Back in Business
A local legend’s historic resort returns to its musical roots
Tappin’ for the tourists: Peg Leg Bates entertained at his resort in the Catskills for almost 40 years
Photograph courtesy of Rusty Frank
Beginning in the 1950s and through the 1980s, the Peg Leg Bates Country Club in Kerhonkson was among the Valley’s most happenin’ scenes. Resort owner Clayton “Peg Leg” Bates, an unlikely tap dancing superstar who wore a wooden prosthetic on his left leg, dazzled guests with his world-renowned steps. Musical luminaries such as Sammy Davis, Jr. swung in and out of town every night. In a white-dominated tourism industry, Bates’s country club was the largest black-owned resort in the country, and attracted a sizable, mostly African-American clientele.
But when Bates retired in 1989 at the ripe old age of 82, the resort’s popularity gradually fell off. By 2004, the club had stopped hosting shows altogether.
This spring, however, the sounds of jazz and blues will emanate once again from the lodge, now named the Mountain Valley Resort & Country Club. The first show is scheduled for April 17 at 7 p.m., when the Saints of Swing — led by Rene Bailey, a singer who for 20 years performed alongside Bates in the club’s former incarnation — belt out tunes which Peg Leg himself might have tapped to.
The impetus behind the revival came from an unlikely source. Last year, Lolly Chase, president of the Kerhonkson-Accord Chamber of Commerce, approached current resort owner Doreen Richardson about booking entertainment. (The resort had been renting out 50 or so rooms, but hadn’t offered live acts for years.) Chase had met Bates as a young adult, and appreciated what the resort’s rich history meant to the area. “It’s an asset,” Chase says, “and in these economic times, we should all be developing the assets in our communities.”
Richardson thought it was worth a try. Last fall the club conducted a trial run of sorts, hiring musicians en route to evening shows to perform at the resort on weekend afternoons. The crowds were sparse initially, but attendance grew enough as time passed to serve as a reminder of the building’s heyday. “The place looked just as good as it did back then,” says Bailey, whose band played in some of the shows.
Richardson and Chase hope the new version of the club does Bates’s legacy justice. Born in South Carolina in 1907, Bates lost his left leg at age 12 in a freak factory accident. Ever the entertainer, he was determined to continue dancing. And dance he did, to fame and massive acclaim. During his long career, Bates performed at Harlem’s Cotton Club, for the queen of England, and at least 20 times on The Ed Sullivan Show. He continued to tap-dance even after retirement, and until his death (in 1998) he lectured to audiences (particularly in the Ellenville area) about his life experiences, and the importance of tolerance among white and black, disabled and nondisabled.
Peg Leg can’t grace the stage this go-round, but Bailey knows he’ll be there in spirit. “If there was such a thing as coming back,” she says, “he would come back here, and he would dig it.”