Thursday, March 28, 2013

Mel Brooks, New Jersey, and Me

Well, not exactly Mel Brooks, New Jersey, and me.  It's more like Mel Brooks, 60,000. other people, New Jersey and me.  And something else, but I'll get to that in a minute.

Mel Brooks?  If you are a young person, you may know him as the father of Max Brooks, the famous author of various zombie oriented books, including one of my favorites, World War Z.

If you are my age, you know Mel Brooks as a comedic genius, director, actor and about half a dozen other things, and his movies, including the classic (and flatulent) Blazing Saddles

But Mel Brooks (and me) were young once.  Young enough to go to sleep away camp.  Not just any sleepaway camp (and certainly not at the same time-Mel Brooks is 86 and I'm not).  And this camp is in deep, deep trouble.

Its name is Camp Sussex and it is (well, what is left of it is), located in Vernon Township, in Sussex County, New Jersey, on the shores of Lake Glenwood.  I didn't know this as a child, but Camp Sussex has an amazing history, a history that started with a Czech boy by the name of Hugo Piesen - who made a fortune with a game called Skee ball.  Hugo Piesen took that fortune, and made good on a childhood pledge born out of pain.  He helped to create a free summer camp, a "fresh air" camp, for New York City area underprivileged youth.  Although he was Jewish, the camp would be open to both Jewish and Gentile youth.

That camp, which opened in 1924, was Camp Sussex.  About 60,000. youth, including me, and including Mel Brooks, were beneficiaries of that camp, from what I can find online.  I went to Camp Sussex for four summers - the first three years, a three week session.  In fact, I attended the first session that allowed teenagers.

And like Mel Brooks, I was always the last to be picked for any sports team.

I don't exaggerate when I say that Camp Sussex helped to make me who I am.  It gave me my first exposure to the country.  I hiked in the woods. I boated in the lake (the first time I had ever been in a rowboat.).  I loved the nature hikes, was scared by the thunderstorms. and sometimes enjoyed fresh Sussex County corn.  We sang a lot.  There was a camp show every year.  And, color wars.  I didn't enjoy all the activities, but what I did enjoy has stayed with me ever since.

Now that I am aiming to start writing a memoir during Camp NaNoWriMo, you would think I would be flooded with happy memories.  But that isn't the case, because Camp Sussex is abandoned, and in ruins.  Its last season was 2005.  Derek Jeter was briefly involved in a move to reopen the camp as some kind of sports camp but that didn't last too long.

At this point in time, it would take millions to rehabilitate the property. There are tax liens, environmental laws, and other concerns that would scare away any potential buyer.

My home neighborhood in the Bronx is a slum.  And my childhood sleep away camp is in ruins.

Figures, I guess.

Did you go to Camp Sussex or know anyone else who did?


  1. Wow - what a cool connection. I never went to sleep away camp, but desperately wanted to do so. Good luck writing your memoir next month.

  2. I remember my neighbor went to Camp Sussex one summer and sent letters home. I wished I could go to summer camp, too. I wonder if the family knows the state of the place now.


Your comments sustain me, as long as they are civil, are on topic, and do not contain profanity, advertising of any kind, links or spam. Any messages not meeting these criteria will immediately be composted, and my flowers will enjoy their contents.