Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 6, 2021

A Walk on the Moon

Filed under: Catskills,Film,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 1:15 am

I confess that I have not watched all the films about the Borscht Belt but I am sure that nothing will ever top the 1999 “A Walk on the Moon” (universally available as VOD) since it captures the culture of the Catskill Mountain bungalow colony, basically a cottage of the type that first appeared in Victorian England, Its name derived from the Gujarati bangalo (“Bengali”) that meant “a house in the Bengal style.”

In terms of the hierarchy of the mostly Jewish summer places, it was poised midway between the kuchalayn and the hotel. The kuchalayn was the first resort area rental that was affordable to the first generation of Jews. It started off as rooms in farmhouses, where Jews from the Lower East Side could cook [kuch] their own meals in the kitchen. My grandfather Louis Proyect ran a kuchalayn in his modest farmhouse, where he grew cabbage during the Depression. Once he put some capital together, he began building hotels in and around Woodridge, where I grew up. The only one I know of was the Biltmore, a medium-sized hotel that overlooked the Neversink River (the Munsee word for “mad river”) and that was only a five-minute walk from the Avon Lodge, where Sid Caesar got his start.

At the top end of the scale, hotels could cater to different social classes within Jewry. I suspect that a garment worker could have afforded to keep his family in the Biltmore but for the  wealthy Jews there were dozens of fashionable and amenity-filled places like the Concord and Grossingers. In such places, people like Danny Kaye, Jerry Lewis and Milton Berle got their start. They worked as tummlers, the men who were paid to entertain guests throughout various roles, from a comedian leading guests in Simon Says, walking through the lobby cracking jokes, and up to serving as master of ceremonies in the revues that played nightly. You can have seen tummler comedy on the Milton Berle show in the 1950s.

My knowledge of the bungalow colony is that of a delivery boy who showed up 3 or 4 times a day at different colonies to bring fruit and vegetable orders from my father’s store to the women whose husbands worked in the city during the summer. It was their sacrifices that made his wife and children enjoy cool fresh air, swimming pools, beautiful countryside and summer camp. It was just one of these bungalow colonies that served as the location for “A Walk on the Moon”.

The film, which is set in 1969 (hence the reference to the moon landing) begins with Marty Kantrowitz, his wife Pearl, his mother Lillian, their adolescent daughter Allison, and their young son Danny jammed into the family Rambler, a car that perfectly expresses his modest class status. Not only does the car have to accommodate the five people, it also has to have room for their garments, bedclothes, kitchen utensils and playthings. They might be described as modern Jewish versions of the Joads departing for California in “Grapes of Wrath.” By no means impoverished, the family lives on Marty’s modest income as a TV repairman.

Called Dr. Fogler’s Bungalow Colony, their summer place was based on Dr. Locker’s a colony in Mountaindale. To save money, the film was made in Quebec. That being said, it has the exact look and feel of a Catskill resort. The bungalows typically circled around something called a “concession” where ice cream, candy, suntan lotion, and cigarettes were sold. There was always a pinball machine that I used to stop in and play once or twice before I went back to my dad’s store. The concession could be heard all day long on a loudspeaker that would notify a guest that a husband like Marty Kantrowitz needed to speak to his wife. This was long before the days of cell phones obviously.

The film revolves around the trials and tribulations of Marty and Pearl, whose marriage is strained to a breaking point as she ends up in a passionate affair with Walker Jerome, the “blouse man” who stops by the colony several times a week to peddle women’s clothing out of a bus. Played by Viggo Mortensen, Walker is an amiable hunk who flirts with his customers mainly to help sell some clothes. When Pearl Kantrowitz stops in, the flirting has a different character since Pearl is played by Diane Lane, an actress who is of Jewish origin but lacks Schreiber’s authenticity. The wiki on her does not even mention that she is Jewish. Since Walker Jerome is clearly not a Jew, Mortensen works out just fine even though the screenplay does little to flesh out his character. He is a hunk of meat more than anything else. On the other hand, Liev Schreiber is great as Marty. Was a Jewish female version of Schreiber available to play Pearl? Unfortunately, there was only one Barbra Streisand and she was too much of a superstar to take such a role.

After a few days of flirtation between Walker and Pearl, they get it on in his bus while watching the moon landing on his TV. The film goes to great lengths to make her cheating understandable. She first met Marty at a hotel when she was 17. They went out for a date, had sex, and were immediately confronted by her unexpected pregnancy. Marty had to forgo college and begin raising a family with all the responsibilities that entails. Meanwhile, Pearl could not help feeling frustrated with the burdens of a housewife. Think of her as a latter-day version of Madame Bovary.

When Marty is up for the weekend, the bored and frustrated Pearl asks if they could try “something new” for sex, he has little idea what she is looking for. No, it is not anal sex but it obviously something she has not thought through herself. He tells her to wait a minute since he thought of a “new” approach. After stepping out of the bedroom, he comes back in his underwear wearing his son’s cowboy hat and holstered cap guns.

The love scenes between Walker and Pearl are par for the course and utterly forgettable. It is only after Marty’s mom informs him that his wife is “shtupping” (fucking) the blouse man that the real drama begins. When he confronts her, she really has no defense and only comes up with a lame (but entirely plausible) excuse. She feels that life is passing her by.

The drama intensifies when Walker and Pearl go to Woodstock, where they are seen dropping acid and going full-bore “hippy” with body paint and all the rest. Unfortunately, Allison, who is at Woodstock herself, spots them cavorting. When Pearl returns home, Allison asks who the teenager is. Her or her mom. It turns out that the spirit of rebellion has become contagious by 1969. Allison is against the war in Vietnam and even Marty finds himself digging Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” At the very end of the film, when Marty and Pearl are reconciled, they end up on the bungalow porch dancing to Dean Martin’s “When You are Smiling” on an “easy-listening” radio station. Marty must have found it too schmaltzy since he changes the station to a new rock-and-roll venue and the two begin bopping to Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.”

It turns out that I am not the only fan of “A Walk on the Moon”.  Phil Brown, who has the relationship to the Borscht Belt that Paul Buhle has to the left, conducted an interview with Pamela Gray, who wrote the screenplay. Gray, whose story is based on her personal experiences at bungalow colony, was asked “Did your parents ever talk about why colonies instead of hotels?” Her reply “Money. Hotels were not even an option. We could never afford that.” And this is why I loved the film as did Phil, whose parents owned a tiny hotel:

Q: It was a challenge, I would gather, to portray working class people as very interesting for a film world that does not necessarily see that.

A: Yes, because the film world does not often show working class people, except in stereotypical ways. Growing up, I thought that the Catskills were predominantly working class people and bungalow colonies. Although I knew that the hotels were out there; we would try to sneak into them (e.g. as teenagers we tried to sneak into dances). At one point in the script there were scenes with Pearl and Marty climbing fences to try to sneak into the hotels to go to the shows, and I said “you know this is just going to fit that stereotype of Jews, you know of ‘cheap Jews.’” But literally we could not afford it. That was why bungalow colony people did that. Anyway, that scene was cut for other reasons so I didn’t have to worry about it.

There was only aspect to the film that wasn’t completely accurate. By 1969, many of the hotels went bankrupt, were shut down by their owners, or were burned by arsonists to collect insurance. Just a few years later, I used to discuss the tourist industry with my mom, who was very involved on preserving it, and her cohorts.

I made the same point over and over again. The hotels and bungalow colonies had to target non-Jewish groups that had become the counterpart of Marty Kantrowitz’s Jews. Most of all, the Black and Latinos working for the MTA or in the public school system, et al. This appeal fell on deaf ears. They just didn’t feel that Blacks had a place that Jews once held and saw them only as lowly hired help sweeping floors. The men who owned hotels and bungalow colonies used the word “schvarze,” a derogatory term for Black. I heard this with my own ears.

Blacks might have put together the capital to buy bungalow colonies and hotels had they been able to keep up with whites. After all, Landsman Bungalow colony, a beautiful and immaculate homage to the classic 1950s resort, is a co-op in the heart of the Catskills. Why couldn’t  bus drivers and schoolteachers pull off the same deal? You do have to keep in mind that their wealth was on a rung somewhat lower than Jews because some in the housing industry refused to allow them into the huge developments where Jewish TV repairmen could get a great deal. Levittown was one of the most famous.

A December 28, 1997 NY Times article titled “At 50, Levittown Contends With Its Legacy of Bias” fills in the details:

The year-long 50th-birthday party for this pioneering suburb on Long Island is winding down. The parade drew 5,000 marchers. Crowds came for candlelight church services, an antique-car show, exhibits, seminars and tours of the fabled Levitt houses that started it all.

There were even Potato Day festivities honoring the flat farmland here where Levitt & Sons began mass-producing single-family tract homes in 1947, heralding the wave of migration from cities that lasted for decades.

But not everyone touched by the Levittown experience has been celebrating.

”The anniversary leaves me cold,” said Eugene Burnett, who was among thousands of military veterans who lined up for their green patch of the American dream here after World War II. But he was turned away because he is black. ”It’s symbolic of segregation in America,” he said. ”That’s the legacy of Levittown.

”When I hear “Levittown,” what rings in my mind is when the salesman said: “It’s not me, you see, but the owners of this development have not as yet decided whether they’re going to sell these homes to Negroes,” Mr. Burnett, now a retired Suffolk County police sergeant, recalled. He said he still stings from “the feeling of rejection on that long ride back to Harlem.’”

William Levitt was a Russian Jew, just like most of the people who used to rent a bungalow colony. He was primarily hostile to Blacks, just like Fred and Donald Trump, but was not above refusing to sell to Jews, especially if they were not to his liking.

But as bad as Levitt was, the primary explanation for wealth inequality had more to do with banks. Even if some Black people decided to buy a bungalow colony co-op, there was little chance that they could get one from Chase mortgage or any other retail bank. I urge you to listen to HBO’s John Oliver explain all this. For my money, he is the only leftwing comic with the guts to implicitly use the 1619 Project for the real story of how white supremacy went on long on after Jim Crow died.

12 Comments »

  1. Very enjoyable piece despite the typos.

    Comment by nick grant — August 6, 2021 @ 5:50 am

  2. Hi, Louis,
    Great article on the old Borscht Belt, but you did make one rather big goof. The actress playing Pearl is not Diane Adams; she is the very well known Diane Lane. And as far as Diane’s alleged lack of Jewish connections – Oy gevalt! – her father was Burton Lane — originally Burton Levy — who wrote dozens of famous songs, including the scores for On A Clear Day and Finian’s Rainbow. That said, she doesn’t look very Jewish (her mother was not), and in a cast that includes Tovah Feldshuh and Julie Kavner, she’s definitely miscast.

    Comment by Stacy Stein — August 6, 2021 @ 12:28 pm

  3. Besides the Diane Lane typo, what else?

    Comment by louisproyect — August 6, 2021 @ 1:30 pm

  4. Diane Lane

    Comment by Rich Lesnik — August 6, 2021 @ 1:57 pm

  5. Another kind of vacation place in “the Mountains,” between the large or larger hotels, one the one hand, and the kuchalaynes and bungalow colonies, one the other had, were the small hotels. My grandparents, Sarah and Martin Berger, owned such a place, Berger’s Hotel, few miles from Woodridge (“vutrich” they called it), where the Milk Road (by the Kentucky Club) ran to Route 52 in Ulster County.

    Berger’s Hotel (the name could be seen on the handball count) from Route 52. The place had about forty room and was, as they said back then, on the American Plan, which featured three meals a day. There were no planned guest activities, but small traveling groups of actors would sometimes come and do shows on Saturday night. My impression is that these small hotels catered to older people as opposed to the bungalow colonies and kuchalaynes.

    Comment by davidberger6799 — August 7, 2021 @ 4:35 am

  6. Thanks Louis for recommending a terrific film, new to me.

    Comment by Stephen S. Gosch — August 10, 2021 @ 5:59 pm

  7. Thank you for everything and rest in peace, Louis.

    Comment by Brian Gallagher — August 27, 2021 @ 4:04 pm

  8. Thank you Louis for all your hard work, for your staying true to socialist principles and for exposing so many posers and frauds. Thank you for everything. You will be missed greatly. Rest in peace, brother!

    Comment by Reza — August 27, 2021 @ 5:24 pm

  9. Hard to say just why I’m going to so miss Louis’ voice, There are other movie reviewers. Deflaters of the high and mighty are still to be found. There are even polemicists around who keep to a Marxist line. But no one else sounds like Louis. With him I hear the kid on his bike in the Catskills delivering orders for his dad’s store, the naive freshman who set about swallowing great mouthfuls of Bard College, the confused, turning angry young New Yorker acquiring a touch of banker’s cynicism. It’s quite a tonal mix. On his long road of political activism, his vocal modulations were more, not fewer. He was talking about everything at once and to every sort of person. Let’s explain his uniqueness by what he wrote Dec. 26, 2014: “My politics, like many of my favorite writers at Swans and CounterPunch, is joined at the hip to art and culture.”

    Comment by Peter Byrne — August 27, 2021 @ 9:19 pm

  10. SAD TO SAY TO FOLKS THAT LOUIS PROYECT HAS PASSED AWAY.
    \

    Comment by davidberger6799 — August 28, 2021 @ 3:08 am

  11. Fitting that Louis filed the last item (August 6) on his blog under “Catskills, Film, Jewish question”. It set him down in his place in the universe. It’s full of references to popular entertainers. It also touches on his boyhood predicament. It was unthinkable for his mother that any group, and especially not a Black one, could follow in the footsteps of the immigrant Jews. Blacks were a different species. The adult Louis carefully explains the mentality and class framework. But it’s not hard to imagine the confusion in the boy’s mind. I know how he felt. In the late 1940s, a gormless teen, I worked at a country club outside Chicago. On the one hand I heard about the triumph of democracy—us. But the talk of the local gentry I listened to was all about keeping Jews off our pristine green grass.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — August 28, 2021 @ 9:51 am

  12. “Place in the universe” is right Peter because I always used to tell him that as an atheist if he ever had even a twinkling of a desire to achieve immortality he’d already done it through his brilliant writings and class analysis for in the end Marxism is simply the history of exploited peoples that wouldn’t otherwise be told. I woke up an hour ago and the first thing I thought of was Lou’s passing and how much I missed him already which is why I came to his last post. His writings and film reviews brought me a simple comfort that I took for granted and yes, Reza, I too will miss him greatly. Louis Proyect, Unrepentant, Presente!

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — August 28, 2021 @ 2:13 pm


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