Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Throwback Tuesday - Mel Brooks, New Jersey, and Me

I grew up in New York City.  I still have relatives living there.

Today brings me a day of various memories.

Like this one.

In the early 1960's I went to a summer camp in New Jersey called Camp Sussex. It was a place of refuge for some, an introduction to rural life for others.

It was for the not-so-rich kids growing up in New York City - I was one of them.   It has been closed for years, and is in ruins, thanks to vandals.

But, to many people, some famous, this camp holds a lot of memories.  I would normally post Throwback Thursday on Tuesday, but Thursday is Garden Bloggers Bloom Day.  So you get this a couple of days early.

A post from 2013.Sadly, it doesn't appear it has any future.

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 (the revival of the Bronx has, so far, passed it by).  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. I know who Mel Brooks is, and I'm younger than you. Perhaps the twenty-somethings haven't heard of him, but he was in pop culture enough in the '80s that forty-somethings like me are very familiar with his work.

  2. I've never been to Camp Sussex, or know anyone who did. But your story reminds me of the camp I went to every summer as a child, and then worked there as a teenager. It was called Camp Good News, a Christian Bible camp operated by Child Evangelism Fellowship of New Hampshire. The week of activities was very similar to what you described and was a highlight of my childhood.

  3. Hi Alana,
    I know who Mel Brooks is too. I was once standing next to him in a restaurant. Thanks again for visiting my site this week and complimenting my post. Thank you as well for sharing my article.

  4. A camp like that closing is so sad. I am sharing this post...who knows someone may come forward and raise money to stop the camp from closing and depriving many under privileged children. Not that I have too much of a network. But you never know

  5. Memories are the most amazing thing about the human brain. I wish you every success in writing Camp, your memoirs. I've just finished the first book of mine, and that only takes me to the end of the seventies. You're lucky to have experienced the happy times at the camp. I only went away twice in my youth, and not for long.

  6. Your introduction to Mel Brooks via his son made me smile.
    I never went to a camp of this sort, but I can see how it would be such a great place for kids to go to. Sad that like many other good things, no one wants to invest in it.
    Looking forward to reading your memoirs someday soon, Alana.

  7. Oh my goodness, Mel Brooks and Blazing Saddles. Back in the 70s when my 1st husband was in the navy, Blazing Saddles was the movie that they played on the mess decks. Everytime I visited him on the ship for several months we'd watch Blazing Saddles. To this day I can no longer watch it lol.


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