Filming in the Catskills

Listening to Sea Change by Beck the other day reminded me of the time I went to the Catskills in upstate New York for a filming trip in 2002.

We were staying in a hotel on the upper west side in NYC, so the director and I rented a car and set off early to meet the crew near the location.   I don’t remember the presenter being on the trip that day – think we all felt an element of relief he wasn’t there, he was a recalcitrant moody shit and I do remember we felt glad of the chance to escape him for the day.    

It was a drab day with gloomy, tired skies looming above us.  We rocked up to a roadside diner a couple of hours out of town and waited for the film crew – 2 middle-aged brothers who were the go-to crew for any NY-based filming that our department needed.  The sound guy looked like he should have been out hunting bears  in the woods – he was a big, tall imposing guy with a big, silver beard – and had a natural aversion to carrying any kit whatsoever, making really tremendous jokes as I struggled up hills, lugging lightstand cases and tripods. 

It’s a pretty common thing to be the only woman on a small doc film shoot.  Camera and sound still mainly tend to be roles filled by men and as a production manager, my role tends to veer between roadie, tour manager, therapist and lawyer.  But mostly it’s about carrying stuff.   

Having shamefully done no research beforehand whatsoever on the Catskills, I had no real idea what we were heading into.   I vaguely knew we were there to capture some GVs of hotels where old-school Jewish comedians used to perform over the summers in the 20s and 30s.  They entertained holidaying New Yorkers who, in the days before air-conditioning and cheap air-fares,  simply escaped to the mountains as they couldn’t cope with the city’s oppressive, sweltering August heat.  Nicknamed the Borscht Belt, the area drew huge crowds of Jewish families to resorts such as The Pines, Kutshers and The Concord.

Shecky Green, Milton Berle, even a very young Woody Allen all started out their careers peddling their routines to the guests at these massive hotel resorts, year after year.  And the crowds!    In the early days, if you got a gig at one of the main hotels, you knew you really had hit the big time – some of the hotel theatres could hold over a thousand people at a time.  There was big money to be earned and glittering careers to be launched.

The TV series we were making was a history of American stand-up comedy, so we couldn’t tell that story without paying respect to the part the Catskills played.  The plan was to track down some of the big main hotels,  and show the GVs over some radio archive of the comedians who played there.

As we drove further up into the mountains, the towns we passed through became sparser and, quite noticeably, poorer.   It was unfathomable to equate this barren landscape with the gleaming high-rises that were just a couple of hours down the freeway.

Tumbledown buildings clad in corrugated iron peppered the roads, wooden boards became more common than glass in windows, but what didn’t seem to deplete was the number of churches.   Any building that looked remotely in use would, inevitably, prove be either a church, or church hall of some kind.    But no people anywhere.   In the pre-GPS days, it proved quite difficult to track down the Pines address, lots of dead-end road tracks down windy narrow roads which cut into the mountain.   But finally we reached the hotel.  Or rather, the site where the once-majestic hotel used to be. 

It was quite breathtaking.  The building was still standing – sort of – about 5 stories high – but it looked like a Scooby Doo caricature of what a haunted house might look like.  All the windows were knocked in, there was broken glass everywhere.  The driveway leading up to the front door was overgrown with weeds and to the side, through some sprawling tangled bushes, a long-abandoned empty swimming pool, chock-full of slime, mud and leaves could just about be seen.   

I hadn’t expected that we’d be able to get in to the hotel but amazingly, the old, wooden front door was lying wide open, leading into a long, fairly narrow reception.   There wasn’t a soul around, the temperature was icily cold,  so we tentatively crept inside, for some reason speaking in hushed voices.  Nature had very much made herself at home inside the hotel – huge drifts of leaves and foliage had blown indoors, a thick layer of dust covered the reception desk and the air was heavy with damp.   Everything just looked – abandoned.  Room keys were still hanging on numbered hooks, filing cabinets had spilled open with reams of old, yellowing paperwork blowing in the breeze coming through the broken windows.  Old guest ledgers lay in random piles behind the desk and we tiptoed through various old metal boxes and upturned chairs.  Through one of the doors on the right I could see what looked like a dining room, or some kind of function room, sparse, with only a few tables and chairs piled up, but it looked like the ceiling had caved in a long time ago, either through water damage, or just the building giving up in general. 

It was clear it wasn’t a safe site – but no-one seemed in any hurry to go off exploring on their own anyway.  We got a few shots on camera but didn’t hang around too long.   As we drove back to the city shortly afterwards, we saw several more of these abandoned ghost hotels, all being reclaimed by the surrounding trees.    It was all just so, well, so bloody sad.  These were once places of great joy, laughter and escape.  They had outlived their purpose some decades previously yet no-one had the grace, or more likely the money – to put them out their misery.    The arrival of air conditioning and cheap air-fares in New York city around about the 1960s and early 70s was pretty much the death knell of these behemoths.   Without the money of wealthy holidaying New Yorkers, the whole Catskills hotel area just imploded in a few short years, and it appeared that the hotel owners just abandoned their property when no buyers came along to take the hotels off their hands. 

I hadn’t thought about that filming trip for years –  hearing Beck the other day brought it all back.  But then I found out that Beck wasn’t actually even brought up in the Catskills after all and I’d totally made that bit up.    What a dumbass.

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