Two new independent films opened last Friday in our town. When Comedy Went to School is a loving look at what became known as the “Borscht Belt.” A couple of counties in upstate New York became a vacation haven for mostly Jewish-Americans from New York City.
At one time there were hundreds of hotels, lodges and entertainment venues. It was in an era when Vaudeville was dead and Burlesque was dying, so all those performers needed someplace to work. Enter the Catskills. The location became a huge success with wall-to-wall entertainment, wall-to-wall food, and wall-to-wall people. Many soon to be famous entertainers worked as bus boys in order to be able to hone their acts during their spare time. If you remember spending fond hours watching Johnny Carson on television, you saw a lot of those comedians: Sid Caesar, Mort Sahl, Jackie Mason, Jerry Lewis and others, who are interviewed here and provide a remembrance of how things were. And there’s archival footage of those who are no longer with us such as Myron Cohen and Totie Fields. The host and narrator is Robert Klein, who got his start in show biz in this manner.
It’s not a major in-depth exploration of the subject as much as it’s a nostalgic remembrance of a bygone era. You might call it a “history cake.” You get a little slice of American history, another slice of Jewish history, and also a slice of entertainment history. Many of the original venues are now gone but others survive, and some of those proprietors are included here too. At a reasonable 75 minutes in length, When Comedy Went to School doesn’t wear out its welcome, and leaves you thinking either “I remember that place,” or “Gee…I wish I’d been there.” The unrated When Comedy Went to School is currently showing at the Mariemont Theatre.
Across town at the Esquire Theatre, a film with a local interest and connection is now playing. I Used to be Darker is a tale of a young Northern Irish girl who runs away from home to come to America. She wants to stay with her aunt and her husband, and her young cousin. Unfortunately, the problems she wants to run away from are compounded by the fact that the aunt and her husband are in the middle of a bitter separation, the cousin hates her mother and blames her for all the family strife, and everyone is about as dysfunctional as any modern-day dysfunctional family can be. The film is nicely crafted with some very good performances and excellent cinematography. I did have a problem with the pacing, as it felt some scenes went on too long while others needed more exposition. If you need a point of reference, I Used to be Darker reminded me of one of Woody Allen’s dramatic films, such as Interiors. There’s no point in reciting all the names involved here save one: Kim Taylor. Kim is a Cincinnati-based singer / songwriter whose music career has taken off in a big way. The film was co-produced by Kim’s college roommate, who felt Kim would be perfect for the role of the aunt, and she is. In addition to singing and composing, Kim Taylor can now add “actor” to her resume. The unrated I Used to be Darker is now showing at the Esquire Theatre.
Not coincidentally, Kim Taylor introduced the Friday evening showings at the Esquire, and is also having a release party for her new CD titled Love’s a Dog this coming Friday, November 1st at the Monastery Studio in Walnut Hills.