How Sweet It Was

Lido Spa's sale to a hip hotelier is not just the end of an era -- it's a death in the family

Everyone on staff has seen Mrs. Horsky's pictures. Here is her only son, a toddler on a tricycle. "You will never meet him," she says. "He was killed by the Nazis." Here is her first husband, who lived with her for only fifteen months. "They killed him right away." Here is her uncle, aunt, and niece. "All killed in Auschwitz." And here is Juci in happier days, a salesgirl in a jewelry store. Here is Juci's second husband, dead after fifteen years of marriage. "He brought me to Canada." And then number three, who lived with her for 30 years.

"I have lost three beautiful husbands."

For Mrs. Horsky, who has no living relatives, the Lido Spa is the only family she has left. At 84, she doesn't get around as well as she used to; for the past nine and a half years, shower room attendant Elizabeth Montes has bathed her every morning before her massage. "For me it's not really a job, it's fun," Elizabeth smiles. "With Mrs. Horsky, we even have a joke. Every day she says, 'Are you going to wash my boobies now?'"


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Terry Ross is broiges. She's pissed. Usually the February in-house talent show is one of the biggest nights of the season, but not this year. Some of the regular singers among the guests have passed away. Well, you can't blame them for that. But others who are alive and in relatively good health just don't want to do it this year. Terry already knows what she will say when she scolds the audience: Maybe you're all just getting too old.

That's what she's taken to saying these days whenever any of the guests threatens to spoil the fun. Like Nettie looking down her nose at a joke Terry told in the water aerobics class last Wednesday. What was it? Oh. Why is a man so much smarter when he's having sex? Because he's plugged into a genius. "Whatsa matter? Are you so old you can't laugh at a joke?"

As the social director, you gotta be tough, especially with this crowd. "If you don't let them know who's the boss," she says, "you lose control completely."

In Yiddish, Terry Ross is a tumler, a scrappy entertainer hired once upon a time by the hotels in the Catskill Mountains to teach guests how to have fun. From the end of WWII through the 1970s, the New York State vacationland once known as the Jewish Alpsfilled up with hardworking immigrants, eager to stay Jewish while becoming American. "Leisure vacations were something that only the wealthy took in Europe," says Vassar historian Donna Dash Moore, currently visiting faculty at Florida International University. "Taking a vacation was considered very American."

The Catskills summers ran into Miami Beach winters. Hotel owners, guests, and the migrant workers known as mountain rats packed up and moved along with the season, carrying with them what Brown University sociologist and former mountain rat Phil Brown calls Catskills culture. Because the immigrants didn't know exactly what they were supposed to do on vacation, the hotels employed tumlers to teach card games, give dance lessons, take guests on nature hikes. At night they put on variety shows.

Catskills culture not only made Jews more American; the nightly shows actually changed the face of popular American entertainment. Known as the Borscht Belt, the hotel circuit gave a start to some of the most influential performers of the Twentieth Century: Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Eddie Fisher, Shelley Winters, Jerry Lewis, Buddy Hackett, Henny Youngman, Jackie Mason, and Joan Rivers.

As the first social hostess at the Lido Spa,the Edelsteins hired Bea Kalmus, a singer and popular New York radio personality. A star's life can get crazy, though, so after a few years the hotel and the diva parted ways. Sometime around 1967, Terry Ross heard through the grapevine that the spa was looking for a replacement.

But by the late 1960s business on the Beach was failing. Terry needed a winter job. So she marched into Mr. Edelstein's office and recited her résumé. "I don't just stand there onstage" -- like Bea Kalmus, she meant -- "I teach handicrafts. I do nature walks. I sing. I'm an entertainment director."

Terry Ross was hired as a tumlerand she's kept everybody at the Lido Spa busy for the 35 years since, even as the old Jewish hotels in the Catskills and on Miami Beach shut down or sold out. For practically every hotel that went under in South Florida, a condo colony went up. The old Catskill comics and sing-ers (say it with a hard 'g') found work on the condo circuit, hired for a gig here and there by this or that social committee. But the days of the tumler are over. Alav ha-shalom, Terry says whenever she mentions the name of one of the dearly departed colleagues, rest in peace.

"We're a lost race," she says. "I'm a survivor."

That's why everybody feels so bad about disappointing Terry with the talent show this year. That new girl from New York, Mimi Goldfinger -- bless her heart, she can hardly stay on her own two feet -- has volunteered to tell a few jokes. And Norma Pearl from Montreal, with her sweet apple doll face, has offered to sing "Shine On, Harvest Moon," if nobody minds that her voice is a bit shaky these days. That's a start.

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