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Monday, January 20, 2014

Standing Up for Right [Blogging Every Day #20]

The President Hotel, on Swan Lake.
[20]  In the 1930's, when my father was a young man, he spent his summers working at the President Hotel in the Catskill Mountains in New York. His Uncle Pete ran the hotel with a partner, Max Leshnick. The President Hotel was one of a series of resorts in the area that catered to a mostly Jewish clientele, and featured all-encompassing entertainment and recreation. An entire generation of entertainers got their start or broadened their popularity in the Catskills. The President, in fact, helped launch Danny Kaye's career - he performed there before he moved on to Hollywood.

Also performing at the President during this era were the Nicholas Brothers, a pair of young, African American tap dancers who would soon become a national sensation. The Catskills were one of the few places at the time where African American entertainers could expect to be treated professionally by their hosts - and could expect proper accommodations where they performed. The President was no exception.

The lobby of the President Hotel
Late one night, as my father and his friend headed into the hotel at the end of a long day running the hotel's boating concession, they came upon the Nicholas Brothers in the lobby. As it turned out, the clerk at the front desk was trying to turn them away, insisting that there weren't rooms available. Uncle Pete was asleep, and his partner wasn't around, so my father and his friend offered their own employee quarters. Fayard Nicholas turned to them, thanked them politely, but explained that it was important that they stand their ground and receive exactly they were promised. In time, Mr. Leshnick arrived, apologized, and made certain the Nicholas Brothers were accommodated properly.

The Nicholas Brothers in Stormy Weather, some years after my father
met them at the President Hotel (via Wikipedia)
The experience made an impression on my father, and he would recall the experience years later. My parents taught by example, and the story of the Nicholas Brothers provided a powerful lesson for their children. It was a minor story in an epic struggle, but for me, as a little boy, it spoke volumes about what Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights struggles were all about: standing up for Right.

A short postscript: about sixty years later, I had the opportunity to meet Fayard Nicholas, and shared with him my father's story. It was such an unusual experience in the Catskills that Fayard remembered it, too. I felt privileged to be able to let him know, so many years later, how much that story meant to my father and his children.

My dad, in his President Hotel days...

...and here I am with Fayard Nicholas, nearly sixty years later

4 comments:

  1. Giving more than lip service to what is right by living your convictions, measures a man quite well. You can measure the true stature of a man by how he treats those whom have no power over him. He measured up quite well.
    Racism is ugly, no matter what color it comes in.

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  2. Helaine Samuels BaldwinJanuary 20, 2014 at 7:11 PM

    Like this piece very much.

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  3. Rich,
    I am your counterpart. My mother's uncle was Max Leshnick and she too spent the summers of her youth at The President.

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