Queens of the Catskills | Community Notebook | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine

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Queens of the Catskills

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Last Updated: 08/13/2013 4:18 pm
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Casa Susanna inevitably prompted chatter among local folk. In private, people regarded the camp with varying degrees of curiosity, puzzlement, and sneers. If asked publicly, they’d likely display the feigned indifference of the rural denizen. A phone call to the Hunter town historian, Justine Hommell, leads to people who remember the bungalow colony tucked back in the woods.
At the age of 90, Hunter resident Orville Slutzsky is cheerfully cantankerous. Slutzsky, general manager at Hunter Mountain since 1959, certainly remembers the cross-dressers. There is little he hasn’t seen or heard, even if he “never got more than one-and-a-half miles from where I was born,” he brags. Neighbors also knew about the camp, but without rancor. “They laughed it off or passed it on,” he shrugs.
Wilma Harty, 81, allows herself a girlish giggle in recalling the ladies. During the 1960s, Harty stocked shelves and waited on customers at the Victory Store, a market in Hunter’s lower village. She worked there for 10 years and effortlessly describes the small store, leading the listener through the entrance door on the right, past the produce stand and the large meat case straight ahead, ending at the sole cash register by the exit.
The first Saturday summer morning the women glided in for shopping, Harty was a bit shaken by the sight. “They were to the hilt, you know—all out. The hair was all done neatly. Wigs, jewelry. They were overdressed for the market. They were dressed as city people—if you can use this expression—more than country people.” For a few weekends, Harty would smother her laughs until the ladies exited, and then trade notes with coworkers on what they wore and what they bought. But eventually, the drag queens were looked upon as regular shoppers. “They were pleasant and they didn’t bother anybody,” she said. “They brought in business.”
When lifetime Hunter resident Rafael “Rafey” Klein, 79, explains Casa Susanna, you’d think he was a gender studies professor. “In the Forties, we never knew what the word ‘gay’ meant. But they weren’t gay. They were cross-dressers, as we understand it.”
“Good lord; you wanna dig, you’d be surprised at what you’d find,” murmurs John Ham, 72, citing Casa Susanna, but also Catskills lore in general. Local history had its colorful side. Gangster Legs Diamond lived in nearby Haines Falls. A nudist camp flourished briefly nearby in the 1930s, but inhabitants tended to avoid mingling. “They didn’t come naked into town,” Ham said. “That’s a fact.” The summer resort Villa Maria featured female impersonators as evening entertainment, “but that place was straight as a die.”
Ham remembers the exact location of Casa Susanna, but never visited. “I would bet you fun money or marbles, that is when I was in the Army back in the Fifties.” Still, he recalls the stray comments from townspeople, some patently unkind. “There were names applied to it, and I won’t get into that now,” he says diplomatically, but admits that after some drink, people spoke more freely. “You would hear the local barroom stuff. That it was wrong. That somebody would not be disappointed if the place burned up.”
Was there no local sheriff who objected to Casa Susanna, citing some arcane law about public decency to justify running them out of town on their high heels? Ham chuckles at the notion. “There was no ordinance. There was no ordinances at all until city people came up here.”

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