They Could Use Some Laughs Now

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Soon after he was liberated by Allied soldiers in 1945, Raymond Drillings learned that his world had disappeared. He had survived five Nazi concentration camps, but his family and friends--his entire way of life as a Jew in prewar Poland--had vanished forever.

Two years later, the 21-year-old refugee stood at the gates of what seemed a new paradise in upstate New York, in the green Catskill Mountains, where the Concord Hotel had promised him a job as a waiter.

It was a chance to start over in the Borscht Belt, the land of milk and funny, where people ate fabulous amounts of food and laughed at stars like Sid Caesar, Milton Berle and Sophie Tucker.

The Jewish Alps. Hava Nagila Heights. The Sour Cream Sierras. Families have been coming here for decades, long before "Dirty Dancing" romanticized the region. But now this world too is dying. And Drillings--a proud man who has worked at the Concord for 50 years--is facing another Diaspora.

One by one, the famed mountain hotels 90 miles north of Manhattan are closing, victims of neglect, hard times and changing tastes. Historic resorts like Grossinger's, the Granit Hotel and Brown's Hotel are gone, either abandoned or turned into time-share spas. Once, there were more than more 400 hotels in the area. Today, six remain.

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As summer ends, there's a sense of melancholy throughout the Catskills, a belief that one of the world's most famous Jewish communities is about to disintegrate. And nothing symbolizes this better than the Concord, a Borscht Belt mecca fighting an uphill battle to survive.

Earlier this year, the 2,000-acre resort filed for Chapter 11, unable to pay $9 million in back taxes. Owners were counting on casino gambling to improve business, but the state nixed a plan to allow gaming tables. Now, as the hotel celebrates its 60th anniversary, the clock is ticking, winter is around the corner and people like Drillings are preparing themselves for what seemed unthinkable five years ago.

"Nothing lasts forever," says the 71-year-old survivor. "I learned that once before, and I'm learning that again."

When a world vanishes, memories are often the best defense. Yet there are some that Drillings has trouble discussing--like the death of his parents, his brother and sister on July 24, 1942, when Nazi storm troopers wiped out the small Polish town of Sendziszow.

Or the day in 1990 when he testified for German officials against Josef Schwammberger, a war criminal who murdered 5,000 Jews and is now serving a life sentence.

Drillings recounted his Holocaust experiences in a powerful videotape for Steven Spielberg's "Survivors of the Shoah" project. But he is reluctant to do so again, and there are times when the mere mention of that era can agitate him.

Better you should ask about his second life in the mountains, where he married and has raised two sons. For a man whose sad, unforgiving eyes have seen the worst, Drillings can be upbeat and unexpectedly funny when it comes to the Concord. He has a comedian's sense of timing and loves to tell a good joke.

In his jumble of pain and punch lines, he's a cross between Simon Wiesenthal and the 2,000-Year-Old Man. Some might find this bizarre, even off-putting, but for Drillings it's just another way of coping with a colorful way of life that can't help but poke fun at itself, even as it dies a slow death.

"Did you hear the one about the waiter who comes to a table, sets down the tray and scratches his rear end?" he asks in a thick accent. "A man asks him: 'Do you have hemorrhoids?' The waiter answers: 'Only what's on the menu.' "

Drillings immigrated to New York City after the war and was lured to the Concord. He didn't know borscht from a Buick but quickly mastered a unique and demanding task.

Imagine a raucous dining room where 1,200 people are shouting all at once for bread, soup, chicken, vegetables, drinks and 10 different desserts. Picture a job at which you schlep 60 pounds of plates back and forth on a tray to tables filled with hungry, impatient diners. You do this for three meals a day, nearly every day, for an entire summer season . . . for nearly 50 years.

The abuse is nonstop and you're not serving fast food: A Concord breakfast offers schmaltz herring, baked herring, fried herring, pickled herring with cream sauce, pickled herring with onion rings, brisling sardines and boneless sardines. People eat as much as they want--and these are just the appetizers.

To work off the calories, guests pick from activities like power walking with Gilda, scrambled words with Hilda, Leonardo "the Orchestra Man" at the pool, estate and retirement planning with Marv Shuman, aerobics with Darka, and mambo dancing with Al Altieri and the Taste of Brass Band.

Life has gone on pretty much the same here for years, dating from the turn of the century, when Jewish visitors discovered that upstate New York offered the same pastoral beauties as the European countries they had left behind. Some people opened boardinghouses for vacationing guests; a few even offered entertainment. Those small places soon evolved into the bungalow colonies and larger resorts that dotted the region in its heyday.

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The Catskills flourished through the 1960s, but business fell off as many families decided to vacation elsewhere and the heavy, multi-course meals that once were a symbol of luxury began losing their appeal. The Concord was able to hold on longer than its rivals because it sought out fall and winter convention business. But that trade has also declined, and the costs have risen dramatically.

When the owners announced in March that their hotel might be doomed, talk turned overnight from chopped liver to Chapter 11. The resulting heartburn has triggered strong emotions.

"If this hotel goes, it will be the end of a Jewish time and place," Drillings says. "There will be bad feelings."

Once, everyone here was a comedian. The Concord was full of George Burns wannabes, from the valet who cracked jokes parking your car to the bellman who did comedy routines and celebrity impersonations in the hallway as he waited for his tip.

Nowadays, everybody's a financial genius. On a recent weekend, the hotel full of guests familiar with the Concord's woes.

"If you ask me, they should get some new owners, blow up the buildings and start over," said Art Feldstein, a New Jersey lawyer, as he chased pop flies during a softball game.

By the pool, Marion Horn from Long Island watched her two grandchildren splash each other. She offered a different cure:

"It's all about food," she whispered. "People don't want herring and matzo ball soup and salad and pot roast and fish and bread and vegetables on the table all at once."

Sharon Parker, one of five family members who owns the Concord Hotel, insists the venerable resort will rebound.

"We've got a very positive outlook for the fall," she says, "and I'm excited about what we'll be able to do here."

The owners are short on specifics but note that the hotel secured a $5-million line of credit after filing for Chapter 11. They believe this cash infusion will help them spruce up a resort that, to be kind, is fraying badly at the edges.

Indeed, some of the suites look like your Aunt Sadie's living room from 1957, with ancient green sofas, broken TV sets, water stains on the rugs and windows that need washing. While the resort boasts a world-class golf course, its darkened hallways have a mildewed smell and the dining room--a decorative blend of Wisconsin Hunting Lodge and Ersatz Versailles--could use some new tablecloths and curtains.

To counter such impressions, the Concord is updating its menu and is trying to attract a more varied mix of guests. The hotel recently opened Raymond's, a restaurant serving steak, lobster and other non-kosher fare. Along with acts like Buddy Hackett, the resort is also booking contemporary performers like Billy Ray Cyrus and former Beatle Ringo Starr.

Some might scoff, but the Concord is still a bargain: A family of four can spend a weekend--including three meals a day, a children's camp, three free nights of entertainment and myriad sports activities--for $800.

As for gambling, advocates suggested last year that a Native American tribe owned some of the Concord land--a claim that could have paved the way for an Indian-owned casino. The notion was dropped when state officials rejected the argument.

"They were Jewish Indians," says Drillings, rolling his eyes. "The cockamamie Indians. Can you believe this?"

It's like an embarrassing story about Uncle Sol that you don't tell strangers, and yet this is what the Concord community has become: A large dysfunctional family trying to make ends meet and making few apologies for its behavior.

Like any family, there are times when you want to punch someone. Literally. On a recent weeknight, the dining room was stunned when the bandleader got into a fistfight with an angry grandparent. The issue: Whether little kids should be able to dance along with the adults.

"This is the most exciting thing that's happened all season!" exclaimed a woman diner. "And it's terrible!"

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But like any family, there are also golden moments. For those whose memories are bathed in the glow of Borscht Belt summers, the Concord is still special. Many people are lured back for purely sentimental reasons, despite the problems.

Besides, "Where else can you bring your family to a place that serves kosher food and gives you so much room?" asks Norman Feder of Toronto, who sits by the pool with seven grandkids.

People still come for the laughs: As he begins a manic Saturday night show, comedian Howie Mandel scans the front row and spots an elderly woman wrapped in an orange tablecloth.

"It's Super Bubee!" he shouts, stopping dead in his tracks. "Able to leap tall kugel at a single bound!"

The next morning, a 3-year-old girl is skipping down a hallway when an elevator opens and three Orthodox Jewish men appear, all wearing big black hats. The child is amazed. "O-o-o-o-o-o-o," she says. "Are you cowboys?"

Drillings laughs at the story, then falls silent in the hotel's synagogue. Ever since retiring from the dining room in 1992, he has been the Concord's religious coordinator, supervising weekly services and overseeing major events like the High Holy Days.

He's made a decent life for himself in nearby Monticello, where his sons grew up and became lawyers. Nowadays, he lives in town with his wife . . . and waits to see what will be.

As another season ends, there are memories galore. Once, Drillings was a lady's man, and like other waiters he had flings with summer guests. His paramours weren't choosy: "Some were so lonely, they were happy you had a pair of pants on," he says. "When I see them up here now, we pretend we don't know each other."

Asked if the hotel can last at this rate, Drillings sadly shakes his head. Once again, his world may simply vanish. But at least this time he can laugh about it.

"I'll get up in the morning," he says, lapsing into a Mel Brooks riff. "Take a walk around the block. Eat my breakfast. Buy the paper. Walk around some more. What else can you do?"

Does a new life--a third world--beckon?

"Maybe I'll just fight with my wife," he says with a smile and a shrug. "If that's a career, I'll have a new world."

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