From Borscht To Blackjack
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From Borscht To Blackjack

Monticello, N.Y.: Strolling up to a line of waiting golf carts at Kutsher’s Country Club, Mark Kutsher recalls a crucial decision by his late father, Milton, in the early 1950s.

Other hotels in the Catksills were pooling their resources to build golf courses in towns like Loch Sheldrake, which would be available to their guests. Milton Kutsher wanted his resort to have its own course.

“We didn’t really have the money for it at the time,” said Mark Kutsher. “Everyone was focusing on indoor pools. He thought a golf course was more important.”

The gambit paid off, as the resort’s 6,843-yard greens became one of the top courses on the East Coast and a major draw for the hotel.

But the links aren’t drawing the throngs they once did. Neither are the nightclub acts or endless servings of blintzes or brisket.

The middle-class Jewish families that have been the lifeblood of Catskill resorts are spending more money these days on cruises and exotic island getaways than belly-stuffing weekends in what was once the Borscht Belt.

In the heyday 1960s, there were some 500 large hotels in Sullivan and Ulster counties. That number has dwindled to five.

Mark Kutsher, who is in his mid-50s and has run the hotel with his mother, Helen, since Milton died in 1998, learned from his father that survival means looking ahead. In the past that meant adding golf, a skating rink, the Kutsher’s Sports Academy summer camp and Lake Anawana, where guests can now jet- and water-ski.

Today it means recognizing the enormous potential of gambling in the Catskills (something Milton and his fellow owners had long lobbied for) and trying to stay ahead of the trend.

In a strong step in that direction, the family has entered into an agreement with Las Vegas-based Park Place Entertainment and the Mohawk Indian tribe to build a 750-room casino and resort on Kutsherís property, just down the road from the hotel.

It is one of only three casinos planned for the Catskills since the state Legislature approved gambling in 2001. And if some pending legal challenges are overcome, it is likely to be the first completed.

“It’s time for growth in the area, for things to change,” said Helen Kutsher, who has spent most of her nearly 80 years at the hotel and lives year-round on the grounds. Mark and his wife, Carla, live down the road.

The Kutsher family, who remain the sole proprietors of the hotel, hope the casino will draw vacationers who currently travel to gaming resorts like Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun in Connecticut.

“Seven hundred and fifty rooms for what they are doing isn’t a lot of rooms,” said Mark Kutsher, who earned a BA from the Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania. Sitting behind his desk in the large office in the main building, he added, “We expect that they will invest money here in a number of things, possibly build some rooms.”

He envisions a scenario in which high rollers drop off their families at Kutsher’s, then hit the tables or slots down the road. “With all the amenities we have available, and a casino that’s a minute away, I think it’s going to work very well.”
The impact on the larger, economically depressed Catskill area is far less certain. Development in Sullivan County already is on the rise in anticipation of gambling, and while the casinos are considered a sure bet for revitalization, what form of cultural change will emerge is anyone’s guess.

“The old Catskills culture isn’t around much anymore,” said Phillip Brown, founder of the Catskills Institute, which chronicles the Jewish heritage of the area and will hold its ninth annual conference Aug. 22-24 at Kutsher’s. “What you see today are a handful of hotels. Things have changed so much, it’s really not clear to me what effect this is going to have.”

Whether through clever marketing, near-constant investment or blind luck, Kutsher’s (which grew from a farmhouse built by turn-of-the-century East European immigrants) has held its own as competitors like Grossinger’s, Brown’s and the Concord have gone under.

“Probably the best decade we ever had was the ’80s,” said Mark Kutsher. “We were enjoying marvelous business.”

Today, a soft economy and fears of terrorism are believed to again be fueling a greater emphasis on drive-to vacations.
On a recent July weekend, families boarded rowboats on Lake Kutsher or swam in the indoor and outdoor pools.

Couples packed into the Stardust Room on Saturday night to hear the songs of Julie Budd. In the main dining room, supervised by Rabbi Jacob Goldberg of Tablet K, Nova lox and omelets were served up by Seymour Cohen, who says he’s the last Jewish waiter in the Catskills.

“When I retire, they’re going to give me a booth in the Smithsonian,” Cohen said.

In another dining room, Orthodox weekenders dined on fare prepared by the Glatt Boys, a tour group that books group rates for parents visiting upstate campers. The main building and many of the guest rooms were sparkling from a recent $1.5 million renovation.

Helen Kutsher says the family is aware of concern about increased crime and other negative effects that could accompany gambling.

“It’s not trouble-free,” she acknowledged. “The planning has to be done just right so it will be a positive for the county. But we’re not absentee. We’ll be here, working hand in hand. We’ve lived our lives here, our children went to school here.”

Adds Mark: “I’ve been in gambling venues throughout the world and there are a whole lot of positive people. In Connecticut, there is positive growth in that section of the state. The people are just regular people that you see anywhere else.”

But despite the optimism, Mark Kutsher admits to some uncertainty about the future.

“This hotel will continue,” he said. “The exact way, we’re not sure.”

It’s a development that could hardly have been imagined in 1907, when Max and Louis Kutsher, immigrant brothers from a town in the Austro-Hungarian empire, left the Lower East Side to start a farm upstate. When the crops failed, they built a guest house without power or indoor plumbing. It eventually grew to the 1,500-acre property that now includes the 400-room resort, condos, two bungalow colonies, the sports camp, golf course and lakefront.

Max Kutsher died at an early age, and his widow, Rebecca, later married Sam Wasser. Their daughter, Helen, who grew up at the Kutsher farm, married Louis Kutsher’s son Milton in 1946. They had three children: Mark, Karen and Mady.
It was during the post-World War II period that Kutsher’s saw the most growth. The family invested not only in golf but in new rooms, an ice rink and the two pools.

In a bid to draw a continuous stream of young people, Milton Kutsher placed a strong emphasis on sports, making the hotel the Catskills home of legendary Celtics coach Red Auerbach and NBA Hall of Famer Wilt Chamberlain, who once served as a bellhop there. There was the Maurice Stokes Benefit, a charity hoops game that once attracted the top pro players. Muhammad Ali even trained at Kutsher’s, as did another world heavyweight champion, Leon Spinks.

The family has always been closely involved in all aspects of the hotel.

“The family that works together lives together,” said Helen. “We as a family are living here all the time, running our business, and we work hard at it.”

That close involvement is considered a key factor in Kutsher’s longevity.

“At some of the hotels that have been able to last a long time, the current generation, people in their early 50s, have stayed around and run the hotels,” said Brown, of the Catskills Institute, who teaches sociology at Brown University in Providence, R.I.

“Other places trying to keep up without the families didn’t work. Milton and Helen were always very far-sighted and kept expanding in the right direction whenever they had the opportunity. They were very forward-looking when a lot of others at the same time had more of a shopkeeper, mom-and-pop approach.”

Helen Kutsher promises that won’t change as the Catskills become better known for blackjack and baccarat than borscht and blintzes.

“Whatever happens, our family will continue its involvement with this hotel,” she said.

But who will provide the next link in the generational chain of management is unclear. Mark’s children live in New York City, where Zachary is a corporate lawyer and Jennifer works in the restaurant business. Mark’s sisters and their children live in Pennsylvania.

“There’s a whole bunch of them, and they’re all very talented,” said Mark. “As this area gets more exciting, I can see a few of them coming back home to get involved.”

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