When I was a boy, for a few years, I spent summers in the Catskills with my grandfather Jack, who had a little cabin up there. It wasn't much, but at least I got a glimpse of the world of the Borscht Belt, even if it was a the tail end of the institution. I remember it mostly as old Jewish men playing pinochle and second-tier comics doing very shticky routines. These were guys I saw on Carson, and I was amazed to see them doing completely different material, sometimes ending jokes with incomprehensible Yiddish idioms that had the old Jewish men in stitches. "What did that mean?" I asked my grandfather, who literally wept with laughter at the joke. "On a friend's beard it is good to learn how to shave," he'd gasp back.
If I am going to look at Jewish bars of the past, I might as well start at places like this. Catskill's resorts weren't exclusively Jewish, but they might as well have been. If you ever wanted to experience an alternative America, where the dominant majority is Jewish, where Yiddish was widely understood and spoken, and where the American diet consisted of kosher deli food, it was in the Borscht Belt hotels.
It was also the greatest expression of Jewish kitsch and specifically Jewish bad taste in history, and so, of course, if you're curious about what it might look like if Jews built bars for other Jews, here is where you start.
I'm starting with Grossinger's, mostly because I find the name of their main saloon delightful. It was the Pink elephant Room, and before that it was the Bamboo Room, and both are exactly the sorts of names I want bars to have.
First, a thumbnail history of both the Borscht Belt and Grossinger's. The Catskills developed as a Jewish getaway in the 1920s, mostly out of necessity -- Jews were routinely access to gentile-owned hotels and vacation resorts. By the 1940s and 50s, the area had exploded, offering perhaps 500 resorts. It was, in its time, one of the great incubators of American entertainment, providing opportunities for budding comedians and musical acts.
The Borscht Belt began its long decline in the 1960s, partially because Jews had accessed to a lot of the mainstream vacation opportunities that had previously been denied to them. The resorts struggled on for several more decades, but by the 1980s most of them had closed and the era of the Borscht Belt had reached its end.
Grossinger's was one of the Borscht Belt's largest resorts, having grown from a small kosher hotel in the early part of the 20th century to a 1,200 acre, 35-building resort community by 1972 -- it was big enough to have its own post office. In its heyday in the 50s and 60s, Grossinger's drew some huge acts, including Mambo King Tito Puento, who recorded an entire album there in 1960 called "Live at Grossinger's" that included a song called "Grossinger's Cha Cha Cha." Eddie Fisher met Debbie Reynolds at Grossinger's and married her there.
So let's talk about the bar. I haven't been able to locate anything about the Bamboo Room -- I presume it was tropically themed -- but the Pink Elephant Lounge is well documented. Firstly, it was pink. Pink carpet. Pink wallpaper. Pink cushions on the chairs. It even had a stuffed pink elephant hanging at the bar.
It was something of a hot spot for aspiring Lotharios: According to "Growing Up at Grossinger's" by Tania Grossinger, in its Bamboo Lounge days it had been called the Meat Market and Pig's Alley, and I found an online group consisting of only three people and "Dedicated to preserving the memory of sneaking into Grossinger's on Saturday night and meeting chicks at the Pink elephant lounge."
What was it like? Well, a former cocktail waitress from Grossinger's named Mindy Littman Holland offered a vivid description on her website, and I will quote a few passages:
"By the time we were two weeks into the summer, all of the virgins had been deflowered by golf pros and pool boys. I wasn’t a virgin going in – lucky me – but I was far more knowledgeable going out than coming in.
I ended up dating a guy from Canarsie whose face should have been posted at every planned parenthood clinic in the country – wanted, dead or alive. The man was the knock-up king of the Borscht Belt. There was one woman he impregnated four times – and they still couldn’t figure out how to prevent it. He eventually stopped having sex with her in order to have sex with me. He was a real stand-up guy that way – and in every way, apparently. In fact, he was so fertile, I got a false positive pregnancy test from just kissing him! No, I’m not kidding."
The bar was also used for entertainment. Ken Dornstein's book "The Boy Who Fell Out of the Sky," the Pink Elephant Room was the location of morning samba lessons. According to the website The Schmooze, Grossinger's had cocktail parties on Friday and Saturday nights. According to "Growing Up at Grossinger's," the bar had an "entertainment area for musical groups and dancing." I'd love to track down more information about the sort of entertainment offered -- when I do, I'll append it to this article.
It's still possible to see the Pink Elephant Room. While the resort closed in 1986, the building still stands in a dangerous state of disrepair, and urban explorers occasionally peek in to take photos. The roof has started to sag inward, but the bar stools still stand, albeit stripped of their pink cushions -- from the photos I have seen, none of the bar's signature color remains. Neither does the elephant.
All that remains are memories, I suppose, of cha cha dancers and late-night hookups.