For Rita Lakin, memories of the 1950s at Grossinger’s, the famed Catskills resort, bring up thoughts of three five-course kosher meals per day, plus a runway-length buffet for guests who missed breakfast — served one hour before lunch. Then there were the Saturday night shows that featured a Hollywood headliner, a dance team and a comic.
Her new musical, “Saturday Night at Grossinger’s,” fetes the businesswoman behind the food and the entertainment, Jennie Grossinger (1882-1972). As the show opens, it’s a Saturday night in the 1960s, and Grossinger (Barbara Minkus) must entertain her own guests when headliners Judy Garland, Alan King and Red Buttons are detained by a blizzard. She and her family spontaneously decide to put on their own play, outlining the history of the hotel, which was “Las Vegas before there was Vegas,” Lakin said.
We learn how Grossinger and her parents turned their failing Catskills farm into a summer boarding house, circa 1920, for Jews seeking refuge from sweltering New York City; how the hotel blossomed into an American institution, largely because of Jennie Grossinger’s talent for booking top entertainers; and how stars such as Garland played the hotel, as did numerous comics who got their big break there.
The character of Sheldon, an amalgam of these comics, spouts shtick as thick as a deli sandwich.
“A woman came up to me today and said, ‘How do I lose weight at Grossinger’s,'” he says. “I said, ‘Go home!'”
“Saturday Night” was conceived in the 1980s when television writer-producer Lakin (“Dynasty”) and the late Doris Silverton unsuccessfully pitched a TV series set in the Catskills.
“We felt that onstage we’d have a much better chance of doing something so Jewish,” Lakin said. So they visited the by-then-closed resort, interviewed Grossinger’s children and signed on composer Claibe Richardson and lyricists Ronny Graham and Stephen Cole.
Cole, who also wrote the book, incorporated Grossinger’s lore: how waiters danced with the single women; how the owners once smuggled a dead patron out of the resort (in the musical she’s danced out in a conga line); and how the workaholic Grossinger was “married to the store.”
The character is loosely based on the real businesswoman, and her daughter, Elaine Grossinger Etess, said she recognizes the “spirit” of her mother in the play.
$15-$30. Opens March 26 at Theatre West, 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. West, Hollywood. For tickets, call (323) 851-7977.