(23S6) Laughter Is The Best Medicine: The Borscht Belt and American Comedy (13 July 2023)

July 13th, 2023, 7:00 pm - 8:15 pm

The recording of this class is at https://youtu.be/BVUcZETZslw

A copy of the chat file is at 23S6 Borscht Belt & American Comedy – Google Drive

During the 1930s the resort industry in New York State’s Sullivan County’s was completing its transition from the wood-framed Victorian hotels of the Silver Age to the stucco Mission-style behemoths of the Golden Age.  At that point most of the region’s hotels began to hire social staffs that included aspiring entertainers of all kinds.  It wasn’t at all unusual for even small to medium sized hotels to have 20 to 40 people on their social staffs, including people responsible for wardrobe, props, and sound.  

The resulting impact on American entertainment was enormous.  And this period pre-dated and was distinct from the later post-World War II period when many of the entertainers who had become major stars due to the advent of television came back to perform at the hotels for limited engagements.  

John Conway, Sullivan County’s official Historian for more than 30 years, is uniquely qualified to examine these two phenomena and to relate the stories that bring those eras back to life.  His presentation will leave no doubt in your mind that laughter is, indeed, the best medicine.

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John Conway was born and raised in Sullivan County, NY, and educated at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Georgia.  He has been the Sullivan County Historian since 1993, and an adjunct professor at SUNY -Sullivan since 1998.

He is the author of eight books.  He wrote a weekly column on local history for the Times Herald-Record newspaper for more than 12 years beginning in 1987, and currently writes a similar column for the Sullivan County Democrat.  He has also written for the Encyclopedia of New York State and has lectured on Sullivan County history throughout New York and Pennsylvania, including at the New York State Museum in Albany.

From 1980 to 1994 John hosted a popular call-in radio talk show and is regularly asked to provide a historical context for Sullivan County news events by the New York Times, Associated Press, and Fox News, among others.  He has appeared on the Fox television series, Million Dollar Mysteries, discussing the lost Catskills treasure of prohibition era gangster Dutch Schultz, and on the BBC television documentary, Stand Up America, discussing the impact of the Borscht Belt on American comedy.  

John spearheaded Sullivan County’s Stephen Crane ’95 Festival to commemorate the local ties of author Stephen Crane on the 100th anniversary of the publication of Crane’s most noted work, The Red Badge of Courage.  John is a founding member and president of The Delaware Company, a non-profit group dedicated to supporting and promoting the history and historic landmarks of the Upper Delaware River Valley.  He is an emeritus member of the Board of Directors of the Sullivan County Historical Society, was a member of the Sullivan County Bicentennial Committee in 2009.  He has also served on the advisory board of the Catskills Institute and the Acquisitions Committee of the Museum at Bethel Woods.

Among the books John has written are

  • Remembering the Sullivan County Catskills
  • Sullivan County: A Bicentennial History in Images
  • Dutch Schultz and his Lost Catskills Treasure
  • In Further Retrospect
  • Loomis: the Man, the Sanitarium, and the Search for the Cure
  • Retrospect: an Anecdotal History of Sullivan County, New York
  • Trifles & Poppycock: Not Just another Trivia Quizbook