The Red Apple Rest was not just any old roadside diner. Open 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, the perfect half way stopping point between New York City and the Catskills Mountains, it became an unlikely hub of talent and a hangout for entertainers in a region that from the 1920s until the 1970s, was derogatively referred to as the “Borscht Belt”…
It was a time when middle-class Jews often found themselves unwelcome at many summer resorts throughout the United States, and the Catskills offered something of an oasis, becoming the popular vacation spot for Jewish New Yorkers. To entertain the summer crowds, scores of aspiring and established entertainers and comedians made their way up to the numerous lavish resorts and campgrounds. During its heyday, playing the Catskills meant playing the “Big Time“.
Even for the world’s great singers, dancers and comedians, working in the Catskills was a must in the 1950s and ’60s. Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, James Brown, Woody Allen and Barbra Streisand – all played resorts like the Concord (pictured below), Grossinger’s and the Raleigh.
There was Vegas, Atlantic City and the Catskills. Young musicians and comedians who later became famous nationwide, began their careers on the Borscht Belt. And many of them were regular faces at the Red Apple Rest. You could say it was the backstage dressing room to the Catskills stage, where the likes of Jerry Lewis, Billy Crystal, Jerry Seinfeld, John Belushi and Bill Murray got their start.
Located on the New York State Route 17, a single road that lead to all the popular Borscht resorts, the Red Apple was a place to rehearse and mix with other comedians and entertainers…
It was a source of inspiration where, according to Lawrence J Epstein’s book The Haunted Smile, entertainers would go late at night to “go over the acts” and “gather gossip about the other comedians and about routines ripe for buying or ‘borrowing.'”
There was the Red Apple Motel too, just across the street, used by rock & roll musicians, many of whom weren’t even playing in the Catskills, but had bookings and gigs in New York city. Entertainers found the location secluded and the staff accepting of their nomadic rock & roll lifestyles. The neighbouring Sterling Forest has been roamed by many a well-known performer at night, anxiously waiting to travel to their gigs.
George Cairlin, widely regarded as one of the most important and influential stand-up comedians of all time, was a regular at the Red Apple and was known to test out his material on the night shift desk clerk at the motel and was very active with the staff at the diner in the small hours.
The Red Apple Rest had much business during the 1940s and 1950s, although it remained busy until the 1970s, tallying up a million customers in 1965 alone. It was opened in 1931 by a Russian Jewish immigrant, Reuben Freed on a $1,000 bank loan. He allegedly named the rest stop after his cook, Red Appel, a nickname gained due to his rust-colored hair.
Recognising the value of the location as the Catskills resorts flourished, Freed marketed his restaurant by placing billboard after billboard along the Route 17 corridor, announcing how many miles were remained until you arrived at the Red Apple Rest. Families could no longer pass the establishment without pulling in. It became as important to stop at the Red Apple for vacationers as it was to reach their final destination.
The establishment survived even after the construction of a new multi-lane highway in 1953 that bypassed the Red Apple entirely, and creating a shortcut for the five hours drive to the Catskills. Staff actually preferred the more manageable queues.
But when vacationing in the Catskills itself became less popular after the 1960s, with competing summer destinations like Disneyland and the growth of air travel, after 53 years under management of the Freed family, Red Apple Rest was sold in 1984 to a Greek businessman who ran it for another 21 years as a relatively quiet small town diner for the locals of Tuxedo, NY.
No more were the days of late-night comedy sketches being played out on the floor of the cafeteria or rock & roll musicians jamming on the hood of their cars in the parking lot. The Red Apple Rest finally closed in September 2006 for “various reasons. It has sat abandoned and boarded up by the roadside for more than 10 years now, a sad and forgotten beacon for the travelling entertainer.
In case you’re interested, I checked in on the Red Apple Rest on Google Street View and as of November 2016, it is “For Sale or Lease”. The number to call on the sign by the road is (011) 667-9784.