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Cissie Blumberg On Revitalizing the Catskills.

Esterita "Cissie" Blumberg writes a monthly column for the Catskill/Hudson Jewish Star. She grew up in a hotel in the Catskills, and later owned and operated it with her husband. Her new book is "Remember the Catskills: Tales by a Recovering Hotelkeeper" (Purple Mountain Press)


Other segments from the episode on July 1, 1997

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 1, 1997: Interview with Stan Sesser; Interview with Esterita "Cissie" Blumberg; Review of Arto Lindsay's album "The Subtle Body" and the album "Money No Be Sand."


Date: JULY 01, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 070101NP.217
Head: Hong Kong Review
Sect: News; International
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Today, the people of Hong Kong woke up under Chinese rule. At midnight Hong Kong time, after 156 years as a British colony, Hong Kong was given back to China.

The formal ceremonies went smoothly, but no one yet knows what the impact of communist rule will be on Hong Kong, and what impact Hong Kong's thriving business community will have on China.

Earlier today, we called Hong Kong to talk with Stan Sesser, who has spent the past month there. He's written about Asia for the past decade, much of that time for the New Yorker. He's now a senior fellow at the Human Rights Center at the University of California at Berkeley.

A few hours after the change of sovereignty, a procession of 4,000 Chinese soldiers crossed over the border into Hong Kong. Now, soldiers are a visible presence.

STAN SESSER, ASIAN AFFAIRS EXPERT AND SENIOR FELLOW, HUMAN RIGHTS CENTER, UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA AT BERKELEY: This morning, I was walking down the street and coming in the other direction were two generals of the People's Liberation Army bedecked with medals. And it was just so jarring to see this in Hong Kong. You just never see any sort of military presence in Hong Kong. And the Chinese have arrived.

GROSS: What was it like to see the troops march in yesterday? And how do you think their presence is changing the mood and the atmosphere in the city?

SESSER: I think people are upset. They were particularly upset to hear that the troops were carrying these -- the troops were riding in in these anti-personnel carriers -- these high-tech vehicles equipped with night vision and the latest in artillery and whatever. And the question is: why need it? Why is this needed?

Martin Lee, the leader of the democracy forces -- I went to his press conference yesterday -- and he said that in the past we've needed British troops to protect us from China, like during the Cultural Revolution. Now, we're a part of China -- what do we need the troops for? What country are these troops there to protect us from? He said it certainly gives the impression of an invasion of Hong Kong.

The troops aren't parading through the streets. They went directly to their barracks. But the TV all day -- all the channels have been showing pictures of these lines of military vehicles, tanks and armored personnel carriers and whatever -- and the question is: what is this for? Hong Kong's a peaceful place.

GROSS: Well, has China given any indication about what role it expects the troops to play?

SESSER: Well, China has pledged that the troops will not play the role of the police. In other words, if an illegal demonstration -- demonstrations, now, starting today have to be approved by the police.

Previously, you just informed the police and the police would be out and conduct traffic and whatever else. Now, they need police approval. So obviously, some demonstrations are going to be turned down, and if the demonstrators go ahead and march anyway, they're going to be arrested.

Well, China has promised that if there are arrests, it will be the police who do it -- that the troops are there for external matters. But I think in -- I think China is doing it just as a matter of pride; just a feeling.

The People's Liberation Army plays such a huge part in China, and it's really going to be the only mainland Chinese presence in Hong Kong, and I think China wanted its mark felt in one way or another, and this is how they're doing it.

GROSS: Well meanwhile, Stan, you are one of several thousand journalists right now in Hong Kong and I'm wondering what it's like to try to cover this story with thousands of journalists from around the world trying to cover it, too.

SESSER: Well, there is no story. That's the major problem, trying to cover it: there is no story. Everything that needed to be decided, all the important things, like the legislature being disbanded and replaced by a legislature appointed by China; like the new laws on demonstrations; the new society ordinance where groups will now have to register with the government in order to get permission to operate -- all these things were decided and implemented and put in place months ago, and there was really nothing left to decide.

There was only one question mark for the handover -- only one possible drama -- and that was when Martin Lee, being a member of the outgoing legislature, was entitled to be in the LegiCo (ph), the legislature building, until midnight. And after midnight this morning, he was no longer a member of legislature; no longer able to be there.

Well, he had announced that he was going to give a speech at 1 a.m. The handover was at midnight, and one hour later, he would give a speech from the balcony on the second floor of LegiCo. And the chief executive's office and the incoming appointed legislature, the head of that, both said: you can't do this. We can't make this exception, and we're going to bar you from entering the building.

So Lee came to LegiCo with a 30-foot-high ladder. He was joking earlier in the day that he was going to play Romeo. And all the press, of course, was hoping that he'd be climbing the ladder and, as he said ruefully, even hoping more that the police would pull the ladder out from under him to make a very good story.

But miraculously, and no one to this moment has explained why or whose decision it was, the doors of LegiCo were open and Lee was allowed to enter and he gave his speech from the balcony.

He's a very moving man. He would make a wonderful martyr. He's the most impressive person I've ever interviewed, next to Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma. And -- but he didn't -- China had the good sense to keep him from martyrdom, at least while the 8,000 reporters are there.

So there's no story, and it got to the point I turned on CNN one day, and it -- they were broadcasting a band concert from the British Naval -- Royal Naval Band. And they had their military analyst -- I swear, their military analyst -- do color commentary of the band concert.

And people were getting -- reporters were getting so sick of this. I think that a lot of the stories were pre-written weeks ago, because 8,000 people were chasing a non-story.

GROSS: So where have you gone looking for the story? Looking for a story?

SESSER: I've just been covering the dissident groups and hoping that something interesting would happen with them and, of course, nothing has happened. And, you know, you just have to look beyond the handover to the larger picture and deal with some important questions about what this is all going to mean to Hong Kong, and why people -- why some people are so afraid of China moving in, when it's been a relatively passive occupation so far.

GROSS: What are some of the specific fears about China's rule?

SESSER: Well, I think -- there's a fundamental contradiction in China, and it was so -- in Asia, people deal with contradictions that are just so bald that they couldn't -- contradictions of this sort couldn't exist in America.

But the fundamental contradiction in China -- I just traveled for two weeks in China to a very remote part of Yunnan Province which is in southwest China, up in the mountains -- 8,500 feet high.

And winding through the mountains, and there were soldiers and police all over the place, and I was the only foreigner in this area. I was driving with a Chinese -- actually a naxi, an ethnic minority interpreter and a Chinese driver. And no one ever stopped me. No one ever asked me a question. No one was ever less than friendly.

Whereas when I first went to China, you couldn't walk around the block of a major city without being stopped by someone. And people were openly critical of the government.

Even though I wasn't asking questions about politics, people were even volunteering criticism of the government. And you'd never hear that years ago, either. And they just weren't fearful of any consequences of being critical of the government.

So, you have on the one hand, China being in some ways a freer country than it's ever been -- or since 1949. And yet on the other hand, when you read the State Department Human Rights Report that came out earlier this year and you see that shocking sentence in the report, saying that there isn't one known dissident in China who's not in prison.

And so the contradiction, I think, is this: that the government is -- has no legitimacy. It's lost its legitimacy. It has no basis for being. There is no -- I mean, the Communist Party is now a sham. Everyone's out for themselves. Everyone's out to make money. Corruption is rampant. The government is resented and it just has no legitimacy.

And I think that the government -- that anything that affects the -- anything that threatens the government is going to be pounced upon, despite this apparent freedom in other ways.

And China showed that by doing these missile tests last March in the Taiwan Straits. They showed that when the chips are down, when the government feels threatened, that world opinion counts for nothing and that Beijing is going to do exactly what they want.

And you can't believe that everything vis-a-vis Hong Kong is going to go smoothly from now on -- that nothing will happen in Hong Kong that Beijing won't feel threatened by.

GROSS: Isn't it, though, in Beijing's best interest to have Hong Kong remain a thriving business city; a big capitalist center?

SESSER: Well, Hong Kong's going to thrive no matter what happens to democracy demonstrators, labor activists, or the like. I mean, Hong Kong is -- the business community is 100 percent on Beijing's side. The -- China and Hong Kong are closer together than ever in terms of business transactions.

The -- riches are being made back and forth across the border, and no one really cares whether the press is free -- I mean, none of these business people care whether the press is free or whether people have the right to demonstrate. That's not really relevant to them and it's not going to affect Hong Kong's status as a major business center.

I mean, look at Singapore for instance. No one has the right to demonstrate; elections are fixed; you know, people are gone after with a vengeance for their political and social views -- and that certainly hasn't stopped Singapore from being a thriving business center. And if it happens to Hong Kong, it won't stop Hong Kong.

GROSS: My guest is journalist Stan Sesser, who's joining us by phone from Hong Kong. He's a senior fellow at the Human Rights Center at the University of California at Berkeley.

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

Back to our interview with journalist Stan Sesser recorded from Hong Kong earlier today.

Is there any evidence now of self-censorship? Are people afraid if they don't watch what they say and what they do, that there will be a crackdown?

SESSER: Self-censorship is rampant, and it's happened in some of the most ridiculous ways. It's -- the ultimate was that at the Tiananmen Square commemoration, everyone in Hong Kong -- to start with, you can't live in Hong Kong unless you have a cellular phone strapped to one hip and a pager strapped to the other.

And the cellular phone is for your closest friends and the pager is for people who, you know, you don't -- you're not sure you want to talk to them immediately. And everyone is either reading their pager or talking on the cellular phone as they're walking down the street.

So anyway, people were calling in to paging services and leaving messages for friends -- where they'd meet them in Victoria Park for the Tiananmen Square commemoration. And the biggest paging service in Hong Kong was out telling its customers -- was not passing on any messages dealing with the Tiananmen commemoration. That was unreal, but...

GROSS: Wait, wait -- let me stop you. Why weren't they passing them on?

SESSER: Because they were afraid that China would pull the plug if they were leaving subversive messages. You know, there is -- I don't know to what extent it's paranoia, but I went to the Tiananmen commemoration with a young Chinese friend who's -- was my translator.

And he told me, when we met, that his father had begged him not to go, and his father had told him, you know, there will be photos taken of everyone here -- that's 55,000 people -- and that someday they'll identify every person in the crowd and all these people will go to jail.

Well, you know -- we could just dismiss this as laughable paranoia, but when you consider the cataclysms that the people in Hong Kong have lived in the shadow of -- particularly the Cultural Revolution, which the Red Guards tried to export to Hong Kong -- when you consider what's happened in China the last 40 years, I'm not sure if these things are paranoia.

People just -- people in Hong Kong have learned to play it safe, which is what makes the very large vocal pro-democracy advocates so impressive. I mean, they're taking a chance.

GROSS: Well, you seem very impressed with Martin Lee who was the head of the Democratic Party. What are his fears now about China?

SESSER: Well, his fears are that the democracy that exists -- the liberties that exist in Hong Kong, which were so hard-fought for so many years.

I mean, the British ran Hong Kong more or less as a slave plantation until 15 or 20 years ago, when these changes began. And there's a growing middle class in Hong Kong. There's a growing sentiment that values these liberties.

And his great fear is that these liberties are going to be systematically stripped away and that nothing will be left -- nothing but the making of money.

You know, there was a cartoon strip -- this cartoon that was so popular in Hong Kong -- called "The World of Lily Wong." And that was dropped a year or two ago from the South China Morning Post because it was critical of the Chinese government.

But they did a strip for the Asian edition of Time Magazine, and I think this sums it up. It says: Hong Kong 1997, a time of great uncertainty -- when freedom of speech, press, and belief; the rule of law; indeed an entire way of life, are on the line -- a time when all 6.3 million people in Hong Kong are preoccupied with the single overriding thought: how can I cash in on this?


Well, that's what Martin Lee is afraid that Hong Kong is going to become, because Hong Kong has moved so far in that direction already.

GROSS: Stan, have you met a lot of people who want to get out of Hong Kong now because they fear the worse?

SESSER: Oh, people want to come in. The big complaint, I mean, a lot of people went to Canada in the late '80s, and particularly after Tiananmen Square and when it was still easy to get into Canada. A lot more went to Australia.

And you meet these people all the time. They've come back from Hong Kong to work, and they're just ruing the day that they sold their apartment. They had apartments here they sold for maybe $100,000 or $200,000 US, and now they find that getting a comparable apartment costs $1 million or $2 million US.

And, no, people are coming back. The business opportunities, particularly since Canada and Australia both are under economic pressures, the business opportunities here are so great that people are coming back. No one's leaving.

GROSS: Do you think that the future of Hong Kong will have any impact on the future of Taiwan?

SESSER: Oh, absolutely. Well, I think that Taiwan is -- Taiwan is clearly moving in the opposite direction; very clearly. I mean, the pressures being faced by Lee Teng Hui, the President of Taiwan, is not from those who want to join China, but it's the other direction -- from the Democratic Progressive Party which wants independence.

And I think there is going to be an escalating move in Taiwan demanding moves for independence, like joining the United Nations, for instance. And I think it's -- China is going to be increasingly frustrated, no matter how it tries to set Hong Kong up as a model, by Taiwan's reluctance to join.

And I think that, you know, the nearer that that approaches reality or a possibility, the more people in Taiwan are fearing that. Because Taiwan now has freedoms, you know, going beyond anything in Asia. There was -- a week ago, there was even a gay pride parade right in the center of Taipei.

And, I mean -- just all sorts of things are happening so rapidly in Taiwan. And the country is changing so rapidly, and I think that the pressures being faced will be pressures for independence.

GROSS: As opposed to pressures to rejoin with China?

SESSER: To rejoin China, yeah. And, of course, China thinks that, you know, after one year looking at Hong Kong, Taiwan's going to say "OK, this is fine. We'll join up, too." And it's not going to be that way. It's not gonna be that way. It's a real -- if Asia is going to blow over any one development, it's not going to be from Hong Kong. It's going to be from Taiwan.

GROSS: Why do you say that?

SESSER: Well, because the potential for conflict is so much greater in Taiwan. No one in Hong Kong -- there is no independence movement in Hong Kong. Even Martin Lee has said, every time he holds a press conference, he says: we welcome joining China.

I mean, Hong Kong was a possession of a colonial -- of a Western colonialist power. And Hong Kong legitimately belonged to China -- and no one denies this. And the dispute is not Hong Kong going back to China. The dispute is Hong Kong keeping its freedoms as it goes back to China.

But in Taiwan, there's an entirely different situation. There is no feeling that Taiwan is legitimately a part of China and has to go back to China. And there is an independence movement that I think will control the Taiwanese government in a year or two, after the next elections.

GROSS: I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

SESSER: Well, thank you, Terry. It's a pleasure as always to speak with you.

GROSS: Journalist Stan Sesser, recorded earlier today from Hong Kong. He's written about Asia for the past decade, much of that time for the New Yorker. He's a senior fellow at the Human Rights Center at the University of California at Berkeley.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Stan Sesser
High: Journalist Stan Sesser. He is a former staff writer for the New Yorker and the senior fellow of the Human Rights Center at the University of California at Berkeley. Sesser has been following the events leading up to today's takeover of the British-ruled Hong Kong by the Chinese government.
Spec: Asia; Hong Kong; China; Britain; Politics; Government; Human Rights
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Business Affairs at (202) 414-2954
End-Story: Hong Kong Review
Date: JULY 01, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 070102NP.217
Head: Cissie Blumberg
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:40

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

For most of Cissie Blumberg's life, the July 4th weekend didn't mean fun. It meant the start of the season -- time to welcome the guests to Green Acres, her family's hotel in the Catskills. Her father bought the hotel in 1920. She and her husband took it over in the late '40s, after his death, and sold it in 1975.

During most of that period, the Catskill Mountains of New York were the largest resort area in the U.S., with more than 500 hotels plus countless bungalow colonies. Few of the hotels remain. Cissie Blumberg is part of a group trying to revitalize the Catskills as an arts and entertainment center. And she's written a new memoir called "Remember the Catskills."

Part of what drew vacationers to the Catskills was the big-name entertainment. But the stars performed at the big-name hotels. Blumberg's hotel was small and couldn't afford name talent.

ESTERITA "CISSIE" BLUMBERG, AUTHOR, "REMEMBER THE CATSKILLS: TALES BY A RECOVERING HOTELKEEPER": Well, I'll tell you. We had the big names before they became the big names. I can think off-hand of Irwin Corey (ph) who was a busboy at the hotel, Professor Irwin Corey. But we also had what would have been the newcomers.

You know, now the names are established, but in those days, they weren't. I would think of Freddie Roman (ph), Alan King, Myron Cohen, Red Buttons -- they were names only in the small area in which we existed, and later on went on to become very famous.

My brother had tried out a young man named Lenny Bruce, and another one named Jackie Mason. But at that time, they were known only to an agent and to a limited number of hotel keepers.

GROSS: But did you brother try out Jackie Mason and Lenny Bruce and then reject them?

BLUMBERG: Oh, no, no, no, no. We liked them.

GROSS: Oh, so they actually performed at your place?

BLUMBERG: Oh, yes, yes, yes. I mean -- when I say "try out," I mean we booked them. We didn't have time during a season to go looking for them. You know, initially, all of our entertainment started with live-in staffs.

Our parents hired an entire staff, which took care of the hotel for a whole season. There may have been a comedian and a singer -- a soprano, a tenor -- and they would bring forth shows which really were remarkably well done.

They also couldn't repeat. That's why we became kind of a -- almost a school for entertainers. And we had some very distinguished people who came out of the mountains. Moss Hart, for instance, was at the Flagler Hotel. Dore Schary was there as well, and then became the head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

But we had people like Buddy Hackett, Billy Crystal, Robert Klein, Jerry Lewis, Sid Caesar -- these are the caliber of people who came through our stages, but were not necessarily stars at the time. We couldn't afford them once they got to be stars, certainly not the little hotels.

GROSS: Now, you grew up in your hotel because your parents owned it when you were a child.


GROSS: How did you father first come to the Catskills?

BLUMBERG: My father was a labor leader in New York City. He -- as a matter of fact -- was the first vice president of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union; and at that time, did a great deal of public speaking and a great deal of work, and had his first heart attack when he was about 35.

And the doctors advised him that he should find an easier way to live. And believe it or not, he chose a farm hotel in Lake Huntington, New York, to find that "easier" life. He came up there in 1920, by the way.

GROSS: When your father took over the farm hotel, what was the area like?

BLUMBERG: The area that he settled in, and probably this was true of much of upstate New York in the smaller communities, was extremely restrictive and very resistant to someone of another ethnic group.

Lake Huntington at the time that my father bought there had a going Ku Klux Klan, a German-American Bund, and they also had a gentleman's agreement not to sell property to Jews.

GROSS: Which is really interesting, considering the Catskills became famous for Jewish resorts.

BLUMBERG: Yes, it did. But you know, one of the things -- you know, you hear Catskills and you think Jewish. The truth of the matter is, we were never, at any time, more than 15 percent of the year-round population. And that pretty much, my experience -- my parents' experiences, the experience of others who came into the area.

Now, eventually we became a very strong economic factor, but there was tremendous resistance when we first got there.

GROSS: Your father was the first Jewish hotelman in Lake Huntington. How did he get around their restrictive clause?

BLUMBERG: I would suspect, number one, he had learned to speak English from phonograph records from London. So he was the only Hungarian I knew who spoke like Winston Churchill, to start with. But in addition to that, he was blue-eyed and dark-haired -- I supposed, didn't fit the stereotype that people expected.

And then again, I think it was that he accepted the first price that they preferred to him. And so one way or another, he became the owner of a restricted boardinghouse farm in Lake Huntington.

GROSS: I'd like you to explain why the Catskills were so important to Jewish workers?

BLUMBERG: Well, I think if you look back at history, you'll discover that the -- there was no place for Jewish workers from New York to vacation. The resorts in the Catskills that preceded the immigrant group were either restricted or very expensive or both.

There's a story I -- in the book, which is a true story -- about a family who bought Chiwanga (ph) Lodge. Now, it was previously owned by a Christian ownership and in their brochure, there was a note which said very plainly: "No Hebrews Accommodated."

What was so ironic about this is that the Dann (ph) family who purchased it used that brochure and they took away that item and replaced it with: "Kosher Cuisine Featured."

But here were a megalopolis, New York City, and just across the mountain was this area which they could reach -- we had two railroads that went up that way. They were very inexpensive. And they would find their own language spoken; their own customs followed. And in many of the cases, a regimen of food with which they were familiar.

So it became a natural. And also, suddenly, the buttonhole maker and the cutter and the taxi driver and the secretary were sought-after guests. They -- this was an area that was looking for them. And they adopted it, and they came there for, really, almost 70 years. It was a repeat clientele for almost all of the hotels.

GROSS: My parents took me to the Catskills a few times when I was young, and I loved going there. It was just -- it smelled so good.

BLUMBERG: Mm. Still does.

GROSS: And the mountains were so beautiful. And, you know, you were at this hotel and it was kind of like your job to have pleasure. You know, your parents are always on your case to, like, work hard and do good in school and so -- and here you are on vacation, and it's like you were supposed to have a good time, you know?

And so everything was about just enjoying yourself, and it was so much fun to be there. What was it like for you growing up in the Catskills, running one of the resort hotels?

BLUMBERG: Well, when I was growing up, I think that we had an absolutely marvelous time at the hotel. First of all, it wasn't yet a parent-child resort when we were growing up. So we were kind of featured by the staff and the guests, and felt very special.

I think the other thing was that we were star-struck, and there were already all of these entertainers putting on shows every night, so that we would stay and watch them. And we were uncritical and delirious about being with them.

Running it, of course, was another story. That was a kind of slavery, and I'm interested in your reaction -- that you knew that your job was to have fun, and our job was to make you comfortable. And of course, hospitality was the thing that came through loud and clear.

I don't think there was a hotelman from the largest to the smallest who wasn't always visible. I wonder if you remember who ran the hotel, for instance, that you may have gone to?

There was someone who would greet you by name; who knew what your parents did for a living; who knew how many children there were in the family; which room you had the year before; and what you liked for breakfast.

This kind of hospitality, I guess, is a thing of the past. But we were really steeped in it, and it was part of what we did and what we did well.

GROSS: Now when you grew up, did you want to take over your parents' hotel?

BLUMBERG: No, no. I had no intention of coming back to the hotel. I was married while I was in college. My husband got out of the Army and we were married and came back and forth and worked at the hotel, but we had no intention of remaining in the business.

However, my father, who was ill when he started, was becoming more ill, and when we got out of college, he asked us if we wouldn't stay for a little while. So 30 years is not such a long time, is it?


GROSS: Did you feel stuck taking it over?

BLUMBERG: Initially, yes. Initially, I felt, you know, what am I doing among the Philistines? You know, who wants to be a hotel owner? But I will tell you this: it provided a challenge, and little by little -- I guess, also, I'm part of the group that say "bloom where you're planted." I had no choice. My father died shortly after that, and there was just no way of our leaving.

But I began to like what I was doing, and I -- when I relaxed and saw the opportunities, it really was a place to develop whatever kind of talent you had. It was nice to be a star.

You know, a hotel owner, regardless of the size of the property, became a star. And there were the entertainment. There was writing the brochures. It was coming up with new ideas for operating. And I must say that all in all, I had a good time at the party.

GROSS: My guest is Cissie Blumberg. She's written a memoir called Remember the Catskills. More after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

My guest is Cissie Blumberg. She's written a memoir called Remember the Catskills about the hotel that her family owned.

During the period when a lot of really talented people were blacklisted, you brought some of those people up to the Catskills to perform at your hotel. Tell me how you went about doing that? I mean, how did you know, officially, who was blacklisted? And how were you able to help them and help yourself by booking them?

BLUMBERG: It was pretty much in the news, who was blacklisted. We didn't look for them individually. Again, it was the agent that you were working with.

GROSS: Were there agents who specialized in people who were blacklisted?

BLUMBERG: Not really, but if they had some progressive tendency, they would know who those people were and bring them to you. During the period, we developed an entertainment regimen which we never could have afforded, because they were willing to take less, and we were willing to give them as much as we could.

But we had some very, very interesting -- Zero Mostel, Herschel Bernardi (ph), Irwin Corey, Martha Schlum (ph) -- people of this ilk were on our stages. Paul Draper, Larry Adler, Ellie Stone -- that was on the stage thing.

And then we also had theater groups, that would be Lionel Stander (ph) and Phoebe Brand (ph), and Howard da Silva (ph) -- people of that caliber. And then of course, some lesser lights, as well, but the overall tenor of the entertainment took a big jump up when we got those people.

GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about the dining room that you created.


When you took it over, I mean, food was such an important part of the Catskills vacation. And all the guests would eat together in a dining room.


GROSS: And there'd be several courses for each meal. Even breakfast, there were lots of options.

BLUMBERG: Many, many courses.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah. So how would you prepare the menu? And how important was the food, in your opinion, to you, you know, to the vacation?

BLUMBERG: Extremely important, I think. Very important. I think that people looked forward to it. As a matter of fact, it's one of the things, you know, that I resent and one of the reasons that I wrote the book was to correct the impression that there was anything vulgar about the amount of food that we served.

You know, we were always being compared to other areas, and one of the overriding kinds of things is this great gorging of food, which really wasn't so. It was American Plan. It was nicely done. And we did it, really, with a full heart.

You know, food is part of hospitality. Hospitality was the underlying theme for everything we did. And menus were created by the ownership, along with a whole series of chefs.

And we had to do a great deal of improvisation, first of all because of the availability of foods; and secondly because people stayed for a long time, so that you couldn't give them a dull menu where every Monday you served exactly the same thing.

So there was a great deal of improvising. We discovered that you could have all of the wonderful things that your grandmother made, and then add to that lobster and Chinese food and Italian food. And we had a very wide variety.

GROSS: So you were not Kosher.

BLUMBERG: No, we weren't. Incidentally, the one other mis-information about our area is that they talk about "a hotel" as if they were talking about all of the hotels. Each of these hotels was family-owned and operated, and reflected the personality of the people who were running it.

So there really was no cookie-cutter hotel. They were all different. They featured different things. We had many, many things in common, but there was also a personality to each of the places that people attended.

GROSS: What would you do if a summer was particularly rainy, because so much of the hotel revolved around outdoor activities, whether it was, you know, calisthenics or swimming or tennis or shuffleboard. These were things that happened outside during the day.

BLUMBERG: I cried a lot. A rainy day was a disaster. We brought in anything that we could think of to distract them. We had lectures. We had musical groups come in. We had antique dealers demonstrate; flower arrangers; beekeepers -- whatever we could think of to distract them.

Of course, within a period of time, most of the hotels became year-round resorts and had indoor facilities -- the indoor pools and health clubs and that kind of thing for distraction -- but rain was a tragedy, whether or not you had the indoor facilities.

I remember once a man stood at my desk and he said: "it's raining in your hotel." And I felt so guilty. It took me 10 minutes to realize it was also raining at Grossinger's.

GROSS: In order to stay competitive, you had to renovate your hotel...


GROSS: ... in the '60s. So in 1963, very expensive renovations -- three years later, the whole hotel was destroyed by fire. I think lightning struck the main building?

BLUMBERG: It was 11 bolts of lightning, and...

GROSS: Struck 11 times?

BLUMBERG: Eleven times, and it burnt from the inside out, which made it impossible to put out. We were on top of a hill, and I must say, part of the problem was mine because I had not written the insurance properly. We also didn't have a sprinkler system yet. That was scheduled for the next year. And there was no saving it.

The underinsurance, of course, nobody knew that night, except I knew it. And I knew that what we were in for, if we were ever going to be solvent again. So that we did, we were able, to buy another resort, and it was then in the hands of the bank.

We bought the New Roxy (ph) Hotel in Lake Sheldrake (ph) and we renovated it completely, and it became Green Acres, you know, which we affectionately called Green Acres East.

And that was a place that already had winterization in it, and I think in the long run, made it possible for us to really operate very successfully.

But the loss of the first property was a terrible, terrible blow. It was as if your life was burning. All of the economies I thought about as that smoke was going up, you know. Everything was in the hotel. That was our theory, that, you know, we should build our business and that it would take care of us.

GROSS: God, you must have felt so guilty, knowing that you had made a decision to buy less insurance because you couldn't really afford to buy more -- and you say you were a quarter of a million dollars underinsured when the building burned.

BLUMBERG: Yeah. Took us 10 years to pay that off. Ten years at hard labor, but we did pay it off and people were good enough to give us the space to pay it off. At any point, three creditors could have pushed us into a bankruptcy, but they didn't.

And people were very good to us. Not everybody, but a lot of people were very good to us. So, we were able to do it and we were very successful in the new property.

GROSS: How did you end up selling in 1975?

BLUMBERG: Well, I think -- well, one of the things that happened was that we never, ever put the place on the market because we always thought that we were going to die at our desks, and hopefully not on a weekend because we didn't want to spoil anything.


We became an attraction. The mountain hotels, particularly as business receded in other areas, became a very big bargain for people looking for large properties to be used for other purposes.

In our case, people came around to look, and I became so annoyed with the looking that I never even got out of my chair. I would just tell them everything is for sale at a price, and if you wish to look, go look.

And one of those people -- one of those committees turned out to be a real buyer. Now, we consulted with our children, who were then in college, who had no desire to follow in our footsteps. And so we happily sold -- and this is my time-off for good behavior.

GROSS: When you sold in 1975, you sold to an owner that turned the hotel into a home for mildly mentally retarded adults.

BLUMBERG: Right. Those with developmental disabilities, yes. And it still is that, and it's an absolutely wonderful -- and I won't call it an "institution" because we've now gone to smaller homes and the whole thrust is toward normalization. I sit on that board. I'm very proud of what the hotel became.

GROSS: Well, Cissie Blumberg, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

BLUMBERG: My pleasure.

GROSS: Cissie Blumberg's new memoir is called Remember the Catskills. It's published by Purple Mountain Press. She's also a member of Catskills Idea, the Institute for Development of Entertainments Arts in the Catskills.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Esterita Blumberg
High: Esterita "Cissie" Blumberg writes a monthly column for the Catskill/Hudson Jewish Star. She grew up in a hotel in the Catskills, and later owned and operated it with her husband. Her new book is "Remember the Catskills: Tales by a Recovering Hotelkeeper."
Spec: Media; Religion; Judaism; Catskill/Hudson Jewish Star; Cissie Blumberg
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Business Affairs at (202) 414-2954
End-Story: Cissie Blumberg
Date: JULY 01, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 070103NP.217
Head: World Music Review
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:55

TERRY GROSS, HOST: While sifting through albums released within the past year or so, world music critic Milo Miles came across two outstanding world music CDs he wants to mention now, rather than letting them slip away. He says both collections present international music at its dynamic best.


One sky was orange, some skies are gray
Or a deep, dark blue that gave gloom its name
The sky, like a room, at the top of a house
A most violet sky hanging low over water

MILO MILES, FRESH AIR COMMENTATOR: Guitarist, singer, and songwriter Arto Lindsay used to be a champion of the noisy, so-called "no wave" rock scene in New York. But he was born in Brazil, and for much of the last decade, he's been edging ever closer to the pop music of that country.

Last year, he went all the way and made a kind of American-Brazilian album called "The Subtle Body." It was subtle, too, and only blossoms with repeated listening. The whimsical songwriting strikes first, such as "Child Prodigy," a punning meditation on the wonders of a baby written by Lindsay and Brazilian star Catano Veloso (ph).


LINDSAY SINGING: His own private math
Is as big as life
It's all aftermath
Burns in stripes so bright

He sees right through walls
Right through the writing on them
Two years old, and playin' those games

He's not tame; he's not slim yet
Feed him, get him to eat
Child prodigy

MILES: Lindsay enlists lots of famously expert help on the Subtle Body, including Bill Frizell (ph), Nanaves Consuelos (ph); Riutchi Sakamoto (ph); and Brian Eno. But instead of star turns, it's an intimate album pulled together by Lindsay's humble, charming vocals and softly-bouncing melodies.

It's the most successfully Brazilian-sounding American pop ever made, at least partly because Lindsay never tries to give current American styles a Brazilian flavor. Lindsay shows a fine ear not just for what's tasteful, but for arrangements and licks that are right, however unlikely.

The same flair animates the anthology "Money No Be Sand," put together by world music pioneer John Storm Roberts (ph). He describes the collection as "Afro-Lipso-Pigdin-Highlife-Afro-Rock-Afro-Soul (ph) from 1958 to 1971" -- which means progressive pop, often with English lyrics, from Ghana and Nigeria.

This is not cute, tidy stuff. More than a dozen bands perform with roaring fervor. The recording quality is rough. The tuning and arrangements a bit ad hoc. But every track is a compact burst of passion, more boisterous and plain-spoken than songs made nowadays.

The calypso-type titles say it all: you cheat me; you cheat me; cut your coat according to your size; Baby, I tire. And the music just hammers home the message.


SINGER: My friend, take my advice
This is my latest calypso
If you don't want to go to a prison yard
You want to live a happy life
You don't want no police trouble
All you've got to do, just walk
I say

CHORUS: (Unintelligible) according to your size

SINGER: You want to live a happy life.

CHORUS: (Unintelligible) according to your size

You don't want to go to prison yard

CHORUS: (Unintelligible) according to your size

You don't want no police trouble.

CHORUS: (Unintelligible) according to your size

All you've got to do is (Unintelligible) according to your size

MILES: Roberts has also tracked down fascinating highlife variations, full of steely and sweet guitar work. But what always amazes me most about vintage Afro-pop sides is how brilliantly and vigorously they incorporated rock and soul influences.

One rock crossover example from Money No Be Sand will have to suffice, but it's a great one -- guaranteed the finest Beatles cover you never heard, from the very popular Ghana singer Charlotte Dada (ph).


Don't let me down, don't let me down
Don't let me down, don't let me down

Nobody ever loved me like he does
Ooh, he does; yes, he does.
And if somebody loved me like he do
Ohh, he do, yes he does

Don't let me down...

MILES: Remember: Money No Be Sand, so don't waste your dollars trying to recapture the good old days with another mediocre anthology of garage rock obscurities. Hear the turbulent excitement of the '60s interpreted by top stars of the day, half a world away.

GROSS: Milo Miles is a music writer living in Cambridge. He reviewed Arto Lindsay's The Subtle Body on Bar-None Records; and Money No Be Sand on Original Music.

Dateline: Milo Miles, Cambridge; Terry Gross, Philadelphia
High: Music critic Milo Miles reviews two "outstanding" world music CDS from 1996: "The Subtle Body" by Brazilian singer/guitarist Arto Lindsay, and "Money No Be Sand" an anthology by world music pioneer John Storm Roberts.
Spec: Music Industry; South America; Brazil; The Subtle Body; Money No Be Sand
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright (c) 1997 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. under license from National Public Radio, Inc. Formatting copyright (c) 1997 Federal Document Clearing House, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission. For further information please contact NPR's Business Affairs at (202) 414-2954
End-Story: World Music Review
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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