The ProsenPeople

Go by the Country

Wednesday, October 21, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Rita Lakin shared what inspired her comedy mystery novels about 80-year-olds solving crime in Florida. She is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

“Go by the Country” is the title of one of the songs written in a musical I created with my friend Doris Silverton: Saturday Night at Grossinger's.

Whatever possessed us to go down that road? Let me describe our lives at that time. It was the 1960s. I was writing scripts for television, for such shows as Dr. Kildare and Peyton Place. Doris was writing short stories for magazines like the Saturday Evening Post. This was our career path and we were well on it.

Doris and I had many conversations about our childhood. Even though we now both lived in Los Angeles, I grew up in the Bronx, she in Yonkers. We had vivid memories, especially about our summers when our families made the usual exodus to the Catskill Mountains. In a world before air conditioning, summers in New York were sweltering. Our dads bravely stayed home in the heat. To keep us cool, our mothers schlepped us up to various cuch-a-lains in what was lovingly called the Borscht Belt, where we learned about communal Jewish living. While our mothers kvetched and fought the battles over who used up our sour cream in the ice box, we enjoyed our happy, outdoor country experiences, picking berries and swimming in the lake.

The cuch-a-lains were plain and simple low income bungalows; however there was an upper crust world nearby where people with money stayed. Like the fancy Flagler Hotel and the famous Grossinger’s, with its acres of attractions and ever-available food.

My friend and I would sneak into their Saturday night shows where comics both famous, and not-yet-famous tried out their comedy material and Spanish dance teams whirled about the stage. We were in awe.

Doris and I discussed writing a script about our vacation days for television. I dutifully made the rounds of producers I knew and suggested such a project. And although the producers I pitched to were Jewish, they told me in no uncertain terms that “Jewish” was not wanted on TV. I cited the famous Molly Berg show. They told me that was a “flash in the pan.”

When we did more research on the1920s and 1930s—the height of the Catskill hotels’ success—we learned, in shock, that gentile hotels in places like the Pocono’s, actually had signs up that read: “Restricted. NJA” (No Jews Allowed). And that’s why amazing women like Jennie Grossinger fought back by building hotels for her people. Doris and I finally understood why the Borscht Belt had to happen. We were determined, we had to write this story. We decided to write it as a musical.

We connected with talented people like composer Claibe Richardson, and lyricists Ronny Graham and Stephen Cole, and our musical became a reality.

But there’s an ironic postscript. In 1973, I finally convinced a television producer to let me write a Jewish script based on my experiences as a teenager in those earlier bungalows. The producer loved the script, and I saw it as a Jewish victory. A Summer Without Boys aired that year. But then, with millions of others, I watched my play the night it was on television and gasped. There was absolutely nothing about being Jewish in it. It could have been any hotel, anywhere with bland characters in white America. Was it hidden antisemitism, or just plain blindness? I’ll never know.

Rita Lakin is the author of The Only Woman in the Room: Episodes in My Life and Career as a Television Writer. She will be blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPoeple.

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Getting Old Can Kill You

Monday, October 19, 2015 | Permalink

Rita Lakin brings her 25 years of experience working in television—the subject of her memoir, The Only Woman in the Room: Episodes in My Life and Career as a Television Writer—to The ProsenPeople as this week’s Visiting Scribe.

At age fifty my parents made their exodus, leaving the Bronx for Florida, and my aunts and uncles followed. They all moved into the same huge, two-hundred unit condominium in Fort Lauderdale and discovered that 90% of the tenants were also Jewish. They felt as if their entire neighborhood had relocated with them. It was as if they’d never left home—only, the weather was better—and they took to Florida like flamingos to marshes.

I lived three thousand miles away in California, working as a script writer in Hollywood. I decided to take time off and write a novel. What I knew for sure was that I wanted it to be about my mother and Florida. I had visited my family every year throughout my twenty-five years in television, and my memories of their colorful life stayed fresh in my mind.

I went through the list we writers put ourselves through when we commit to perhaps a year or two of work, the process of selecting project that will keep us involved and stimulated.

So, what to write about my mother? She was now 75, and I knew I also wanted to write about the process of aging as a sub text. Decision made; check. What genre? Well, my career in film was writing drama. I wanted a change of pace. Comedy. It wasn’t too far a reach— my mom and my aunts were quite funny, not that they were aware of it. (Me: “Mom, you live five minutes from the beach. Why don’t you ever go there?” Mom: “Are you crazy? And schlepp home sand in my living room?”) Early-bird dinners at 4 PM? My Uncle Hy telling corny off-color jokes about old age? Taking Cane Fu lessons? Cane Fu—in wacky Florida, anything is believable. Plenty of material for funny. Check.

Now, I had to think. Would readers buy that novel? I worked in the very commercial world of television. Out of pride, I wanted the book to sell. Jewish old women? Funny? Funny old Jewish women aging? Not likely. I needed something marketable. I had it: a comedy and a mystery, a “Cozy” in the style of Agatha Christie. I would give my mother, aunts, and their friends a profession as private investigators—the oldest PI’s in the country.

And like that, Gladdy Gold and her girls were created. The novel is called Getting Old Is Murder. It even has a special opening page for translating the Yiddish words for non-Jewish readers.

The books sold like hotcakes. Six more followed: Getting Old Is the Best Revenge; Getting Old is Criminal; Getting Old is to Die For; Getting Old is Tres Dangereux; Getting Old is a Disaster; Getting Old Can Kill You.

If you are so inclined, read them. Their fans laugh and cry and call the girls hilarious. As Gladdy would say, enjoy.

Rita Lakin is the author of The Only Woman in the Room: Episodes in My Life and Career as a Television Writer. She will be blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPoeple.

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