'Catskills' Trio Goes Straight for the Shtick

"Whenever I get to some place like Kansas," announced comic Bernie Berns, "the first thing I say is: 'Where can I get a hot pastrami sandwich?' Suddenly, when you're away from New York, your appetite gets bigger for your beginnings, your roots."

That's the philosophy behind "A Night in the Catskills" (at the Las Palmas Theatre), a nostalgic tribute to the "Borscht Belt" starring Berns, singer Claire Barry and violinist Sascha Torma.

The show itself offers a small primer on the history of the Catskills, which began as a summer retreat for sweatshop workers and their families in the 1890s. Before today's glossy commercial establishments--replete with bowling alleys and indoor pools--the area offered a varied social scene (families and singles) and such activities as dancing, outdoor sports, beauty pageants and lounge entertainment of a wide ethnic variety. "Jewish people," Barry said, "just love Latin music."

"But now you see Asian-Americans, black people. We all mix, and it's fantastic. To me, music is universal. When we go see an opera, do we understand the German, the Italian? We're looking at artists enjoying what they're doing. So in my program, I do about 40% Yiddish. I'll always sing Yiddish. I love it."

Barry, who with her sister Myrna introduced "Bei Mir Bist du Schon" (later a big wartime hit for the Andrews Sisters), toured the Soviet Union and was on "The Ed Sullivan Show" 30 times. She has been a Catskills performer for decades. Her program also includes songs in Hebrew and English.

"It's a revue," Barry said. "There is no story line. We each do our own shtick. I do material from the '40s, '50s and '60s--because this show takes place in the '60s. And it brings back wonderful memories."

Berns, who has shared billing with Liza Minnelli and Bobby Vinton, performs his act--plus a sketch with Barry, playing a couple sitting by the pool "discussing what they ate, why they ate it, what they should've eaten. . . ."

And Hungarian-born Torma, who was Liberace's opening act for seven years, does a program split between Jewish ("Fiddler on the Roof") and popular work.

"It's as Jewish as you want to feel about it," he said with a shrug, acknowledging the program's inherent Jewishness. "If you don't want to feel Jewish, if you want to get away from your roots, don't come see 'A Night in the Catskills.' But if you want to remember the feeling about being Jewish, then come.

"There's a problem we've been having with P.R.: A lot of people have belittled Jewish things. You know, a great Yiddish song is equal to any song. But people took the dialects out of television; they took out all the spice. This is going to be spicy."

"I think a good analogy is the Stage Delicatessen," said Berns, whose analogies usually refer to delis. "They used to just have corned beef sandwiches. Now they have hamburgers, ham and eggs--and everybody comes. There are lines of people. And they all want that taste. Believe me, you find more Gentiles eating in New York delicatessens than Jews--'cause Jews won't wait in a line anymore."

The trio's appearance here is the work of producer Bernie Lawrence, whose transformation of the Las Palmas includes paintings of pink flamingos on the walls--reminiscent of the real resorts.

"We want to thank (the late) Dick Shawn, the first comedian who came to the Las Palmas," said Berns. "When Jackie Mason saw that Dick Shawn was doing well, he went there. Jackie Mason told me, 'Hey, it's a great theater.' "

Berns believes Mason's across-the-board successes here and in New York signal a tolerance toward Jews and Jewish subjects.

"It's not Gentiles that won't come to this show," he said. "It's the Jewish Gentile who won't come--a Jew who wants nothing to do with his background. He's on the fence. Gentiles come to this show because they have no problem. They're going to be entertained, see something different. (Producer) Nick Vanoff had no problem taking Jackie Mason to Broadway, because he wasn't Jewish. He knew Mason was funny, and that he was going to make a lot of money."

On the other hand, Berns believes that the cultural reminder is always a positive thing.

"I met a woman when I was traveling and she said, 'You're a Jewish comedian!' as though I was something from another world." He shook his head. "That's not where anti-Semitism comes from. Nobody throws rocks into a delicatessen. Everyone wants to come in and taste the food. The Gentiles who come around here don't know the first thing about anti-Semitism. They want to have a good time. They think Jews are terrific."

For the Record Los Angeles Times Saturday May 13, 1989 Home Edition Calendar Part 5 Page 8 Column 2 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction Due to an editing error, two quotes on the belittling of Jewish culture in an interview with cast members of "A Night at the Catskills" in Thursday's Calendar were attributed to violinist Sascha Torma. The statements were made by actor Bernie Berns.
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