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Catskills hotel that inspired ‘Dirty Dancing’ suffers devastating fire

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  • NEW YORK TIMES / 2017
                                The poolroom of the Grossinger’s Catskill Resort Hotel, which inspired the 1987 film “Dirty Dancing,” in Liberty, N.Y..

    NEW YORK TIMES / 2017

    The poolroom of the Grossinger’s Catskill Resort Hotel, which inspired the 1987 film “Dirty Dancing,” in Liberty, N.Y..

Grossinger’s Catskill Resort Hotel was once the gem of the borscht belt, a bucolic mountain hideaway whose summertime community welcomed generations of New Yorkers and inspired the 1987 film “Dirty Dancing.”

On Tuesday, one of the main buildings on the property was demolished, after a devastating fire delivered the killing blow following decades of decrepitude and abandonment.

News of the fire at the remote site, which had been unoccupied for years, was announced on Facebook on Wednesday by the Liberty Fire Department in Liberty, New York, the tiny Catskills town closest to the resort. The department said a column of smoke from the blaze was visible for several miles across the wooded, hilly landscape.

The fire consumed a 3 1/2-story wooden building located deep within the grounds of the old resort, behind a tangle of undergrowth and concrete blocks that hampered vehicle access to the site, Mark Johnstone, the chief of the Liberty Fire Department, said in a statement.

“First arriving units had to cut through a gate in order to access the roadway to get to the fire,” he said. “Firefighters were additionally hampered due to the property being overgrown and concrete barriers on the roadway which prevented apparatus being able to quickly turn around.”

He said firetrucks were forced to stop roughly 1,000 feet from the blaze. Long 5-inch-thick hoses were snaked through the grass and vines and up to the burning building — a white-shingled house with a half-collapsed balcony and an overturned, empty hot tub lying on its side.

Many of the other structures on the resort grounds had already been demolished. And it was not clear what the burned building had been used for in Grossinger’s heyday, when it was one of dozens of Catskills hotels that composed a vibrant vacation scene for a primarily Jewish clientele.

Grossinger’s was one of the most prominent resorts in that scene, known colloquially as the borscht belt. It thrived in the early and mid-20th century, at a time when Jews were not welcome in many areas of American life, including resorts, golf clubs and Ivy League universities.

In the 1960s, the resort was made up of 36 buildings on 1,200 acres and could accommodate as many as 1,400 guests, according to the 1964 obituary of the man who ran it during its glory days, Harry Grossinger.

Its amenities included a golf course, a lake, a ski slope, tennis courts, and indoor and outdoor Olympic-size swimming pools. The resort also had its own post office and a small airfield, which today is also in ruins.

At its height, Grossinger’s was frequented by several boldfaced names, not all of them Jewish.

Actor Elizabeth Taylor and her fourth husband held a wedding celebration on its grounds in 1959. Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller was known to vacation there, as was Francis Spellman, who was for three decades the powerful Roman Catholic archbishop of New York. Nine world champion boxers also trained at its athletic facilities, including Rocky Marciano, the undefeated heavyweight champion of the 1950s.

But the borscht belt declined in the second half of the 20th century. Waning antisemitism allowed Jews greater access to public accommodations and air travel made faraway vacation sites more accessible to middle-class families. Air conditioning made the city’s summer heat less oppressive, and the appeal of a forested vacation colony less clear.

Eleanor Bergstein, the screenwriter of “Dirty Dancing,” has spoken frequently in interviews of her childhood vacations to Grossinger’s and the effect they had on the film, where Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze have the time of their lives — she as a vacationing teen and he as her dance instructor — at Kellerman’s resort.

In a 2021 event at the Center for Jewish History, Bergstein recalled discovering the joy of dance at Grossinger’s while her parents enjoyed the resort’s amenities and socialized at its regular Champagne hour. All of those things would make their way into the film.

“My parents would hit the golf course and I would just go to the dance studio as a little girl,” she said. “On Thursday night Champagne hour, I would come out and do all these mambos and things.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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