In 30 minutes running time, My Grandparents Had a Hotel takes us light years away. Documentary filmmaker Karen Shopsowitz creates an ode to her family, our cultural quirks, a large expanse of water and a small point in time.
The narrative unfolds through charming 16mm home movies, juxtaposed with old photos and modern-day interviews. Strands of klezmer (the original score won a Gemini award) weave throughout. It’s especially effective when Shopsowitz rounds up groups, for example the waiters, who were “hand-picked university boys” according to one former guest. “Only one ever found on the highway with a suitcase,” says another.
The former waiters gather, now doctor and lawyers, to reminisce about sneaking extra desserts to guests’ tables. How? One recalls Mrs. Shopsowitz as being less than five feet tall. They simply held their trays high above her sightline. They subsisted on tips after all, but today, doubt that she missed anything.
A la Dirty Dancing, there was plenty of romance, cheesy entertainment and behind the scenes drama, like the prank of luring newcomers to meet a sexy siren, only to overhear a staged argument between her supposed husband and her lover, followed by ersatz gunshots. One gullible guest fled so quickly, he ended up in a ditch with a broken leg.
But this film is more than a loving glance in the rearview mirror. It highlights an anti-Semitic era in North America when resorts posted signs reading “Gentiles Only”. There were also more subtle signs, as recounted on screen by Stephen Speisman, of Toronto Jewish Archives at the time the film was made. He describes how someone with a Jewish sounding name might be told there were no vacancies, but if an individual with an Anglo Saxon sounding name inquired, a room would become available.
Responding to this discrimination, Harry and Jenny Shopsowitz bought a 150-room hotel on Lake Rosseau in Muskoka for $25,000. They operated The Monteith Inn from 1935-1949. The price of an all-inclusive stay was $14 per week when the hotel opened. When a fire razed it to the ground, prices, government policy and the world were changed.
The CJN spoke recently with Shopsowitz.
Can you shed light on the title’s understatement?
I struggled actually. It was The Hotel”… “Monteith Inn. This was also my thesis for my MFA at York. My adviser suggested a close variation on the final title. I said: “Perfect. My grandparents had a hotel.”
The hotel’s demise is recounted without fanfare, yet imparts such emotion. Intentional?
Yes – I didn’t want to take away from the nostalgia and the good feeling — but I wanted to show that things had changed; that period in time was gone.
To what do you attribute the film’s enduring appeal?
It’s summer, cottage country, family, first love, growing up. It’s nostalgic, simple and fun. It’s the past but we relate to it.
What arises when you watch it today?
It makes me smile. It was my first film and the culmination of years watching my Dad’s home movies, hearing about the hotel (It burned down before I was born. I never knew my grandparents). It was a wonderful experience making it – with my parents coming up to Rosseau to see where the hotel once stood.
Has your approach to filmmaking changed in the intervening years?
I‘m still looking for that “warmth” in stories.
Over years of access to this footage, was there a moment you knew you had a movie?
Fluke. Visiting my parents at their Yorkdale restaurant back in 1989, a couple walking in front of me said: “Shopsowitz, you know, from the hotel” owned this new restaurant. I was considering what to do for my thesis, and something clicked! I hurried back inside, told my parents what I had just overheard and asked to see that footage again – with a view to making a documentary.
Did you crack up interviewing some of the more colourful guests?
Absolutely! I loved watching people relate stories that meant so much to them. I put an ad in The CJN asking people who’d visited the Monteith Inn to get in touch. Soon, I had lots of calls.
How was interviewing your father?
Great. I’m really glad I did that with him. This was such an important time in his life, and he’d given me that love for film fostered as a teenager there. The film was part of a festival in Rosseau about five years ago. I attended, staying overnight at a B&B. In the morning, I took out a kayak and paddled on the Shadow River, just like he had.
Catch My Grandparents Had a Hotel at TJFF Online, a streaming platform showcasing the rich heritage of Jewish film. Shopsowitz’s new film, The Other Side of the Hero, is being screened at the Regent Theater on Aug. 23.