Welcome to Kutsher’s: The Last Catskills Resort (2012)

Dir. Caroline Laskow and Ian Rosenberg

I’d basically given up on Welcome to Kutsher’s long before hitting the forty-five minute mark of the film. This is a short documentary, barely seventy minutes long, and it’s pretty clear that it’s being stretched to the brink long before then. Welcome to Kutsher’s is made for people who have vivid memories of that country club in the Catskills, one of the several clubs which were for Jewish people at a time when Jewish people were actively barred from membership at other locations. Its primary interviewees are Mark Kutsher, who ran the country club for some years, and his mother Helen, who was actively involved in running it with her husband Milton. It is a family business. Its ownership and management passed for more than a century within that surname, and if for no other reason you can understand why the living Kutshers in the business are sentimental about it. On the other hand, it’s sort of hard to understand why anyone who wasn’t living in New York State between the ages of 1955 and 1975 would be all that jazzed to hear about this stuff.

Most of what they do is explain some aspect of the hotel’s current management as well as how that was heightened or more interesting in the past. For example, Wilt Chamberlain was a bellboy at the hotel before he went pro, and once he went pro used his influence and the Kutsher’s basketball court to put together a yearly charity all-star game at the resort. That’s probably the last item which I think could be given the label of “general interest” in the documentary—somewhere after seeing a picture of Chamberlain pass a guest their suitcase into a second-floor window from the outside, you get the point—but for those of us who can get interested in anything there’s something to chew on. Kutsher’s was a place where a bunch of comedians performed before they struck it big; it had a bunch of different entertainments and diversions for guests on hundreds of acres; you could eat as much as you wanted there for no extra charge. (The three meals a day thing is arguably the most harped on element of the film. People seem to have really liked that!)

The film labors in this general direction for some time, breaking the hotel’s history down by sports, by comedians, by food, and so on. Each section gets its own card, complete with MIDI file music. The sound spikes with some frequency in the interviews. I can’t say any of it is lit very well. It’s shot on some of that creaky old-fashioned digital, and for me it wavers between “wedding video” and “PowerPoint from 2006” in terms of its visual style. The choices for interviews start to get real wonky towards the end, as they start talking to longterm waitstaff, someone who does makeup in a lobby, the person who used to do ice skating shows. It’s the kind of thing that’s designed to make people say, “Oh, I remember her!” as opposed to moments which might open the film up to anyone who might have, for example, stumbled upon it on Amazon one night.

Of course, the fact that not everyone gets it is kind of the point of the film. The heyday of Kutsher’s Country Club was in a time when prejudice kept Jews out of other places—the Catskills were open to them and the Adirondacks were not, as the film specifies—and thus this place could only exist when that prejudice was strong. Watch Gentleman’s Agreement, the Best Picture winner for 1947, and you can see that attitude portrayed from the other side concurrent with Milton Kutsher’s ownerhip of the hotel. Not coincidentally, his resort was thriving as Jews from the New York City metro summered and vacationed ninety miles away, escaping not just the stink and sweat of the city, but the anti-Semitism of it as well. Four elements sank Kutsher’s. Many of the people associated with the resort blame New York’s hesitation to legalize gambling as the death blow; jobs and tourism that could have come to the Catskills went to Atlantic City and Connecticut. (Maybe this is the prude in me, but it seems like if you’re relying on gambling to solve your problems, it means that you didn’t fix a bigger problem about thirty years ) You can find guests who recognize that the fall of Kutsher’s is inherent in its erosion and disrepair. It’s run down and janky, but that’s also because there’s less money to refurbish and renovate where necessary; they get it, but it doesn’t mean they’re excited about making time for a somewhat grimy vacation.

Both of these pale a little in comparison to the greater factors which sank Kutsher’s. The first, of course, is the diminution of active prejudice towards Jews; those rules excluding Jewish people are not gone, but they have been tamped down or changed or broken over the years. The other is air travel. Multiple interviewees note that the competition for Kutsher’s stopped being the other Jewish country clubs once it became relatively inexpensive and convenient for people to fly (or move!) somewhere more fun than upstate New York. For decades, Kutsher’s acted as a haven, but when the need for that haven is removed, then what happens to the safe place is only a matter of time. There are many people in the documentary who report having come to Kutsher’s as children and then having returned with their own kids. One of them bought the neon sign from the entrance purely from nostaglia; another one buys a little sign from a hallway, just to have a piece of the building. Yet the halcyon memories of Kutsher’s are only possible because of the evils of the society which expelled its Jewish members. It is a fairly pure example of reclamation, and in its own way a success story for the society; the world has changed enough for the better that a Kutsher’s is no longer necessary. So much for Grossinger’s, and the Concord Resort Hotel, and Kutsher’s itself.

The last twenty minutes of the movie make the rest of the film worthwhile. I was so taken with Mark Kutsher, who dominates the film just because the filmmakers return to him again and again to explain minutiae and management. He doesn’t seem like a terribly charismatic person—he trained to be a lawyer at Penn and he seems like it—but he feels deeply about this successful, exciting place that was basically handed to him. That he took it on in the last few years of its life is cruel. No matter how funny the stories about Wilt Chamberlain are, or how good the anecdote is where he talked to Jerry Seinfeld about a pilot he was about to do, it doesn’t take away from what must be a profound sense of failure. Around the same time that Kutsher’s is sold and its small pieces auctioned off in bunches, Helen Kutsher died; I’m sure it’s a coincidence, but it happens to be a heck of a coincidence. Mark is not around in any of the sequences where the filmmakers interview the auctioneers, the buyers, the former guests, and that’s totally unsurprising to me. I wouldn’t want to be at a rummage sale for my childhood home either. Even between the bulk of his interview footage and some of the tail-end stuff from three years on, you can see how much he’s aged. His hair is whiter, he looks more tired, his posture is a little more crumpled. Being in charge as the family business turns to dust has worn him down. This is going to sound grandiose, but something about his demeanor reminded me of Theoden at the grave of his son, talking about simbelmyne and lamenting “that I should live to see the last days of my house.” He remains as upbeat about the sale as he can for the camera, but he must have known during the first interview that Kutsher’s was doomed. Gambling hadn’t worked out as a solution to preserve the resort or the surrounding area, the recession was coming, and it’s not like cruise lines had just started operating in 2005 or something. You can hear it in the way he says that he wishes that the next generation of Kutsher’s had been interested in running the place, but none of them were. He grants that they’re doctors, or have other good careers, but the guy who left law school in order to run this terminally ill hotel has to hear his would-be successors turn down his life’s work. Worse than that, he has to know that’s a good business decision.

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