emceed — Yiddish asides included — the April 4, 2003 “Boys Town of Italy Ball” which had the Italian guest in stitches. The film’s roster of Catskills alumni includes Jackie Mason, Jerry Stiller, Mort Sahl, Larry King, Danny Kaye and — as both a young comic and now senior yuks maven — Robert Klein, whose colonoscopy soliloquy has graced many a New York City black tie gala.

Karen Leon
Masha Leon with Robert Klein.

However, I beg to differ with the film’s creators who claim that the Catskills’ glory ended in the 1960’s. In the 1970’s through 1997, my husband Joe and I annually headed to the mountains where many of the hotels were still happening places and the performers platinum stars. There was food, food, food; comedians were uncensored and women packed wardrobes for triple changes each night — dinner, then the late show and then the late, late show! The bars were open to the wee hours where cigar-chomping makhers who mingled with alluring [some non guest] ladies.

With a Forward satchel slung over my shoulder, I trolled the hotels’ dining rooms, beauty parlors, nightclubs, tennis courts, pool sides for stories, which I ran in the Forward under the caption: “Catskills Chronicles.” A sampling: The 1982 New York State Broadcasters’ Association Conference emceed by Dan Rather at Grossinger’s — when Jennie Grossinger still greeted guests entering the dining room. On the campaign trail that day: Ed Koch and Mario Cuomo. “What do you want to say to the Forward readers? “ I asked. Koch replied, “God bless them and tell them to rush to the polls and vote.” Cuomo said: “The Jews need a shabbos goy [Sabbath gentile] because they can’t do everything for themselves.” Republican candidate Lew Lehrman in perfectly articulated Yiddish told me, “No khokhmes” (no B.S.).

At the Concord Hotel in 1995, Joan Rivers was mobbed by diners. Among the printable excerpts from her monologue: “If God wanted me to bend over, he would have put diamonds on the floor.” Re intellectual women: “No man will put his hand up your dress looking for a library card.”

Among our last forays to Kutcher’s in 1997 when it was celebrating its 90th anniversary, the comic was Pat Cooper [Né “Pasquale Caputo”] a/k/a Alan King’s Italian counterpart who tailored his Italian material for Jewish audiences. “I love the Jewish mountains. I just came back from Israel and I am jealous. In Israel Jews grow tomatoes in water and in Italy they still put seeds in the ground…. If Jews stop eating Italian and Chinese, it shuts down two countries.”

To be continued….


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