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.
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.