Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Fighting for the Borscht Belt Gleason’s Gym Sets Up Camp at Last Kosher Resort

by Binnie Klein

Joselito, Daniela, and Matt are standing in the hallway waiting for the elevator to take them down to the dining room. “Why is it taking so long?” asks 10-year-old Matt, the youngest of the kids. They are hungry and impatient, having just finished their boxing work-outs. Joselito, a veteran of previous summers, knows that it’s Friday night at Kutsher’s Resort in Monticello, and the elevator has been preset so that it stops at every floor. No one has to push a button on Shabbes.
Later, at dinner, Maureen O’Brien, of the father/daughter team from Boston who I have dubbed “The Fighting O’Briens,” leans over and shyly whispers: “What’s kasha?” We are seated in the Gold Dining Room, set aside for participants in Gleason’s Gym’s Eighth Annual Fantasy Boxing Camp, while the usual guests dine in an adjacent room. . At this table I am the only Jew, and the task of explaining Kutsher’s kosher menu has fallen to me. “Oh, it’s delicious,” I say. “It’s bow-tie noodles with buckwheat groats.” She looks blank. I wonder if I’m right. The menu also includes flanken, a dish my Polish grandmother used to make -- but I’m still not sure what it is.
In the upper lobby Jackie Horner is leading a ballroom dance class for five older ladies, one of many hotel activities like Big Bucks Bingo, Justine’s Makeover Face Lift Show (with door prizes), even Chassidic stories from Rabbi Avi Zablocki. Retired folks are the “meat-and-potatoes” of the place, says Yossi Zablocki, a legal aid lawyer from New Jersey and Kutsher’s new manager and investor. Of Dirty Dancing, Jackie says “It’s my true story. There really was a ‘baby,’ like in the film, and she was my student” she reveals, crossing her slender legs on the couch. The character of “Penny” in the film was based on Jackie. “Patrick Swayze wasn’t our first choice, by the way! We danced all day and all night; we were young.” She looks away. “There was a pulse; you’d feel it the minute you hit the Catskills. I even taught the boxers to dance.”
Kutsher’s Resort has its own impressive history with sports, and boxing in particular. Muhammad Ali, Leon Spinks, Archie Moore, and Floyd Patterson all set up training camps at Kutsher’s. Jews, too, have a strong history with boxing; between 1910 and 1940 there were 27 Jewish boxing champions.
The 1400 acres of the 103-year-old Kutsher’s spreads out forever, like a college campus, with indoor and outdoor swimming pools, an 18-hole championship golf course, tennis courts, bocce ball, and shuffleboard. I’m sitting with Irwin and a few of his cronies by the lake, as he complains about the service. No doubt; the place needs rehabilitation. But he still comes to Kutsher’s, every year. Irwin is in his eighties, and was a comedian for 19 years at The Raleigh, another big hotel. “Wednesday night I’d open the talent show, white straw hat, cane.” He begins to sing, another opening, another show… We all join in, as the geese on the lake honk. He tells me an off-color joke, and his eyes twinkle under his jaunty cap. I laugh. “You know, you’re a pretty woman,” he says. “I’m a kissy-kissy guy. You married?”
I gracefully duck Irwin’s flirtation, and head into the big event -- the Saturday night sparring exhibition. There are 12 bouts, 3 rounds each, and everyone gets a trophy. I look behind the ring after 73 year old lawyer Michael Tarnoff’s fight, and notice a small group of Orthodox Jews have wandered in and are quietly watching, as their little girls in long frilly dresses sidle up to the ropes, transfixed. Another tiny Jewish toddler gets up on a chair. “Get him! Get him!” she shrieks, her curls bouncing. Her yarmulked daddy pulls her back into her stroller. There are now three distinct types of headgear in the room: yarmulkes, tall black hats, and boxing helmets.
Later that night and into the early morning, the campers celebrate in the “Deep End Lounge,” a disco/bar with cut-out windows that look out onto the indoor pool. On the stage, hard-working Bruce Silverglade, 64 year-old owner of Gleason’s Gym, has set up a shrine to Muhammad Ali and Orthodox boxer and future rabbi Yuri Foreman. While boxing trainer Martin Gonzalez, Joselito’s father, is cutting loose on the dance floor with some salsa moves, several guests wearing yarmulkes wander in. They look confused. “Is this the show?” they ask. “No,” I say. “You want the Stardust Room, down the hall.” And off they go, to hear singers Oneg Shemesh and Chaim Kiss, and maybe a little comedy. The Stardust Room was once host to Jerry Lewis, Steve and Edie, Milton Berle, and Sid Caesar, and raucous crowds that roared with laughter and applause.
The next day, Bruce Silverglade and his crew begin to dismantle the boxing rings, and pack up the gloves. It’s time to “break camp.” “The history of the Catskills is like the history of New York City,” Bruce says, surveying the huge and now mostly empty “Sportsmen’s Room.” “They worked hard, and they played hard.”
The group is slow to leave, as hugs and business cards are exchanged. “Boxing people are family,” Bronx-raised boxer Al Roth says. I’m thinking that Bruce Silverglade and Yossi Zablocki have similar and impressive missions that go beyond nostalgia; Bruce to recreate an old-style sports training camp, Yossi to preserve a version of the old Catskills resort hotel experience, and I’m remembering the last thing Jackie Horner said to me about the thriving Catskills culture of half a century ago before she started up her next rumba lesson for a few eager souls.
“It was a time, Binnie. That’s all. That’s all I can say.”