Beyond Kellerman's: Inside the Real Catskill Resorts That Inspired Dirty Dancing

1950sUnlimited, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
1950sUnlimited, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

When you think of Dirty Dancing, or even just hear the first strains of "(I've Had) The Time of My Life," you probably think of a single image: Jennifer Grey, in her diaphanous pink dress, being triumphantly lifted toward the heavens by the Adonis-like dance instructor played by the late Patrick Swayze.

Since its release in 1987, Dirty Dancing has remained a beloved mainstay for scores of fans, earning it a place in the popular film canon and endless re-showings on basic cable. Even dedicated fans, however, may be missing out on a fundamental aspect of the film that’s never directly addressed: its Jewish roots.

The movie’s setting, Kellerman's, is based on the numerous all-inclusive vacation spots aimed at Jewish travelers that dotted the upstate New York landscape throughout much of the 20th century—a constellation of resorts commonly known as the Borscht Belt. (The term was coined by Variety writer Abel Green as a reference to the hearty Eastern European soup that was ubiquitous on these hotels' menus.)

For the purposes of appealing to a broader audience, most references to the Jewish identity of resorts like Kellerman's were expunged from the movie. Still, even without many explicit references to Jewish life, Dirty Dancing—written by seasoned resort-goer Eleanor Bergstein—managed to get a lot of things right about the Borscht Belt. While the average viewer might not notice them, there are numerous nods to this resort culture embedded in the film.

 

Before grandiose resorts like the ones that inspired Kellerman's existed, enterprising Jewish families opened boarding houses in the Catskill Mountains during the early 20th century. Known as kucheleins, these bucolic locations were moderately priced respites for tenement-dwelling New Yorkers looking to beat the heat. The houses had communal kitchens, where fresh milk was the beverage of the day, thanks to the dairy farms prevalent in the area. (We'll come back to that later.)

Eventually, as Jewish families became more affluent—and these boarding houses became more successful—many of them expanded into sprawling resorts. And word got around that these sumptuous hotels were the places to see and be seen. The best known of them, including Grossinger's, Kutsher's, and the Concord, became institutions. Grossinger's alone counted Eleanor Roosevelt, Judy Garland, Jayne Mansfield, and Milton Berle among its guests. Debbie Reynolds married Eddie Fisher at the hotel in 1955 (Fisher had been discovered there). Meanwhile, Kutsher's Country Club once welcomed stand-up comedians like Joan Rivers, Andy Kaufman, and Jerry Seinfeld (and employed a pre-NBA Wilt Chamberlain as a bellhop).

Hotel Kaaterskill, 1903-1904New York Public Library, Flickr // Public Domain

But there was a darker reason these elegant, upstate New York hotels were so popular with Jewish travelers beyond their boundless kosher meals. Anti-Semitism in the United States was an unfortunate, widespread fact of life for the first half of the 20th century, and many vacation spots throughout the country were "restricted," meaning Jews were not welcome. The Catskills resorts of the Borscht Belt offered an upscale experience without the risk of being turned away.

In the world of Dirty Dancing, outright mentions of Jewish culture are almost nonexistent. At best, several of the characters are reduced to borderline-lazy tropes in order to get the point across that they are Jewish without having to explicitly say it. Marjorie Houseman (Kelly Bishop) is a stereotypical Jewish mother, and Lisa Houseman (Jane Brucker) is a stereotypical a "Jewish American Princess."

And yet, even without mentioning religion, Dirty Dancing hits many aspects of the Borscht Belt experience spot-on.

Take, for instance, the mambo obsession that sweeps through Kellerman's in the movie, which takes place during the summer of 1963. It's not fictional in the slightest. In It Happened in the Catskills, an oral history of Borscht Belt culture, there are multiple descriptions of the mambo craze that prevailed in the 1950s and early 1960s.

One of the best accounts of the time comes from Jackie Horner, who served as a consultant on Dirty Dancing. Like the film's character Penny Johnson (Cynthia Rhodes), Horner was a Rockette for a time, and from 1954 to 1986, she taught dancing at Grossinger's. "All of us could do the routines that Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey did in Dirty Dancing," she said. "In fact, I used to bring the watermelon plugged with vodka to our staff parties just like in the movie."

As she explained, "every hotel, big or small, had a resident dance team" whose schedules were jam-packed with lessons and performances from sunup to sundown: "At 9:30 we started teaching, and we kept going until 6 o'clock, when we'd break for dinner. At 7, on a full stomach, we'd go right into dance rehearsal. At 9, we'd change into costumes for our 10 o'clock show. Then we'd dance with our pupils from 11 to 1."

Some of those pupils were indeed the "bungalow bunnies," like Dirty Dancing's bored housewife Vivian Pressman (Miranda Garrison). "The husbands only came up on weekends, so it was party time for them Monday through Friday," said Horner. "They took dance lessons from the male instructors during the day. At night, after the show, the male instructors came back to dance with the pupils. They kept themselves busy around the clock."

 

Another thing Dirty Dancing got right? The resorts' practice of hiring college students for summer and holiday gigs. He may have been the "villain" of the movie, but medical students like the weaselly waiter Robbie Gould (Max Cantor) were commonplace around the Borscht Belt. It was a win-win situation for many of these part-time workers. As Tania Grossinger wrote in her book Growing Up at Grossinger's, "In the summer, many college students applied for jobs as busboys, waitresses, or bellhops, where they could conceivably make $1500 a season in tips and salary, have virtually no expenses, and have a heck of a good time to boot."

And the film's love story is realistic, too. Those hotels were great places for matchmaking. My existence can attest to that. My parents met at the Raleigh Hotel in South Fallsburg, New York, over the Passover holiday in 1967. In a story that vaguely echoes that of Frances "Baby" Houseman (Grey) and Johnny Castle (Swayze), my father was working his way through college as a busboy and my mother was a high school junior, vacationing at the resort with her family. Years later, my extended family started a 15-year tradition of spending Passover in the mountains.

Grossinger's, 1976John Margolies, Library of Congress // Public Domain

Unfortunately, the film also accurately alluded to the Borscht Belt's decline. Though some families—my own included—kept frequenting these resorts, even by the 1960s, these destinations were starting to lose their luster.

At the end of Dirty Dancing, resort owner Max Kellerman (Jack Weston) laments to bandleader Tito Suarez (Charles "Honi" Coles) that times are changing. The exchange is easy to overlook because it takes place mere seconds before Swayze's immortal "nobody puts Baby in a corner" line. But if you listen carefully, it becomes clear that Kellerman is the voice of a dying generation—and of a dying culture.

Max Kellerman: "You and me, Tito. We've seen it all. Bubba and Zeyda [ed. note: Yiddish for grandmother and grandfather] serving the first pasteurized milk to the boarders. Through the war years when we didn't have any meat, through the Depression when we didn't have anything."

Tito Suarez: "Lots of changes, Max. Lots of changes."

Max Kellerman: "It's not the changes so much this time, Tito. It's that it all seems to be ending. You think kids want to come up here with their parents to take foxtrot lessons? Trips to Europe, that's what the kids want. Twenty-two countries in three days. It feels like it's all slipping away.”

Max Kellerman's realization that his resort is no longer the hotspot it was a decade or two earlier is on-point. (As is his reference to the ubiquity of milk at those boarding houses.) By the 1960s, air travel had become more reasonably priced, and restricted vacation locales were becoming a non-issue, especially after the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964.

And with the culture shift of the late '60s hovering over these Borscht Belt resorts like an ominous cloud, it would become less and less likely that kids would be interested in coming up to the Catskills to take foxtrot lessons alongside their parents. Listen, Baby may have been all-in when it came to doing the mambo or grinding up on Johnny to "Cry to Me," but who's to say she'd still want to cha-cha-cha with him once she got a whiff of what John, Paul, George, and Ringo had to offer when Beatlemania hit the U.S. a few months later?

 

Max's melancholy observation was a harbinger of what was to come. Nowadays, these palatial hotels are nonexistent. The ones that still stand either cater to an ultra-Orthodox clientele (as in the case of the Raleigh) or, like Grossinger's, exist in a state of perpetual ruin.

Dirty Dancing may live on in our hearts and our memories (or rather, "voices, hearts, and hands") through streaming services like Netflix and endless cable reruns. But without some effort, the history of hotels like Kellerman's might be forgotten.

Kutsher’s in Thompson, New York, 1977John Margolies, Library of Congress // Public Domain

So maybe next time Dirty Dancing has its 5785th airing on TBS, before Baby and Johnny take the stage for the time of their lives once again, have a little sympathy for Max Kellerman's kvetching. Because believe it or not, there was a time, to quote Miss Frances Houseman, "before President Kennedy was shot, before the Beatles came," when a joint like Kellerman's was a pretty cool place to hang.

10 Rad Gifts for Hikers

Greg Rosenke/Unsplash
Greg Rosenke/Unsplash

The popularity of bird-watching, camping, and hiking has skyrocketed this year. Whether your gift recipients are weekend warriors or seasoned dirtbags, they'll appreciate these tools and gear for getting most out of their hiking experience.

1. Stanley Nesting Two-Cup Cookset; $14

Amazon

Stanley’s compact and lightweight cookset includes a 20-ounce stainless steel pot with a locking handle, a vented lid, and two insulated 10-ounce tumblers. It’s the perfect size for brewing hot coffee, rehydrating soup, or boiling water while out on the trail with a buddy. And as some hardcore backpackers note in their Amazon reviews, your favorite hiker can take the tumblers out and stuff the pot with a camp stove, matches, and other necessities to make good use of space in their pack.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Osprey Sirrus and Stratos 24-Liter Hiking Packs; $140

Amazon

Osprey’s packs are designed with trail-tested details to maximize comfort and ease of use. The Sirrus pack (pictured) is sized for women, while the Stratos fits men’s proportions. Both include an internal sleeve for a hydration reservoir, exterior mesh and hipbelt pockets, an attachment for carrying trekking poles, and a built-in rain cover.

Buy them: Amazon, Amazon

3. Yeti Rambler 18-Ounce Bottle; $48

Amazon

Nothing beats ice-cold water after a summer hike or a sip of hot tea during a winter walk. The Yeti Rambler can serve up both: Beverages can stay hot or cold for hours thanks to its insulated construction, and its steel body (in a variety of colors) is basically indestructible. It will add weight to your hiker's pack, though—for a lighter-weight, non-insulated option, the tried-and-true Camelbak Chute water bottle is incredibly sturdy and leakproof.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Mappinners Greatest 100 Hikes of the National Parks Scratch-Off Poster; $30

Amazon

The perfect gift for park baggers in your life (or yourself), this 16-inch-by-20-inch poster features epic hikes like Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Once the hike is complete, you can scratch off the gold foil to reveal an illustration of the park.

Buy it: Amazon

5. National Geographic Adventure Edition Road Atlas; $19

Amazon

Hikers can use this brand-new, updated road atlas to plan their next adventure. In addition to comprehensive maps of all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Mexico, they'll get National Geographic’s top 100 outdoor destinations, useful details about the most popular national parks, and points on the maps noting off-the-beaten-path places to explore.  

Buy it: Amazon

6. Adventure Medical Kits Hiker First-Aid Kit; $25

Amazon

This handy 67-piece kit is stuffed with all the things you hope your hiker will never need in the wilderness. Not only does it contain supplies for pain, cuts and scrapes, burns, and blisters (every hiker’s nemesis!), the items are organized clearly in the bag to make it easy to find tweezers or an alcohol wipe in an emergency.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Hiker Hunger Ultralight Trekking Poles; $70

Amazon

Trekking poles will help increase your hiker's balance and stability and reduce strain on their lower body by distributing it to their arms and shoulders. This pair is made of carbon fiber, a super-strong and lightweight material. From the sweat-absorbing cork handles to the selection of pole tips for different terrain, these poles answer every need on the trail. 

Buy it: Amazon

8. Leatherman Signal Camping Multitool; $120

Amazon

What can’t this multitool do? This gadget contains 19 hiking-friendly tools in a 4.5-inch package, including pliers, screwdrivers, bottle opener, saw, knife, hammer, wire cutter, and even an emergency whistle.

Buy it: Amazon

9. RAVPower Power Bank; $24

Amazon

Don’t let your hiker get caught off the grid with a dead phone. They can charge RAVPower’s compact power bank before they head out on the trail, and then use it to quickly juice up a phone or tablet when the batteries get low. Its 3-inch-by-5-inch profile won’t take up much room in a pack or purse.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Pack of Four Indestructible Field Books; $14

Amazon

Neither rain, nor snow, nor hail will be a match for these waterproof, tearproof 3.5-inch-by-5.5-inch notebooks. Your hiker can stick one in their pocket along with a regular pen or pencil to record details of their hike or brainstorm their next viral Tweet.

Buy it: Amazon

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Alice Dunnigan, the First Black Woman Journalist to Get White House Press Credentials

Schlesinger Library, RIAS, Harvard University // No Known Copyright Restrictions
Schlesinger Library, RIAS, Harvard University // No Known Copyright Restrictions

Alice Dunnigan’s birthplace of Russellville, Kentucky, is more than 700 miles from Washington, D.C. And for Black women journalists in the early 20th century, the dream of heading to the Capitol and covering national politics at the highest level seemed even more distant. But Dunnigan overcame racism, sexism, and other obstacles to make history as the first Black woman credentialed to cover the White House. Dunnigan, whose grandparents were born into slavery, would combat discrimination and champion freedom of the press while covering three U.S. presidents.

A Long Road to Writing Success

Born on April 27, 1906, Alice Allison Dunnigan grew up in a cottage on a red clay hill outside Russellville, a former Confederate Civil War stronghold (population 5000). Dunnigan’s father was a tenant farmer, while her mother took in laundry. Their precocious daughter learned to read before entering the first grade, and she began writing for the Owensboro Enterprise when she was just 13. After graduating from the segregated Knob City High School in 1923, she completed a teaching course at Kentucky State University.

During Dunnigan’s 18-year career as a Todd County teacher, her annual salary never topped $800. Her aspirations went beyond teaching: She wrote “Kentucky Fact Sheets,” highlighting Black contributions to state history that the official curriculum omitted, and took journalism classes at Tennessee A&I College (now Tennessee State University). Her two marriages to tobacco farmer Walter Dickenson in 1925 and childhood pal Charles Dunnigan in 1932 did not pan out. To pursue her career, she made the tough decision to have her parents raise Robert, her son from her second marriage, for 17 years. In 1935, she moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where she worked for Black-owned newspapers like the Louisville Defender.

With the Jim Crow era still in force and World War II raging, Dunnigan made her next big move to Washington, D.C., in 1942. Vying to escape poverty, she joined the federal civil service and earned $1440 a year as a War Labor Board clerk. Yet even four years later, when she was working as an economist after studying at Howard University and commanding a $2600 salary—double that of the average Black woman in the nation's capital—journalism kept calling her name.

Dunnigan became a Washington, D.C., correspondent in 1946 for the Associated Negro Press (ANP), the first Black-owned wire service, supplying more than 100 newspapers nationwide. It was her ticket to covering national politics.

Fearlessly Covering the White House

Dunnigan’s passion for journalism didn’t boost her bank account. Claude A. Barnett, her ANP publisher, gave her a starting monthly salary of $100—half of what his male writers earned. “Race and sex were twin strikes against me,” Dunnigan said later. “I’m not sure which was the hardest to break down.” To stay afloat financially, she often pawned her watch and shoveled coal, subsisting on basic food like hog ears and greens. To relax, she drank Bloody Marys and smoked her pipe.

Named ANP’s bureau chief in 1947, Dunnigan forged ahead as a political reporter despite Barnett’s skepticism. “For years we have tried to get a man accredited to the Capitol Galleries and have not succeeded,” Barnett told her. “What makes you think that you—a woman—can accomplish this feat?” Though the ANP had never endorsed her application for a Capitol press pass, Dunnigan's repeated efforts finally paid off. She was approved for a Capitol press pass in July 1947, and swiftly followed up with a successful request for White House media credentials.

In 1948, Dunnigan became a full-fledged White House correspondent. When she was invited to join the press corps accompanying President Harry S. Truman’s re-election campaign, Barnett declined to pay her way—so Dunnigan took out a loan and went anyway. As one of just three Black reporters and the only Black woman covering Truman’s whistle-stop tour out West, she experienced highs and lows.

In Cheyenne, Wyoming, when Dunnigan tried to walk with other journalists behind Truman’s motorcade, a military officer, assuming she was an interloper, pushed her back toward the spectators. Another journalist had to intervene on her behalf. Afterward, Truman found her typing in her compartment on the presidential Ferdinand Magellan train and said, “I heard you had a little trouble. Well, if anything else happens, please let me know.”

Dunnigan later landed a scoop in Missoula, Montana, when Truman got off the train at night in his dressing gown to address a crowd of students. Her headline read: “Pajama Clad President Defends Civil Rights at Midnight.”

Her relationship with President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1950s was more contentious. The two-term Republican president disliked her persistent questions about hiring practices that discriminated against Black Americans, segregation at military base schools, and other civil rights issues. Max Rabb, an Eisenhower advisor, told her she should clear her questions with him in advance to get better answers. She agreed once, but never again. Subsequently, “Honest Ike” ignored Dunnigan at press conferences for years, despite her status as the first Black member of the Women’s National Press Club (1955).

When President John F. Kennedy took office in 1961, he called on Dunnigan eight minutes into his first press conference. She asked about protection for Black tenant farmers who had been evicted from their Tennessee homes simply for voting in the previous election. JFK replied, “I can state that this administration will pursue the problem of providing that protection, with all vigor.” Jet magazine then published this headline: “Kennedy In, Negro Reporter Gets First Answer in Two Years.”

New Career, New Achievements

Later in 1961, Dunnigan found a new calling. President Kennedy appointed her to his Committee on Equal Opportunity, designed to level the playing field for Americans seeking federal government jobs. As an educational consultant, Dunnigan toured the U.S. and gave speeches. In 1967, she switched over to the Council on Youth Opportunity, where she spent four years as an editor, writing articles in support of young Black people.

After retiring, she self-published her 1974 autobiography, A Black Woman’s Experience: From Schoolhouse to White House. Dunnigan died at age 77 in 1983, but her legacy lives on. In 2013, she was posthumously inducted into the National Association of Black Journalists Hall of Fame. CNN’s April Ryan, Lauretta Charlton of the New York Times, and others have hailed her as an inspiration.

In 2018, a 500-pound bronze statue of Dunnigan was unveiled at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. Today, it stands outside the Struggles for Equality and Emancipation in Kentucky (SEEK) Museum in her native Russellville—a silent but powerful tribute to a woman who was never short on words.