“Who cares? What difference does it make? What are you worried about?”
1937, upstate New York, summertime; endless performances by an ensemble of players; there for the money; there for a chance; there in order to survive the enduring heat, and best of all to feed an inner drive to be discovered by a “somebody” in the audience who came up to escape the heat, and be with their families on the weekend.
They were sixteen men and women, taking part in the pure romance of an era: to this day known as summer stock.
I doubt if any successful stand up comedians of the time could have made it without learning or practicing their craft at one of the upstate New York retreats. Arguably the most famous, as well as the most popular place to vacation, was “Grossingers’.
As a young man entering this business I enjoyed listening in to many of the old timers relating stories of their days spent during summers of vacationing, or actually being entertainers at any number of places in Concord, New York. But of all the stories I was privy to, none held my attention more than tales of what went on at the variety of playhouses scattered around this famous mountain community.
When you became a member of a summer stock company your duties would include anything and possibly everything having to do with the current productions, often two different plays each week, while also working on anything and everything having to do with next week’s bill of fare. Since air conditioning hadn’t clicked in as a Broadway staple as yet, the names of the most famous and most outstanding actors and actresses of the time were often seen appearing at theaters in some unlikely places. But the average player, those who were not yet famous, knew in advance, taking tickets, doing local promotion appearances around town, and seeing to it the theater was clean, including the bathrooms, was part of the package they signed on for. For most, the pay was a meager stipend, and often those participating in theater production, also functioned as part time waiters, waitresses, and bus boys. Dependent on the hotel, a wide variety of rules and regulations existed regarding what was and wasn’t allowed to take place between hotel employees and guests. Teens will be teens, so you might imagine what went on when supervision relaxed; for some, an underground society operated after hours, when Mom and Dad had retired for the evening. Most of the time what occurred between the help and the hotel patrons was harmless, but on occasion there were incidents when a bus boy or waiter was caught with his pants down. And these incidents weren’t limited exclusively to the teen population. Some women were known to vacation in the Catskills on their own, or without husbands until the weekend. Many of the younger waiters and bus boys were taken care of handsomely for services provided far beyond the call of required duty. Much has been written and portrayed through the years about the well-known transgressions, which took place during the summer escapes to the mountains of the Concord establishments.
Many of the actors who began in the “Borscht Belt” were able to do so out of necessity created by the great number of shows being produced. At Grossingers they introduced the nightly change in performers. When a family came to Grossingers they were guaranteed to see a different act every day of the week. As an example; Eddie Fisher got a chance to sing while Eddie Cantor was in the audience that evening. Cantor immediately announced Fisher was going to be a star. Cantor signed him to a contract and Eddie went out on a national tour. The next time Fisher was seen at Grossingers he was there to be married to Elizabeth Taylor; or so the story goes.
Cliff Norton, a very well known journeyman actor told me how he cut his teeth as an actor while paying his dues appearing on the Borscht Belt circuit. Being an ex stage manager is probably the reason Cliff’s stories of summer stock, in the Catskills, have remained my favorites. While we were working together during a play here in Los Angeles, at the “Merle Oberon Theatre”, in West Hollywood. I was the production stage manager and Cliff was the star of the show. If I remember correctly the “Oberon could seat about nine hundred. I can’t recall the name of the play, and I don’t have dear Cliffy around any more to ask. But what led into his telling of the story was just following an incident at the theatre, which called for my advanced talents as a stage manager. We had an electric failure just prior to curtain rise, and because of my dumb luck I was able to re-connect the power to our main board in time for the show to go on as scheduled. In Cliffs eyes I became his go to guy. Shortly following the electrical incident, Cliff was holding court on stage and telling a group of us how I would have come in handy during his summer stock days. We all leaned in closely making sure not to miss a word. His stories about the old days in the mountains (as he called it) were not to be missed. This one in particular sticks in my mind, mainly because of the way Cliff described the incident.
Earlier I explained how the sixteen people taking part in a production companies presentment were kept very busy by the number of different projects they were required to stage. What I didn’t talk about was the last minute changes, which by the nature of the beast occurred with far too much frequency. Cliff began by saying he couldn’t remember a time in the Catskill’s when all went well. A stage manager, or an actor would get sick at the last minute and would have to be replaced. There was never a time when a performance was cancelled. That would have meant money being returned. Audience revenue lost during a short season could never be recaptured.
The normal procedure for staging a play, at first glance, appeared to be a simple one. Actors were handed sides; no one ever was given a full script to read. You only studied the pages where you had lines to deliver. The sides (pages) you were given had nothing to do with blocking or any other physical directions. So you can see how important the daily daytime rehearsals were to the ultimate success of the performances. Cliff described how a last minute replacement actor would make an entrance on stage and often times be physically moved from one point to another by one of the actors who was already on stage. During a slow moving drama, as Cliff went on it didn’t present too much of a problem. But this time they were performing a domestic comedy where there were three men and two women on stage at the same time. On the afternoon of the performance to take place that evening, two of the actors were taken to a hospital with what was most likely food poisoning. Neither man would be able to go on that evening. Two of the stagehands were pressed into service. They were handed sides to study, and were told by the director, that Cliff would be the actor on stage who would guide them around the stage during the performance. In other words, these two replacement actors would have no idea of where to stand or move until the curtain rose and they found themselves facing a live audience.
The owner of this particular playhouse happened to be a World War one artifacts collector. He thought it would be a great crowd attraction if different implements of war were on display at his theater site. Early on the afternoon in question a rather large flat bed truck came rumbling up the mountain road and stopped in front of the theater. The driver yelled out to one of the young stagehands, “Where do you want the tank”. Without looking up the stagehand responded with, “Take it through the back doors.”
Cliff relates that as a young guy he worked as many hours during the day as he could get in prior to coming to the theater for the evenings performance. “Boy was I in for a surprise,” he began.
We all looked at each other as we started to get the picture. “There, right smack in the middle of the stage was this real army (blankety blank)world war one tank.” We all moved in closer as Cliff continued. Cliff was enjoying himself as much as we all were. I mean there they all were getting ready to go on. Two of them were completely unrehearsed, other than reading over the sides they had been given that very same afternoon. What was the play about cliff was asked. “Well it wasn’t supposed to be a comedy,” he replied. It was a dark drama about a man being eulogized. It takes place at the funeral home where the man was to lie in state, and at his request the members of the funeral party were to say a few last words to him as they viewed his remains in the open casket.
We were all hysterical with laughter as Cliff continued telling us the rest of the story with the straightest face I’ve ever seen. At rise Cliff stepped center stage and expressed to the audience who he spoke to as if they were part of the funeral proceedings; explained how the deceased had expressed his wishes to be buried in his personal tank. After a beautifully delivered opening speech, where the audience was obviously touched with emotion, the mood instantly changed to raucous laughter. The two new replacement actors, sides in hand each took turns climbing the side of the tank and delivering their lines through the opening at the top turret to the dead man. When the second guy up fell through the turret while saying his farewell to the dead guy, the play was now a confirmed comedy.
From what I understand, and what others who labored in that era of show business have told me, the colorful stories related by the Cliff Nortons of this world are only slightly exaggerated. In retrospect, I often crack a smile when I’m reminded of a past experience of my own as a stage manager.
Hey kid, “Where do you want this tank put?”
You’re the one whose been appointed as the in charge decision maker.
“ What difference does it make anyway?
Much of the tradition of Borscht Belt entertainment started in the early 20th century with the indoor and outdoor theaters constructed on a 40 acre tract in Hunter, New York, by Yiddish theater star Boris Thomashefsky.
Comedians who got their start or regularly performed in resorts include: Joey Adams, Woody Allen, Morey Amsterdam, Benny Bell, Milton Berle, Shelley Berman, Al Bernie, Joey Bishop, Mel Brooks, Lenny Bruce, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Pesach Burstein, Red Buttons, Sid Caesar, Eddie Cantor, Jean Carroll, Jack Carter, Myron Cohen, Bill Dana, Rodney Dangerfield, Phyllis Diller, Carl Reiner, Don Rickles, Joan Rivers, Freddie Roman, Rowan & Martin, Mort Sahl, Allan Sherman, Phil Silvers, Jackie Vernon, Jackie Wakefield, Jonathan Winters, and Henny Youngman.
And God only knows how many others.
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