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.

Relat­ed Content:

Rita Lakin worked for 25 years in tele­vi­sion as a free­lance writer, sto­ry edi­tor, staff writer, and pro­duc­er, the sub­ject of her new mem­oir. She also writes a series of com­e­dy detec­tive nov­els about a group of eccen­tric senior women solv­ing crime in Ft. Lauderdale.

Get­ting Old Can Kill You

Go by the Country