Dean Gitter has died. The larger-than-life developer and former folk singer and manager who built the world’s largest kaleidoscope at what is now the Emerson Resort & Spa in Mount Tremper, envisioned and pushed forward the controversial Belleayre Resort at Catskill Park that’s finally set for building in the coming years, put a television tower with a red light on top on Overlook Mountain and proposed both a steam train village and then an Epcot-like world resort for the Catskills, passed away November 20 at the age of 83 in Questa, New Mexico, where he eventually settled after leaving the Ulster County hamlet of Big Indian. He spent some time outside of Baltimore near kids and grandkids, then shifted his life back to the passions he had held as a younger man.
Tributes and memorial comments amassed this week as the communities Gitter courted and thwarted reacted to the man’s passing. In addition to his big projects, which he promoted with unrivaled verve, the man proved a lightning rod for politics in Shandaken, nearby Middletown, Ulster and Delaware counties, and the entire Catskills for years — even decades.
“We marveled at his vision, his passion, his enthusiasm for life and whichever project he was working on at the time. We watched him build Catskill Corners and when Orvis and others weren’t interested in opening shops there, he opened his own versions of Orvis and the Vermont Country Store,” wrote Ulster County Chamber of Commerce executive director Ward Todd, a former county legislature chairman whose wife’s run for Shandaken supervisor was hurt by revelations of real estate ties to Gitter’s projects. “We attended countless public hearings on his Belleayre Resort project over the course of 20 years and not once did he lose his enthusiasm, his drive, his desire to see it built. Point of fact, Dean began the revitalization of our precious Catskill Mountains…”
“His passion for hospitality and his desire to reintroduce and promote the Catskills as a premiere tourism destination are cornerstones of the Emerson philosophy,” came a comment from the Emerson Resort & Spa, whose management he left six years ago so he could concentrate more on the Belleayre project, leaving the built resort to his long-time business partner and fellow Harvard Business School alum, Emily Fischer.
Even current Ulster County legislator Kathy Nolan, who formed the Catskill Heritage Alliance over a decade ago to fight the large hotel and golf complex Gitter was proposing, chimed in about “Mr. Gitter’s passing” and the ways in which he “left his stamp.”
Gitter took to labeling those who opposed his plans, including all the region’s major conservation groups for a number of years, “environmental jihadists,” as he said at several public hearings. Yet he was also able to bring governors George Pataki, Eliot Spitzer and Andrew Cuomo to the table to help with his dreams.
Dean Laurence Gitter was born September 21, 1935 in the Boston area, graduated from Phillips Academy in Andover, MA, Harvard University, the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, and Harvard Business School.
Four years ago, when Gitter was just releasing the first follow up to his first folk music album (and had not yet moved to New Mexico), he told me in a phone interview how his mother had been an accomplished performer and pianist and he started learning piano at age 5. Later, when his father was stationed in the New York area, he started listening to early folk recordings on 78 RPM and he bought himself a plastic ukulele to play along with Weavers albums as a teenager.
“I loved it all,” Gitter recalled. “I moved on to a four string tenor guitar and when I was a senior in high school my father bought me a top-of-the-line Martin guitar, which was the greatest gift he ever gave me.”
While studying at Harvard a friend who’d started a record label gave Gitter control of its folklore division.
“I moved to [Greenwich] Village, an apartment on the corner of West 6th and West 12th, and ended up having the folk singer Odetta live with me and my wife for almost a year. It became evident to everyone she was a fantastic talent and while she was there, the apartment became something of a salon…and I produced her first solo album.”
By the time he was 22, that record venture was bust and Gitter headed to England to study acting, paying his room and board by opening for major folk acts of the time. He and some new friends started sketching out plans to create a serious repertory theater back in Boston, where Stockard Channing and Tommy Lee Jones got their starts. Their works gained critical success, and several professors from the Harvard Business School asked if they could follow the experiment, sitting in on its board meetings, rehearsals, performances and post-mortems.
“We lost pots of money; remember, there were no arts grants whatsoever back then,” Gitter recalled in that talk four years ago. “But I got very friendly with those professors who offered me a full scholarship to the Harvard Business School a year later.”
Gitter earned his MBA from Harvard, started the renowned Orson Welles Cinema, which he sold after a couple of years, and went on to a number of innovative business ventures around the Boston area before moving to the Catskills in the early 1970s to manage an ashram in Big Indian, including its restaurant.
“I stayed in Big Indian 40 years because Rudi’s was just down the road,” Gitter added. “I had to do something; you’ve got to make a living. So I made a career here.”
Enter the various projects his legacy’s now based on, from television stations (WTZA/RNN) to his push to bring Steamtown USA to the Catskills from Vermont (it ended up in Scranton, PA), that world village idea, and eventually the Emerson (which started as Catskill Corners) and the Belleayre Resort projects managed through his Crossroads Ventures LLC partnership with Fischer and Ken Pasternak of Fleischmanns and New Jersey.
The huge resort appears set to get built in the coming years adjacent to the state-owned Belleayre Ski Center now that all appeals have been heard and dismissed. According to Pasternak from a recent interview, construction will not start until a management partner for the facility has been found, financing has been finalized, and a last round of detailed plans gets approved by local planning boards. The resort is expected to cost $365 million to build, is to consist of two hotels, dozens of time-share units, an 18-hole golf course and spa facilities and generate, as Gitter long espoused, about 770 jobs with an annual payroll of nearly $25 million.
Before moving fully from the Catskills, Gitter noted that upon recording his return album Old Folkies Never Die in a Woodstock studio with various local musicians, he briefly had regrets that he hadn’t spent his whole life in music. Earlier, in an interview from the late 1990s, he said that his proudest moments had come playing Mack the Knife in Threepenny Opera and Prospero in The Tempest.
“Follow your passion, whatever it is,” he said as he prepared to move West for the first time. “You don’t have to be very good at it. You just have to stick with it.”
More recently, in an email exchange a little over a year ago, I asked Dean Gitter how he was enjoying his new life, where he’d kept recording.
“I am enjoying the deep seclusion of my remote home in the desert,” he typed. “I have no contacts — and no interest.”
Gitter is survived by his wife of 37 years, Lynn; children Katherine, Avatar, and Alex, stepson Andrew, and seven grandchildren. A memorial Service will be held at a later date.