Beyond Kellerman's: Inside the Real Catskill Resorts That Inspired Dirty Dancing

1950sUnlimited, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
1950sUnlimited, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

When you think of Dirty Dancing, or even just hear the first strains of "(I've Had) The Time of My Life," you probably think of a single image: Jennifer Grey, in her diaphanous pink dress, being triumphantly lifted toward the heavens by the Adonis-like dance instructor played by the late Patrick Swayze.

Since its release in 1987, Dirty Dancing has remained a beloved mainstay for scores of fans, earning it a place in the popular film canon and endless re-showings on basic cable. Even dedicated fans, however, may be missing out on a fundamental aspect of the film that’s never directly addressed: its Jewish roots.

The movie’s setting, Kellerman's, is based on the numerous all-inclusive vacation spots aimed at Jewish travelers that dotted the upstate New York landscape throughout much of the 20th century—a constellation of resorts commonly known as the Borscht Belt. (The term was coined by Variety writer Abel Green as a reference to the hearty Eastern European soup that was ubiquitous on these hotels' menus.)

For the purposes of appealing to a broader audience, most references to the Jewish identity of resorts like Kellerman's were expunged from the movie. Still, even without many explicit references to Jewish life, Dirty Dancing—written by seasoned resort-goer Eleanor Bergstein—managed to get a lot of things right about the Borscht Belt. While the average viewer might not notice them, there are numerous nods to this resort culture embedded in the film.

 

Before grandiose resorts like the ones that inspired Kellerman's existed, enterprising Jewish families opened boarding houses in the Catskill Mountains during the early 20th century. Known as kucheleins, these bucolic locations were moderately priced respites for tenement-dwelling New Yorkers looking to beat the heat. The houses had communal kitchens, where fresh milk was the beverage of the day, thanks to the dairy farms prevalent in the area. (We'll come back to that later.)

Eventually, as Jewish families became more affluent—and these boarding houses became more successful—many of them expanded into sprawling resorts. And word got around that these sumptuous hotels were the places to see and be seen. The best known of them, including Grossinger's, Kutsher's, and the Concord, became institutions. Grossinger's alone counted Eleanor Roosevelt, Judy Garland, Jayne Mansfield, and Milton Berle among its guests. Debbie Reynolds married Eddie Fisher at the hotel in 1955 (Fisher had been discovered there). Meanwhile, Kutsher's Country Club once welcomed stand-up comedians like Joan Rivers, Andy Kaufman, and Jerry Seinfeld (and employed a pre-NBA Wilt Chamberlain as a bellhop).

A vintage postcard shows a grand hotel in the middle of the wilderness.
Hotel Kaaterskill, 1903-1904
New York Public Library, Flickr // Public Domain

But there was a darker reason these elegant, upstate New York hotels were so popular with Jewish travelers beyond their boundless kosher meals. Anti-Semitism in the United States was an unfortunate, widespread fact of life for the first half of the 20th century, and many vacation spots throughout the country were "restricted," meaning Jews were not welcome. The Catskills resorts of the Borscht Belt offered an upscale experience without the risk of being turned away.

In the world of Dirty Dancing, outright mentions of Jewish culture are almost nonexistent. At best, several of the characters are reduced to borderline-lazy tropes in order to get the point across that they are Jewish without having to explicitly say it. Marjorie Houseman (Kelly Bishop) is a stereotypical Jewish mother, and Lisa Houseman (Jane Brucker) is a stereotypical a "Jewish American Princess."

And yet, even without mentioning religion, Dirty Dancing hits many aspects of the Borscht Belt experience spot-on.

Take, for instance, the mambo obsession that sweeps through Kellerman's in the movie, which takes place during the summer of 1963. It's not fictional in the slightest. In It Happened in the Catskills, an oral history of Borscht Belt culture, there are multiple descriptions of the mambo craze that prevailed in the 1950s and early 1960s.

One of the best accounts of the time comes from Jackie Horner, who served as a consultant on Dirty Dancing. Like the film's character Penny Johnson (Cynthia Rhodes), Horner was a Rockette for a time, and from 1954 to 1986, she taught dancing at Grossinger's. "All of us could do the routines that Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey did in Dirty Dancing," she said. "In fact, I used to bring the watermelon plugged with vodka to our staff parties just like in the movie."

As she explained, "every hotel, big or small, had a resident dance team" whose schedules were jam-packed with lessons and performances from sunup to sundown: "At 9:30 we started teaching, and we kept going until 6 o'clock, when we'd break for dinner. At 7, on a full stomach, we'd go right into dance rehearsal. At 9, we'd change into costumes for our 10 o'clock show. Then we'd dance with our pupils from 11 to 1."

Some of those pupils were indeed the "bungalow bunnies," like Dirty Dancing's bored housewife Vivian Pressman (Miranda Garrison). "The husbands only came up on weekends, so it was party time for them Monday through Friday," said Horner. "They took dance lessons from the male instructors during the day. At night, after the show, the male instructors came back to dance with the pupils. They kept themselves busy around the clock."

 

Another thing Dirty Dancing got right? The resorts' practice of hiring college students for summer and holiday gigs. He may have been the "villain" of the movie, but medical students like the weaselly waiter Robbie Gould (Max Cantor) were commonplace around the Borscht Belt. It was a win-win situation for many of these part-time workers. As Tania Grossinger wrote in her book Growing Up at Grossinger's, "In the summer, many college students applied for jobs as busboys, waitresses, or bellhops, where they could conceivably make $1500 a season in tips and salary, have virtually no expenses, and have a heck of a good time to boot."

And the film's love story is realistic, too. Those hotels were great places for matchmaking. My existence can attest to that. My parents met at the Raleigh Hotel in South Fallsburg, New York, over the Passover holiday in 1967. In a story that vaguely echoes that of Frances "Baby" Houseman (Grey) and Johnny Castle (Swayze), my father was working his way through college as a busboy and my mother was a high school junior, vacationing at the resort with her family. Years later, my extended family started a 15-year tradition of spending Passover in the mountains.

The exterior of a resort
Grossinger's, 1976
John Margolies, Library of Congress // Public Domain

Unfortunately, the film also accurately alluded to the Borscht Belt's decline. Though some families—my own included—kept frequenting these resorts, even by the 1960s, these destinations were starting to lose their luster.

At the end of Dirty Dancing, resort owner Max Kellerman (Jack Weston) laments to bandleader Tito Suarez (Charles "Honi" Coles) that times are changing. The exchange is easy to overlook because it takes place mere seconds before Swayze's immortal "nobody puts Baby in a corner" line. But if you listen carefully, it becomes clear that Kellerman is the voice of a dying generation—and of a dying culture.

Max Kellerman: "You and me, Tito. We've seen it all. Bubba and Zeyda [ed. note: Yiddish for grandmother and grandfather] serving the first pasteurized milk to the boarders. Through the war years when we didn't have any meat, through the Depression when we didn't have anything."

Tito Suarez: "Lots of changes, Max. Lots of changes."

Max Kellerman: "It's not the changes so much this time, Tito. It's that it all seems to be ending. You think kids want to come up here with their parents to take foxtrot lessons? Trips to Europe, that's what the kids want. Twenty-two countries in three days. It feels like it's all slipping away.”

Max Kellerman's realization that his resort is no longer the hotspot it was a decade or two earlier is on-point. (As is his reference to the ubiquity of milk at those boarding houses.) By the 1960s, air travel had become more reasonably priced, and restricted vacation locales were becoming a non-issue, especially after the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964.

And with the culture shift of the late '60s hovering over these Borscht Belt resorts like an ominous cloud, it would become less and less likely that kids would be interested in coming up to the Catskills to take foxtrot lessons alongside their parents. Listen, Baby may have been all-in when it came to doing the mambo or grinding up on Johnny to "Cry to Me," but who's to say she'd still want to cha-cha-cha with him once she got a whiff of what John, Paul, George, and Ringo had to offer when Beatlemania hit the U.S. a few months later?

 

Max's melancholy observation was a harbinger of what was to come. Nowadays, these palatial hotels are nonexistent. The ones that still stand either cater to an ultra-Orthodox clientele (as in the case of the Raleigh) or, like Grossinger's, exist in a state of perpetual ruin.

Dirty Dancing may live on in our hearts and our memories (or rather, "voices, hearts, and hands") through streaming services like Netflix and endless cable reruns. But without some effort, the history of hotels like Kellerman's might be forgotten.

People rowing boats across a lake in front of a resort
Kutsher’s in Thompson, New York, 1977
John Margolies, Library of Congress // Public Domain

So maybe next time Dirty Dancing has its 5785th airing on TBS, before Baby and Johnny take the stage for the time of their lives once again, have a little sympathy for Max Kellerman's kvetching. Because believe it or not, there was a time, to quote Miss Frances Houseman, "before President Kennedy was shot, before the Beatles came," when a joint like Kellerman's was a pretty cool place to hang.

7 Ways Victorian Fashion Could Kill You

An 1862 engraving showing a skeleton gentleman at a ball asking a skeleton lady to dance, meant to represent the effect of arsenic dyes and pigments in clothing and accessories.
An 1862 engraving showing a skeleton gentleman at a ball asking a skeleton lady to dance, meant to represent the effect of arsenic dyes and pigments in clothing and accessories.

While getting dressed in the morning can seem like a hassle (pajamas are so much more comfortable), few of us worry about our clothes leading to our death. That wasn’t the case during the Victorian era, when fashionable fabrics and accessories sometimes came at great price for both makers and wearers. In Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present, Alison Matthews David, a professor in the School of Fashion at Ryerson University in Toronto, outlines the many toxic, flammable, and otherwise highly hazardous components of high style during the 19th century. Here are a few of the worst offenders.

1. Poisonous Dyes

A drawing of Victorian fashions likely made with arsenic dyes
A drawing of Victorian fashions likely made with arsenic dyes
Bloomsbury Visual Arts

Before the 1780s, green was a tricky color to create on clothes, and dressmakers depended on a combination of yellow and blue dyes to produce the hue. But in the late 1770s a Swedish/German chemist named Carl Wilhelm Scheele invented a new green pigment by mixing potassium and white arsenic on a solution of copper vitriol. The pigment was dubbed Scheele’s Green, and later Paris Green, among other names, and it became a huge sensation, used to color walls, paintings, and fabrics as well as candles, candies, food wrappers, and even children’s toys. Not surprisingly, it also caused sores, scabs, and damaged tissue, as well as nausea, colic, diarrhea, and constant headaches.

Although fashionable women wore arsenic-dyed fabrics—even Queen Victoria was depicted in one—its health effects were worst among the textile and other workers who created the clothes and often labored in warm, arsenic-impregnated rooms day after day. (Some scholars have even theorized that Napoleon might have been poisoned by the arsenic-laced wallpaper hung in his St. Helena home.)

Arsenical dyes were also a popular addition to artificial flowers and leaves, which meant they were frequently pinned to clothes or fastened on heads. In the 1860s, a report commissioned by the Ladies’ Sanitary Association found that the average headdress contained enough arsenic to poison 20 people. The British Medical Journal wrote of the green-clad Victorian woman: “She actually carries in her skirts poison enough to slay the whole of the admirers she may meet with in half a dozen ball-rooms.” Despite repeated warnings in the press, and from doctors and scientists, the Victorians seemed in love with emerald green arsenic dyes; ironically, they acted like a reminder of the nature then swiftly being lost to industrialization, David says.

2. Pestilential Fabrics

Soldiers of the Victorian era (and earlier) were plagued by lice and other body parasites that carried deadly diseases such as typhus and trench fever. But soldiers weren’t the only victims of disease carried via fabric—even the wealthy sometimes wore clothing that was made or cleaned by the sick in sweatshops or tenements, and which spread disease as a result. According to David, the daughter of Victorian Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel died after her riding habit, given to her by her father as a gift, was finished in the house of a poor seamstress who had used it to cover her sick husband as he lay shivering with typhus-induced chills. Peel’s daughter contracted typhus after wearing the garment, and died on the eve of her wedding.

Women also worried about their skirts sweeping through the muck and excrement of city streets, where bacteria was rife, and some wore special skirt-fasteners to keep them up from the gunk. The poor, who often wore secondhand clothes, suffered from smallpox and other diseases spread by fabric that was recycled without being properly washed.

3. Flowing Skirts

Giant, ruffled, crinoline-supported skirts may have been fine for ladies of leisure, but they weren’t a great combination with industrial machinery. According to David, one mill in Lancashire posted a sign in 1860 forbidding the “present ugly fashion of HOOPS, or CRINOLINE, as it is called” as being “quite unfitted for the work of our Factories.” The warning was a wise one: In at least one printing office, a girl was caught by her crinoline and dragged under the mechanical printing press. The girl was reportedly “very slim” and escaped unharmed, but the foreman banned the skirts anyway. Long, large, or draped skirts were also an unfortunate combination with carriages and animals.

4. Flammable Fabrics

A woman with her crinoline on fire
Bloomsbury Visual Arts

The flowing white cotton so popular in the late 18th and 19th centuries had dangers to both maker and wearer: It was produced with often-brutal slave labor on plantations, and it was also more flammable than the heavy silks and wool favored by the wealthy in the previous centuries. One type of cotton lace was particularly problematic: In 1809 John Heathcoat patented a machine that made the first machine-woven silk and cotton pillow “lace” or bobbinet, now better known as tulle, which could catch fire in an instant. The tulle was frequently layered, to add volume and compensate for its sheerness, and stiffened with highly combustible starch. Ballerinas were particularly at risk: British ballerina Clara Webster died in 1844 when her dress caught fire at London’s Drury Lane theatre after her skirt came too close to sunken lights onstage.

But performers weren’t the only ones in peril: Even the average woman wearing the then-popular voluminous crinolines was at risk of setting herself ablaze. And the “flannelette” (plain cotton brushed to create a nap and resemble wool flannel) so popular for nightshirts and undergarments was particularly combustible if hit with a stray spark or the flame of a household candle. So many children burned in household accidents that one company came out with a specially treated flannelette called Non-Flam, advertised as being “strong’y recommended by Coroners.”

5. Arsenic-Ridden Taxidermy

Dead birds were a popular addition to ladies’ hats in the 19th century. According to David, “fashions in millinery killed millions of small songbirds and introduced dangers that may still make some historic women’s hats harmful to humans today.”

But it wasn’t the birds that were the problem—it was the arsenic used on them. Taxidermists of the day used arsenic-laced soaps and other products to preserve birds and other creatures. In some cases, entire birds—one or several—were mounted on hats. Some Victorian fashion commentators decried the practice, though not because of the arsenic involved. One Mrs. Haweis, a writer on dress and beauty, began an 1887 diatribe against “smashed birds” with the sentence: “A corpse is never a really pleasant ornament.”

6. Mercury

No upper-class man of the Victorian era was complete without his hat, but many of those hats were made with mercury. As David explains, “Although its noxious effects were known, it was the cheapest and most efficient way to turn stiff, low-grade fur from rabbits and hares into malleable felt.” Mercury gave animal fur its smooth, glossy, matted texture, but that velvety look came at a high cost—mercury is an extremely dangerous substance.

Mercury can rapidly enter the body through the skin or the air, and causes a range of horrible health effects. Hatters were known to suffer from convulsions, abdominal cramps, trembling, paralysis, reproductive problems, and more. (A chemistry professor studying toxic exposure at Dartmouth College, Karen Wetterhahn, died in 1996 after spilling just a few drops of a supertoxic type of mercury on her glove.) To make matters worse, hatters who drank while they worked (not an uncommon practice) only hastened mercury’s effects by hampering the liver’s ability to eliminate it. While scholars still debate whether Lewis Carroll’s “mad hatter” was meant to show the effects of mercury poisoning, his trembling limbs and wacky speech seem to fit the bill.

7. Lead

A Victorian facial cream containing lead
A Victorian facial cream containing lead
Bloomsbury Visual Arts

Pallor was definitely in during the Victorian era, and a face spackled with lead white paint was long favored by fashionable women. Lead had been a popular ingredient in cosmetics for centuries, David writes, because it “made colors even and opaque and created a desirable ‘whiteness’ that bespoke both freedom from hard outdoor labor and racial purity.” One of the most popular lead-laced cosmetic products was called Laird’s Bloom of Youth; in 1869, one of the founders of the American Medical Association treated three young women who had been using the product and temporarily lost full use of their hands and wrists as a result. (The doctor described the condition as “lead palsy,” although today we call it wrist drop or radial nerve palsy, which can be caused by lead poisoning.) One of the women’s hands was said to be “wasted to a skeleton.”

This article was republished in 2019.

Neil Armstrong’s Spacesuit Will Go Back on Display for Apollo 11's 50th Anniversary

Phil Plait, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0
Phil Plait, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

Neil Armstrong made history when he became the first person to walk on the Moon 50 years ago. Space exploration has changed since then, but the white space suit with the American flag patch that Armstrong wore on that first walk is still what many people think of when they picture an astronaut. Now, after sitting in storage for a decade, that iconic suit is ready to go on display, according to Smithsonian.

NASA donated Neil Armstrong's suit to the Smithsonian shortly after the Apollo 11 mission. For about 30 years, it was displayed at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Then, in 2006, the museum moved the artifact to storage to minimize damage.

Even away from the exhibit halls, the suit was deteriorating, and the Smithsonian knew it would need to be better preserved if it was to be shown to the public again. In 2015, the institution launched its first-ever Kickstarter campaign and raised more than $700,000 for conservation efforts.

After a multi-year preservation project, the suit will finally return to the museum floor on July 16, 2019—the date that marks 50 years since Apollo 11 launched. This time around, the suit will be displayed on a structure that was custom built to support its interior, protecting it from the weight of gravity. Climate-controlled air will flow through the gear to recreate the stable environment of a storage unit.

Even if you can't make it to the National Air and Space Museum to see Armstrong's space suit in person, soon you'll be able to appreciate it from home in a whole new way. The museum used various scanning techniques to create an intricate 3D model of the artifact. Once the scans are reconfigured for home computers, the Smithsonian's digitization team plans to make an interactive version of the digital model freely available on its website.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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