Freddie Roman has a few stories to tell you.
Freddie Roman spills the borscht
The laugh legend reminisces about Catskills comedy
By WILL McKINLEY
Back in 1991, Freddie Romans Catskills on Broadway opened to rave reviews and sold out crowds. The show was a celebration of old school stand-up comedy performed by the men and women who had graced the seminal stages of the Catskill Mountains, the Jewish vacation enclave affectionately known as the Borscht Belt. Today, Roman is the longtime dean of the Friars Club and a favorite toastmaster at the fraternitys celebrity roasts, but he will forever be remembered by generations of Jewish New Yorkers as the jokester who made his debut in the Mountains more than half a century ago.
On June 20, Roman will be appearing at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park for an evening of mirth and memories called Catskills on the Hudson. I spoke with the Dean of Comedy on the phone from his office at the Friars Club about summer nights spent at The Concord, The Nevele, Grossingers and other beloved resorts that have receded into history.
WILL McKINLEY: First of all, what exactly is borscht?
FREDDIE ROMAN: Borscht is a Russian soup that was made from beets. My grandmother would make it and then put in sour cream. It was a beautiful color, such a nice color that when you spilled it on the tablecloth it never came out.
I have to apologize for being a gentile.
(Laughs) Dont apologize.
When I mentioned to a number of people under the age of 40 that I was going to be talking with you
They didnt know who I was?
Well, yes. But they didnt even know what the Borscht Belt was.
They called the Catskill Mountains the Borscht Circuit because every dairy meal they served borscht. It was also called the Promised Land, because thats where the Jewish people would go on vacation from the 1930s until the 70s. A lot of other places were restricted to them; they were not permitted to go. And here was a place where they felt comfortable in all the resorts. You had food and entertainment. The Concord Hotel nightclub seated 3,500 people. It was the largest nightclub in the world. When that club was full and you were on stage getting laughs, there was nothing like that feeling. Ever.
Where were the vacationers coming from?
Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens. They had not yet fled to the suburbs. Once the explosion of Long Island, Westchester and Rockland Counties came around, it lessened their going to the Mountains.
Was there still a large Jewish population on the Lower East Side at that time in history?
Still fairly large. Originally they lived in tenements on streets like Rivington, Attorney, Ridge and Pitt. If you had a relative, you moved in with them. An apartment sometimes would have six, eight refuges living there. The Marx Bros. and Irving Berlin and all of these wonderfully talented performers came from the Lower East Side. Show business was a way for them to get out of the ghetto. Later on, they built the Mitchell-Lama Housing Project for middle-income people and you could buy an apartment with two bedrooms for $4,000 on Grand Street and the FDR Drive.
You have a family connection to the Catskills, too.
My uncle and my grandfather owned a little resort up in the Mountains. At the age of 15 my uncle let me become master of ceremonies. It was a very small hotel and the fact that his nephew would be glad to do it for nothing made it very interesting to him. And the guests loved seeing this little precocious, chubby, fifteen-year-old kid come out and do a joke.
And then you grew up and became a productive member of society.
(Laughs) I met my wife in college and we got married and I suddenly said, Wait a minute. I have to make a living now. My dad was in the ladies shoe business, so I joined him in his store out on the Island. And then I opened my own store. For six years I was there, and I hated every day of it. So I sold the store and took a job selling life insurance and mutual funds. That gave me some spare time, which allowed me to go back to the Catskills on weekends to ply my trade as a comedian. And in two years I was able to give up everything else and earn a living doing comedy.
Is that when Fred Kirschenbaum became Freddie Roman?
Well to this day Im Fred Kirschenbaum, legally. But, in those days, no comedian kept his real name. If it was too Jewish-sounding, you felt it would be a drawback. Jack Bennys real name was Benny Kubelsky and George Burns was Nathan Birnbaum. So Fred Kirschenbaum became Freddie Roman.
I was surprised to see that youre booked at Kutshers in August. I didnt know that any of the old hotels still existed.
Thats one of the two that still does. You know, I never became the biggest star in show business, but in the Mountains Im considered a superstar. I walk through the lobby and they all want to talk to me like Im their long lost grandson.
So who are the people that are summering up there now?
Young married couples with their children and older couples who dont want to stay in Florida for the summertime. Those are my old fans, so its really fun.
Is there something unique about Jewish humor?
Its the old story thank God Jews could laugh at themselves over these last 2,000 years or we wouldnt be around. Jewish humor is no different than black humor or Hispanic humor. You put yourself down in a humorous way and the audience loves it.
So, when we see you at the Museum of Jewish Heritage
Youll recognize me. Ill shave and shower.
I appreciate that. But will we be mourning the demise of Borscht Belt? Will we be sitting Shiva or will we be celebrating it?
Ah, my little gentile friend, you did your homework. Will I mourn it? No. I will celebrate it. I will talk fondly about it. There will still be a little sadness but I promise people will laugh that night. It was a wonderful era and Im thrilled that I was a part of it at its height. But as I look back on it, yes, I miss it.