Catskills Life in A Walk on the Moon

By Simon Hodgson

High above the Hudson River in upstate New York, the Catskill Mountains are among the most picturesque regions in the United States. For hundreds of thousands of Jewish households between 1910 and 1970, the Catskills became their summer destination. For non-Orthodox households, such as the Kantrowitz family and their friends in A Walk on the Moon, this region represented a rural retreat whose bungalows created a tight-knit community. The bungalow colonies were made up of modest, detached, two-bedroom cabins with their own bathroom and cooking facilities. By the 1940s and ’50s, kucheleins (private rooms with shared kitchens) and bungalow colonies (such as the fictional Dr. Fogler’s in Moon) attracted more than 80 percent of the region’s Jewish vacationers every year.

Marty (Jonah Platt) and Pearl (Katy Brayben) talk outside their bungalow in
A.C.T.s 2018 production of A Walk on the Moon. Courtesy @jonahplatt on Instagram.
Days in the bungalow colonies were unhurried and matriarchal, particularly during the week, when most men were at work in the city. If a bungalow colony had a swimming pool, mothers congregated around it and played cards, while their children swam. Another popular pursuit was mah-jongg, the Chinese game of tiles played by Pearl Kantrowitz and her friends in Moon. During the weekend, the mood shifted. Many Jewish men, from doctors and dentists to teachers and television repairmen (like Marty in Moon) would catch the Friday night train and spend two days in the hills before returning to the city on Sunday.

For most bungalow colonies and smaller hotels, the easy rhythm of the days would be accented by visits from traveling peddlers, from Hymie the Dairyman to Ruby the Knish Man to garment vendors hawking blouses. Children and mothers alike would visit the carts or car trunks, sometimes for a tasty treat, but often just to break up the routine. The slow days could be a grind for teenagers accustomed to living in the city. Many felt like Alison in A Walk on the Moon, who sings, “It’s the summer of ’69 out there / It’s the summer of ’59 up here / There’s something happening everywhere / Everywhere but here.”
Pamela Gray’s family bungalow at Tommy’s Lodge, Swan Lake, in the early 1960s. Courtesy Pamela Gray. 
Although the mountains have moved on from their ’60s pinnacle, the nostalgic legacy of those vacations lives on in America’s collective memory. Pamela Gray, the writer of the 1999 movie who adapted Moon for the stage, chose 1969 as the period for her story not only for its lunar landing and Woodstock synchronicity, but also because this Jewish vacationland was on the cusp of disappearing. “It was the end of an era,” says Gray. “Even though it’s never said in both the film and the musical that the heyday of the Catskills is waning, I do want audiences to feel that sense of change.”

A Walk on the Moon runs through July 1 at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets. Want to learn more about the history behind the show? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.’s in-depth performance guide series.

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