The '80s classic “Dirty Dancing” made the fantasy of forbidden love, even when you’re forced to spend the summer at a secluded family resort with your parents, seem possible.
But while the Kellerman’s resort in the 1987 movie was a fictional place, there are many who believe it was modeled after Kutsher's, a real-life family resort in New York’s Catskill Mountains, and other similar grand Borscht Belt resorts.
Caroline Laskow and her husband Ian Rosenberg directed and produced the documentary, “Welcome to Kutsher’s: The Last Catskills Resort,” which explores this connection, offering an immersive, fly-on-the-wall look into the Kutsher’s Hotel and Country Club, from its beginnings as the Kutsher’s Brothers Farm House in 1907, through its heyday in the mid-20th century, and then to its closing last year. Rosenberg is also legal counsel for The Walt Disney Company.
It’s never been officially decreed that Kutsher’s was the inspiration for “Dirty Dancing,” but the Kutsher family, members of the staff and long-time guests say there are similarities.
In "Dirty Dancing," Frances “Baby” Houseman, played by Jennifer Grey, falls in love with dance instructor Johnny Castle, played by the late Patrick Swayze, while on a summer vacation at the fictional Catskills resort, Kellerman’s, with her parents -- the movie was actually shot in Virginia.
Aside from the similar “K” names, Kellerman's was family-run resort and had many of the amenities, such as a kid’s camp, large dining rooms, pools, a lake and, uh-hem, dance lessons, that were also available at Kutsher’s. The ballroom for that iconic “Time of My Life” dance scene looks just like Kutsher’s ballroom, Laskow said.
“This is what you did for the summer,” Laskow said. “It was really like a sort of a major event and a really bustling social scene.”
The Kutsher family and hotel staff said the excitement that was going on at Kutsher’s “pales in comparison” to “Dirty Dancing,” Rosenberg said. Personified in the womanizing waiter character Robbie Gould, played by Max Cantor in "Dirty Dancing," Rosenberg said much of the Kutsher's wait staff were young men working summer jobs to pay for college, and the "forbidden element of staff and guest romances" was present at the resort and others.
“Perhaps Hollywood had taken sort of what was true for the Catskills and was using it for their own purposes, but ... [Hollywood] was just copying what was already here,’” he added.
Kutsher’s, which was located in Sullivan County near Monticello, New York, was the last surviving Borscht Belt resort, one of hundreds of vacation retreats that started popping up all over the Catskills in the 1920s.
The Borscht Belt became a 20th century haven for Jewish families looking for summer getaways at a time when Jews were banned from many country clubs and resorts.
But as air travel became more popular and anti-Semitism in the United States declined, Laskow said, so did the Borscht Belt resorts because Jewish families had more vacation options.
“The idea that anyone can sort of have this piece of leisure, of the good life, that’s such a post-war dream that everyone gets to take a vacation and take it with your extended family and that’s all started to fall out of favor,” she said.
Throughout its history, Kutsher’s was constantly reinventing itself to be on the cutting edge of leisure. Laskow and Rosenberg’s film goes into great detail about how the resort was one of the first to introduce the “all-inclusive” vacation, with all-you-can-eat dinners, art, music and dance lessons, live entertainment shows and sporting events -- not so unlike the business model many resorts and cruise lines use today.
Their documentary also follows how American stand-up comedy was born out of Kutsher’s ballroom -- Jerry Seinfeld, Joan Rivers and many other greats performed there. In the '50s and '60s, the hotel hosted basketball tournaments with top college talent -- the legendary Wilt Chamberlain, then a high school basketball star, worked as a bellhop for Kutsher's and played for the resort's team. When the hotel was struggling to survive in the 2000s, they opened their doors to the All Tomorrow’s Parties music festivals.
“This documentary was about capturing this great American 20th century phenomenon that has disappeared in the 21st century,” Laskow said. "[Kutsher’s] was the last dinosaur, a relic of the age.”
The Kutsher family had owned and operated the resort for more than 100 years before it was sold in 2014 and demolished. It will now become a yoga and wellness center, expected to open next year.
“Kutsher’s has maintained, throughout its history, to be at the center of pop culture,” Rosenberg said. “Now it’s been sold to become a yoga and health spa, and once again, fighting, even in its demise, to remain an element in pop culture.”
“Welcome to Kutsher’s: The Last Catskills Resort,” which first premiered in 2012, is available today on DVD and VOD through certain cable providers.