The Ellenville building that’s housed a pop-up Borscht Belt exhibit since early July has a bit of a Robin Hood backstory. The 95-year-old brick bank in the heart of the village had a significant role in creating some of the Catskill resorts that, for the first half of the 20th century, attracted millions of vacationers—most of them Jewish urbanites—to the mountains of upstate New York.
In the 1950s, William Rose, president of the bygone Home National Bank at 90 Canal Street in Ellenville, would often float money to the region’s hoteliers and bungalow colony owners at a time when other financial institutions refused to give loans to Jewish businesses. The historic bank is thus part of the bigger story being told in the exhibit entitled “Vacationland! Catskills Resorts Culture 1900–1980,” which opened on July 1 and runs through the fall.
Andrew Jacobs, president of the Catskills Borscht Belt Museum’s nine-member board of trustees, says despite torrential rain on opening reception day, more than 100 visitors showed up. “It’s fair to say that people who stepped through the door were thrilled to see that a [pop-up] honoring the Borscht Belt era had finally become a reality. Older folks were trading personal reminiscences over rugelach and plastic cups of rosé,” he says.
They stood around the oral history booth, recording their own stories of family vacations. Pieces of Catskill history such as the neon yellow sign that once graced the entrance of Kutsher’s Hotel and Country Club in Monticello were conversation starters for those who had visited the sprawling hotels in their heyday.
The Jewish clientele considered the region (comprising Sullivan, Ulster, and Orange counties) a haven free from antisemitism and an open-air paradise that gave them reprieve from the oppressive city heat.
The resorts offered top-notch accommodations, all-you-can-eat buffets, plenty of recreation, and some of the best entertainers in show business, including Jerry Lewis, Mel Brooks, Milton Berle, and Joan Rivers.
It’s no wonder that those who visited the opening-day exhibit lingered long into the night, swapping stories of their family adventures in the Catskills. “There were speeches and delirious chatter as it poured outside, and in the end, the visitors had to be shooed out the door, so we could close up for the night,” says Jacobs.
Following the resounding summertime success, the founders of the Catskills Borscht Belt Museum are looking to segue into a permanent core museum, which they hope to open at the bank building in 2025. The idea is to “preserve this essential slice of Americana,” according to historian and educator Peter Alan Chester, the museum’s chief financial officer, who had often visited the hotels as a youth and later worked for them as a busboy and waiter. “We had wonderful times there. Every summer, we had eight weeks where there was no outside world. We want to preserve that and give the younger generation a glimpse of what the real Disneyland was like.”
The original idea to build a $52 million, 42,000-square-foot museum was conceived 20 years ago by retired businessman Jack Godfrey, whose parents ran a hotel in Ellenville. In recent years, his vision advanced with a rebranding and scaled-back plan that shifted from a new build to an existing structure with ties to the resorts. The board also grew, and with that came new ideas about fundraising and partnerships. Jacobs, a New York Times reporter and director of the documentary “Four Seasons Lodge,” drove a lot of that change when he joined the board two years ago. He suggested doing a pop-up exhibit as a teaser and way to raise donations.
Spring Valley native Robin Cohen Kauffman is another enthusiastic board member. Her family had often vacationed at the former Homowack Lodge in Spring Glen, where she later worked as a camp counselor, an experience she regards as “life changing.” Through her many contacts, she made the initial connection with real-estate investor Keith Rubenstein, principal of Somerset Partners and owner of the Ellenville bank building. After yearlong negotiations, the board purchased the two-story, 10,000-square-foot space in April.
Once the pop-up closes this fall, the board will launch a capital campaign to raise $5 million for further renovations. As of press time, they’ve raised close to $1 million through the pop-up and holding a series of fundraisers. To attract future donors, the board hosted the inaugural Borscht Belt Fest in late July, which featured stand-up comedy, food, live music, film screenings, and panel discussions throughout the village of Ellenville.
They’re now thinking ahead to what the permanent museum collection will look like. The bulk of the artifacts will come from trustee Allen Frishman, who has been collecting items from deserted bungalow colonies and resorts for decades. In addition to various signs he pulled from the decaying resorts as the Town of Fallsburg building inspector, the collection will include postcards, brochures, and menus. Bigger ticket items, like the switchboard that Frishman rescued from The Regal Hotel, a phone booth from The Aladdin Hotel, and a reconstructed bungalow kitchen, will also be on display.
“My forte is digging in the dirt and finding stuff,” says Frishman, an author and former plumber, whose grandparents owned bungalow colonies in Sullivan County. “Not everybody can come to my home in Mountain Dale to see my collection, so it makes me happy that a lot of people will be able to see these period pieces in our museum.”
Jacobs says the future museum will serve as a “fresh, relevant, and contemporary” cultural center that will feature rotating exhibits as well as interactive multimedia technology. For now, he and the others are euphoric about the exhibit’s success and that they’ve found an ideal site. “I think the time has come to put a spotlight on the era,” he says. “We want generations to know that this time and place existed and had a profound impact on American culture.”