Kutsher's Hotel and Country Club was the last of the grand old Borscht Belt resorts—one of over a thousand bungalow colonies and vacation getaways that sprang up in the Catskills in the 1920s. But when its matriarch passed away, its days were numbered. Hellen Kutsher died on March 19th, 2013. Five months later, the resort was condemned. These photos were taken in the brief winter months between the property changing hands and the start of demolition.
The Borscht Belt was where Jews, many from New York City, could indulge in food, music, and humor in an Eastern European tradition. Country bungalows provided a reprieve from the horrendous living conditions of early 20th century tenements. As the Jewish community found economic prosperity, so did the Catskills. Many bungalows turned into sprawling resorts and a few rose to prominence: the Pines (400 rooms), the Concord (1,500 rooms), and Grossinger's (600 rooms). But Kutsher’s (440 rooms) outlasted them all.
Many of you may be familiar with the Borscht Belt from the legendary All Tomorrow's Parties festivals that briefly breathed new life back into Kutsher's, or from the majestic photos of Grossinger's rotting swimming pool. But the greatest legacy is not the decaying structures. The movie Dirty Dancing was based on Kutsher’s. The resort attracted top musical acts like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. It was a hive of sports activity, with Muhammad Ali and Wilt Chamberlain training there in the summers.
But most of all, the Borscht Belt was a petri dish for a kind of Jewish comedy that has now permeated movies and television. Think Joan Rivers (bombed at Kutsher's), Jerry Seinfeld (legend has it he performed there as he was awaiting the network's decision on the Seinfeld pilot). Without the Catskills nightclub circuit, entertainment today would be very different. Questlove, drummer for the Roots, grew up touring the Catskill resorts with his parent's band. Imagine Questlove, age 12, drumming behind his parents in the Starlight Ballroom before an audience of thousands...
The Catskills are now welcoming a new era of oppressed urbanites eager for quiet and country air. An Indian billionaire has bought the 3,100 acre Kutsher's property for $8.18 million and is tearing everything down to build a yoga retreat. The only constant is change, but there is no way droves of pale bodies doing the downward dog on the golf course is going to be as tragicomic as, say, the opening of Annie Hall: