High school reunions probably spark sentimentality in even the most nostalgia-resistant among us.
Warren Epstein’s reunion a few years ago went one better. It inspired a one-man show about growing up in the Borscht Belt, a nickname for the now-defunct summer resorts of the Catskill Mountains, where comedians such as Rodney Dangerfield and Jerry Lewis unraveled their best bits before fans.
“Borscht Belted,” starring Epstein, will run Thursday through Sunday at Millibo Art Theatre.
“This is a funny, bittersweet tribute to the place where I grew up,” said Epstein, an actor, director and writer.
Back in Monticello, N.Y., for his reunion, he saw smoke coming up on the ridge where the region’s biggest hotel had been. When he expressed concern, he was told it was Friday, the day the fire department practiced on old buildings.
“It struck me that I had outlived my town,” he said. “What had been the vibrant cradle of American comedy had died and faded away. In that moment, I felt a certain responsibility. There’s not a lot of us who have experienced that and can bring it to life in some way.”
At first it seemed an ideal piece for a magazine, but as he got a little deeper, it seemed better fit for a theater project. Jimmy Grecco, the show’s main character, was born.
“Jimmy Grecco is an amalgamation of me and all these interesting comedians I met along the way,” said Epstein, “and what it was like working in a hotel, which I did. It documents through this guy’s life the rise and fall of the Catskills.”
The 80-minute show throws back to the heyday of the Catskills, from the mid-1960s through the 1970s, when Epstein could sneak into shows and watch sets by Gabe Kaplan and David Brenner. He had less luck busting into shows headlined by Lewis and Dangerfield. Some of the great comedians who blazed their way through the Catskills pop up in his show, which features almost a dozen characters, including Woody Allen and Joan Rivers.
“Some of my impressions of them are good, some not so great,” said Epstein. “This is Jimmy telling the story. He’s not an impressionist, he’s their friend. He’s telling you about them.”
The Catskill resort area, once home to hundreds of hotels, became popular when the Jewish population in Manhattan sought a place outside of the city to have some fun and while away their summers.
“It became a place of safety and acceptance, in a world where there was not a lot of acceptance of Jews,” said Epstein. “One theory I’ve heard about the pocket of humor was that after World War II, the most horrific moment in the history of Jews in contemporary times, one of the responses was laughter. In some ways, Catskills humor is vaudeville humor.”
JENNIFER MULSON, THE GAZETTE, 636-0270, JEN.MULSON@GAZETTE.COM