Beyond Kellerman's: Inside the Real Catskill Resorts That Inspired Dirty Dancing
By Sarene Leeds
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).
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.
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.
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.