by Henry Foner
PEOPLE WHO KNOW something about the political and academic careers of the Foner family would probably assume that I, as the youngest of four brothers, grew up in a household steeped in history and social activism. They couldn’t be further from the truth. My upbringing in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn took place against a background of music and comedy. These were years of the Great Depression, and young Jewish men determined to seek a college education had to seek ways of contributing to the family coffers and providing funds to sustain them during their pursuit of degrees. Many who could turned to music.
Bands were in great demand in those days, when scarcely a weekend went by without a plentiful supply of dances sponsored by social clubs and other organizations. Not surprisingly, then, my older brothers, Jack and Phil, became musicians — Jack on the drums and Phil on the alto saxophone. They soon organized a band that was ready to take on all comers, and had a tactical advantage: We had two cousins who were undertakers, the Jeffer brothers, Irwin and Norman. Undertakers had to join all manner of fraternal and social organizations in order to guarantee that they would be selected to officiate when one of the members passed on. For the Jeffers, this resulted in jurisdictional spheres of influence that made those of the European imperialist powers seem like child’s play. If the deceased, for example, was a member of the Bielsker Bruderlicher Unterstitzen Verein, then it was Irwin’s call to perform the rites. On the other hand, if it was a member of the Apex Club on Eastern Parkway between Nostrand and New York Avenues in Brooklyn, then it was Norman’s Community Chapel that provided the final tribute.
But the live members of the Apex Social Club loved to dance, and every weekend their walls rang with live music — no disc jockeys for these terpsichores! It required just a minor strategic manipulation for Norman to inveigle himself onto the Apex social committee and thence to recommend his cousins’ orchestra for the weekly dances.
So deeply entrenched did our family become in this enterprise that the baton was passed, so to speak, from Jack and Phil to Moe, and finally to me. I’m sure there is a doctoral dissertation waiting to be written about the relationship between the activities of the various Foner orchestras and the death rates of members of the Apex Social Club, but I leave that for some other scholar to pursue.
IN THE CATSKILLS, there was a wide-open field of hundreds of summer hotels waiting to be filled with the music of four- or five-piece orchestras. Jack and Phil gravitated to the Royalton House in Monticello — but hotels like the Royalton, unlike Grossinger’s, the Flagler or the Raleigh, could not afford a full-fledged social staff with a social director or tumler, as he was called. As a result, it usually fell to the orchestra to provide not only the music, but the shows as well.
To prepare for each summer’s stint, I was assigned the task of listening to and recording the jokes of Ed Wynn, Phil Baker, Colonel Stoopnagle and Budd, and a host of other comedians. My favorites by far were Smith and Dale, the prototypes of the Neil Simon comedy, The Sunshine Boys, in which he shamelessly repeated some of their famous routines. It was during this period that I created my first original joke, which went something like this: One herring was berating another for not taking care of its family, to which the other replied: “Listen, I’m not my brother’s kipper!” You can imagine my excitement when, two weeks later, the joke turned up, somewhat enhanced, on Ed Wynn’s weekly show. This time, it was a hen for whose care the herring was asked to be responsible, and the reply was: “I’m not my brooder’s kipper.”
My first Catskills experience as a musician was in 1934. I was 15, and somehow I was hired as part of a four-piece band at the Linden Lawn House, near Mountaindale. It was just down the hill from my family’s summer home, and so, when Mr. Silver, the owner, decided, after four weeks, that the guest list was insufficient to support the band, all I had to do was pack up my saxophone and walk up the hill to my mother’s tender ministrations.
The next year was different: I was much more confident, and I was supported by a pianist, violinist, and drummer who were able to cover up my deficiencies. We played at the Hotel Turey in Harris, one stop beyond Monticello on Route 17. The Turey was owned by the Turetsky family, and most of its affairs were handled by their son, Morris, who showed his true colors about midway into the summer.
As was not unusual at the time, the band slept in the social hall or casino. After our evening chores were completed and the last guest had left, we would move our folding beds out from backstage and go to bed. One Friday evening, we were asked by the International Workers’ Order (IWO) in Monticello if we would donate our services after we finished our night’s work for a benefit show they were presenting in town. Since we were all progressive-minded individuals, we agreed, and all went well until we returned to the hotel and found a note on the door of the social hall that read: “Sorry, boys. We’re overbooked for the weekend and had to use your room.”
This affront served to stir up our combined revolutionary ardor. We spent the rest of the night alternating between resting in the violinist’s car and walking on the road, planning our counterattack. The next morning, we marched into the kitchen and announced that we were too tired to play for lunch that day. Playing for Saturday lunch was part of the agreed-upon work week for the band, for which we received the sum of $4 each per week. If the truth be told, the guests were only too glad not to have their herring and borscht interrupted by our band’s version of “The Poet and Peasant’s Overture.” But there was a matter of principle involved, and we were forthwith fired.
NOT TO WORRY, though. An employment agency in Monticello dispatched us to the White Sulphur Springs House, where we were to receive $7 each. What a break! The White Sulphur Springs House was a welcome departure from the Turey, and the owner took to us as if we were his own children. The only problem was that the band outnumbered the guests, and after two weeks, the owner told us he would be glad to keep us on as non-paying guests, but he couldn’t pay us.
By now, we had become experienced in the ways of Catskill hotels. We learned that the Turey had not been able to replace us, so we succeeded in negotiating a return engagement at the rate of $7 per week per man, and with two rooms of our own in the main house. We concluded the season in glory, but in one respect, our victory was incomplete. The band, in those days, ate at a table separate from the guests, and we were constantly on the alert to make sure we were getting the same food as the guests. One day, we overheard one guest asking another to pass the pitcher of sweet cream. Sweet cream! We had never had our table graced by a pitcher of sweet cream. We immediately dispatched a delegation to the kitchen to demand a pitcher of sweet cream for our table. Turetsky, however, was no fool, and he knew with whom he was dealing. “Okay,” he said. “Help yourselves to the sweet cream.” We were dumbfounded. To us, sweet cream was a demand; none of us had ever had it, and we couldn’t pick it out for the life of us. The owner grinned malevolently and we slunk, defeated, from the kitchen.
BY 1937, I had linked up with my brother Moe and we were playing together at the Saxon Hotel, outside of Monticello, I on the alto and he on the tenor sax. I later wrote deprecatingly that “Moe played the tenor as if it were two fivers.” By then, we had advanced to the point at which we were receiving $10 each per week and were independent enough to demand that any hotel we played at had to have a decent tennis court. The advertisement for the Saxon Hotel had grossly exaggerated its facilities, and by the time we were four weeks into the season, we decided that it was not for us.
But here we were faced with a dilemma. The contract we had signed on the back of the paper bag in which I had brought my lunch to the audition provided that we could be fired but could not quit. However, we thought we were ingenious enough to solve the problem. One Saturday evening, at the height of the festivities, each of us took out a different number — not only a different number, but a different rhythm. One of us took out a waltz, one a fox trot, one a rhumba, and one a tango, and we proceeded to impose this horrifying cacaphony onto the ears of our listeners. In the midst of it all, the owner walked into the social hall with his favorite perennial guest on his arm. He paused, listened for a moment, and then turned to his companion. “You see,” he said proudly. “When they want to, they can play!” P.S.: We finished the season at the Saxon Hotel.
BY FAR THE MOST rewarding and productive of my Catskill experiences took place at Arrowhead Lodge, near Ellenville, which was owned by one wing of the ubiquitous Slutsky family. In 1940 and 1941, the Rapp-Coudert Committee, a New York State forerunner of the infamous House Committee on Un-American Activities, conducted a sweeping witch hunt at New York’s city colleges, and when it was finished with its labors, my three brothers, Phil, Jack, and Moe, all on staff at City College, two as history professors and Moe in the registrar’s office, were among its victims. At the time, I was a substitute teacher in Pitman stenography and typewriting in the New York City high schools, so even though I was questioned by the Committee, my tenure as a teacher was not immediately threatened. Still, by any standard, the Committee was batting .750 as far as the Foner family was concerned.
We decided to reconstitute the orchestra, with Jack on the drums, Moe on the tenor saxophone, and myself on the alto. Phil, at the time, was the educational director of the Fur Floor Workers’ Union, so he did not enjoy the perquisites of a summer vacation.
We were searching for a name for our band when Leonard Lyons, the columnist for the New York Post, came to our rescue. He announced in one of his columns that a group of teachers who had been suspended from City College had formed an orchestra and were calling themselves “Suspended Swing” — and so we became. In the summer of 1941, we were hired at Arrowhead Lodge. One of my colleagues at Samuel J. Tilden High School in Brooklyn was a teacher of Spanish and longstanding friend of the family named Sam Levenson. We persuaded the Slutskys to hire him as an MC — he had, we told them, a limitless supply of stories, and besides, he could play the violin. He was hired for free room and board for him and his wife, as opposed to the $15 per week the rest of us were getting. This was Sam’s first commercial engagement — he had previously entertained at Teachers’ Union parties, but now he was exposed to the general public.
Sam Levenson was not the only comic of note our orchestra was instrumental in launching. Earlier that year, we were playing at a dance tendered by the Daily Worker chapter of the Newspaper Guild, and the evening marked the first public performance of an aspiring young comic named Zero Mostel. Years later, when I was president of the Fur Workers’ Union, I was walking along Seventh Avenue with a prominent fur manufacturer when I saw Zero approaching on his way to his studio, then located on the fringe of the fur market. What an opportunity to make an impression! As he came near, I accosted him “Zero,” I said. “How would you like a job as a fur floor boy?” “Listen, Foner,” he replied. “Why don’t you go f–k yourself?”
My consternation was only momentary. The fur manufacturer was overwhelmed. “He knows you!” he exclaimed admiringly.
THE SUMMER OF 1941 was a total success. The shows we put on were so well received that the inhabitants of the kokhalayns (bungalows with cooking facilities) flocked to the Arrowhead for their evening’s entertainment. (Of course, honesty compels me to report that both the Nevele and the Fallsview Hotels, which adjoined Arrowhead, had guards at their gates to keep out all non-guests.) Norman Franklin and I wrote a number of original arrangements, and we presented them at the band concerts held at the Flagler Hotel with remarkable results. That summer, I composed the song “Shoot the Shtrudel to me, Yudel,” dedicated to Yudel Slutzky. (Hear it sung by clicking here.)
By the following summer, however, Moe, Jack, and I, along with Norman Franklin, were in the United States Army, and we had to wait until 1946 to be reunited and to reconstitute the Foner Orchestra. By then, the title Suspended Swing was outdated, so we now called ourselves The Foner Orchestra and Their Topical Rhythms.
Arrowhead Lodge had entered into an arrangement with the Jefferson School of Social Science, whose faculty was made up mainly of victims of the Rapp-Coudert Committee. Guests would sign up for a week’s stay at the Arrowhead, beginning on a Sunday, and during the week, in addition to enjoying all the other facilities of Arrowhead, they would attend lectures by Doxey Wilkerson, Howard Selsam, Frederick Ewen, Morris U. Schappes and Philip and Jack Foner. The result was that the hotel was practically filled up throughout the season.
By this time, our weekly salaries had ballooned to $95, but since we had full responsibility for all social activities, we did not consider ourselves overpaid. Of course, we had a distinct advantage over other hotels: Since our clientele changed each week, we felt no constraints about repeating our numbers. Another advantage was the abundant supply of intelligence and talent possessed by the Arrowhead guests. A special feature of the week’s program was an evening of sketches presented by the guests at the various tables in the living room.
The arrangement with the Jefferson School continued through the summers of 1946, ’47 and ’48. They were fruitful in more ways than one. During the Labor Day weekend of 1947, my future wife, Lorraine, came up as a guest, and we were married the following March. During the same summer of 1947, Norman Franklin and I were commissioned to write a musical for the Department Store Employees’ Union, and the result — Thursdays ‘Til Nine — ran for four nights during the Thanksgiving weekend. Our advisory committee consisted of Arthur Miller, Norman Rosten, Martin Ritt, and Millard Lampell, and the opening night’s performance was attended by Irving Berlin, among other notables. I am told his comment was, “Too political!”
The summer of 1948 marked the end of the Foner Orchestra as a cultural force, but it did not conclude my relationship with the Catskills. At the end of the school term, the New York State Commissioner of Education turned down my appeal of the decision of the Board of Examiners to deny me a teaching license because of an “insufficiently meritorious record,” but really because I had offended the sensibilities of the Rapp-Coudert Committee. My brother Phil was writing the history of the Fur and Leather Workers’ Union and introduced me to its leaders, as a result of which I was hired as educational director of the Fur Dressers’ and Dyers’ Joint Board. As luck would have it, one of the first union projects after I came aboard was to build a hotel in White Lake in the Catskills for the fur workers and their families, as well as the general public.
Since my past experience in the Catskills was known by the union’s leaders, I was given an important role in fashioning the programs at the Fur Workers’ Resort, as it was called — one of which, I am particularly proud to say, was presented when Paul Robeson came to the resort in the summer of 1949 — the summer of the famous Peekskill concert and the infamous attack on its attendees by local vigilantes and their supporters. For Robeson’s appearance at White Lake, I wrote a special script that served as an introduction, and one of the mementos I shall treasure is his inscriptions on the script: “Thanks a million. Paul.”
I cannot conclude this memoir without a word of gratitude for the Catskill Institute, and particularly its founder, Phil Brown, for keeping alive the rich heritage of this legendary slice of New York State’s panorama. The Institute provided the venue for the birth of this memoir, and its annual gatherings still furnish a heady combination of reminiscence, information, and entertainment.
Henry Foner, the senior member of our editorial board, is the emeritus president of the Joint Board of Fur, Leather and Machine Workers Union and a lifelong labor activist. He served as president of the Paul Robeson Foundation and as editor of Work History News, newsletter of the New York Labor History Association. In 2000, he co-founded Labor Arts. For Better or Verse, his collection of songs and poems from his lifetime of activism, is available at the Jewish Currents Pushcart.