By RORY LANCE
My family's summer vacations were my major connection to the traditions of vaudeville. Like most New York Jewish families throughout the 1950s and 1960s, our holiday destination was the Catskill Mountains. Each year my father, who had a factory in the garment district, would allow himself one single week off in mid-July and we would pack up the car and head for the hills -- or in this case, the Mountains.
Our usual destination was the Echo Hotel in Ellenville, New York. Not as luxurious as some of the classier, better-known hotels like the Concord or Brown's, the Echo catered to a middle-class clientele. Three endless meals a day, a swimming pool, shuffleboard, calisthenics, and long walks down country lanes would help the residents enjoy themselves. But the most exciting part of the week were the shows every Friday and Saturday night in the Starlight Nightclub.
The weekend shows at the Starlight were a thing of glamour and glitz, and that's just the audience. Tuxedoed gentlemen and women dressed in evening gowns and furs, in the middle of summer, made the Starlight Nightclub a center of high fashion and climatic strangeness. A Catskills show consisted of a live band, a singer, and a comedian. Whoever was the bigger Catskills “name” went on second and the newcomer opened the show. For a young boy sitting ringside nursing a sloe gin fizz without the gin, already bitten with the “show biz” bug without the bugs, to see these performers in person and hear live music was absolutely thrilling.
The first time I ever saw someone tap dance live was on the Echo stage, where Lee Allen, fresh from his run in the Broadway hit Funny Girl, brought down the house. My family loved Miss Jeannie Reynolds, an incredible performer who sang, danced, told jokes, and did the best impressions. Zsa Zsa Gabor, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Bette Davis, and Ethel Merman: they all came alive in Jeannie Reynolds’ masterful act.
My favorite memory was when my brother and I went backstage to say hello to Rip Taylor, a young comedian who had already made a name for himself appearing on The Jackie Gleason Show, long before he became the highly flamboyant talk-show favorite of the 1970s. His bit was crying on Jackie Gleason’s shoulder as he attempted to share the misfortunes of his family, each one more absurd and sillier than the last. My brother Paul asked if he could have a photo taken crying on Rip Taylor’s shoulder, which Rip very graciously allowed.
Cut to forty years into the future, and I see Rip Taylor walking through Shubert Alley. I ran after him and shared with him my story of my brother and me meeting him at the Echo Hotel. He immediately commandeered the first person he saw with a camera and said, “Take a picture of the two of us, so his brother can see what happens to a person after forty years!”
Those two-act nightclub shows at the Echo Hotel with live music and exciting performers making that profound connection with their audience were the closest I could come, at the age of eight, to the excitement of old-time vaudeville.
Rory Lance is the stage name of Player Rory Schwartz. He is an accomplished character actor on both the musical and dramatic stages and in numerous film and television projects. He has also spent much of his career teaching and introducing young people to the joys and challenges of the theatre. This piece was adapted from his book My Year In Vaudeville.