Fleischmanns is a small town. There’s a sign on the road just before you get to it that says POPULATED AREA. Fleischmanns is populated with five hundred people, no more, no less. To a stranger it looks like any other little village in the Catskill Mountains. To a native it’s a special place and every town he doesn’t live in is a nice place to visit but he wouldn’t want to live there—he wants to live in Fleischmanns.
This is how the aforementioned actress-playwright Gertrude Berg begins her reminiscences about the town in which her father opened a summer resort more than a century ago in a spot once known as Griffins Corners. That, incidentally, is also the name of the local pub where we had lunch on our stopover at that once thriving, affluent community. Fleischmanns. Who ever heard of a place that sounds like a time slot reserved for the sponsor of Rudy Vallee! When I read the name, I thought for a moment that Mrs. Berg, who knew all about commercial radio, had made it up; but when I discovered it on a map of the Hudson Valley shortly before our 1,300-mile trip through upstate New York a few weeks ago, I was determined to pay a visit.
Now, I am not prone to bouts of nostalgia, the state of pining for what never has been anything else but an intense longing to the indulgence in which entire industries are devoted. I much rather aspire to something that is, delve in what has been, or simply make up whatever suits me without getting all melancholy about it. Still, if there is any place in the Catskills that could make me melancholy, it would have to be the town of Fleischmanns.
I don’t quite know what I expected after I read the lengthy, detailed description in Berg’s charming Molly and Me; I only knew that I really wanted to go. After all, Berg’s serial The House of Glass owes much to the town and the hotel run by Berg’s father. The House of Glass (a single instalment of which, dating from 13 November 1935 and featuring famed contralto Madame Schumann-Heink, has been shared on the to me invaluable Internet Archives) was “Fleischmanns all over again—through a ribbon microphone” Berg remarks in her biography:
Barney Glass was my father. The hotel was full of guests, all of whom I had known. I used what I could remember of their stories, and where there were unhappy endings I added happy ones. The radio hotel always solved its problem with a laugh, and as far as reality was concerned all I had to do was change the names of the guests and I had my story line.
Fleischmanns has a museum devoted to memory. It was closed on the day we passed through. The library has a copy of Molly and Me. I took it from the shelf, flicked through it until I got to the chapter on the town, and left it on a little table, as if to remind anyone stopping by of those better days. I know that the Borscht Belt went bust some decades ago; but I sensed that we caught Fleischmanns with its pants down. Not the kind of clowning around that makes you laugh; more like a sad, half-forgotten soul stuck in a retirement home with a suitcase of ill-fitting clothes and a yellowed scrapbook filled with mementoes of a past few active minds could be stirred into recalling . . .