The Borscht Belt in New York’s Catskill region was once an area brimming with the glamour of Old Hollywood and bustling with the energy of families on summer getaways. Today, the area that once boasted over 500 resorts and earned the nickname of America’s Jewish Vacationland now sits quiet and abandoned. In a new series of photographs, photographer Isaac Jeffreys breathes life into the decaying spaces of the neglected resorts. By adding light and capturing the scenes after the day has faded, Jeffreys is able to resurrect a glimmer of the shimmering nightlife scene that once prevailed in the theaters of Borscht Belt Resorts.
On April 4th, join Jefferys for a virtual presentation where he’ll share more of the stunning Borscht Belt images and discuss the region’s history. In the talk, you’ll see parts of abandoned resorts that haven’t been displayed for decades. This live-streamed talk is free for Untapped New York Insiders. Not a member yet? Become an Insider today for access to free in-person and virtual events!
Nightlife in the Borscht Belt
“I caught wind of the magnificence of the Borscht Belt after seeing an image of Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fisher at Grossingers Hotel,” Jeffreys told Untapped New York, “Immediately spellbound, finding out about the 500+ resorts that existed in the Catskills—and their swift downfall—was enough for me to embark on a multi-year journey in which I searched for every remnant of the era that exists.”
Jeffreys has been photographing remnants of the Borscht Belt for the past three years. “My journey photographing these hotels began with a lot of frustration,” he told Untapped New York, “mainly because I’d been longing to see the heyday of the Borscht Belt firsthand.” Jeffreys was trying to capture the vibrancy and life that exuded from postcard images of the resorts in the mid-20th century when the Catskill region was in its “Golden Age.” He was “attempting to resurrect spaces by trying to bring back something that just wasn’t there—or at least wasn’t there to the naked eye.”
While many photographers focus on the decay and deterioration of abandoned buildings, Jeffreys wanted to show the life that still existed. Through lots of trial and error, he found a unique way to do so. “I’d only seen these hotels after years of disuse, with natural light being my initial illuminator,” he said, “I pined and chased the ‘fabulous’ essence that this era boasted, and being that theaters are my favorite spaces within these resorts, and nightlife was such a large part of the experience, I figured I’d see how shooting at night changes things.”
“In a way, it’s escapism—not for any particular reason, but shooting at night provides the space for me to create an illusion of life, culture, and general joy in sprawling spaces lost to time,” Jeffreys says of his photos. The spaces he captures are the stages and auditoriums where vacationers would see some of the biggest names in entertainment. Celebrities like Tony Bennett, Judy Garland, Sammy Davis Jr., and Barbra Streisand all made appearances in the Borscht Belt.
One of Jeffrey’s favorite theaters of the Borscht Belt is the Jerry Lewis Theatre at Brown’s Hotel in Loch Sheldrake. Jeffreys told Untapped New York, “this theater was originally slated to be opened as the ‘Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis Theatre’, celebrating the opening with a screening of a new film starring the iconic comedy/acting duo. A rift between the two actors, however, ultimately resulted in Dean Martin not attending and the theater getting rebranded last minute back to what we know it as today. The name of the theater also speaks to the comedic legacy that was birthed from the Borscht Belt era, given Jerry Lewis’ claim to fame. I’ve always loved the ridiculous grandeur of the space—the lavish red & gold color palette, the oversized stage, and the impressively opulent crystal chandelier (imported from Italy) in the center of the room. It was easily the ritziest theater of the entire era, and you don’t need anyone else in the room to recognize the life teaming through the walls.”
Nightlife in the Borscht Belt
Learn more about Jeffreys’ process behind the scenes and see more of his work in our upcoming talk with the photographer on April 4th!