Beautiful Mount Airy Lodge

Monday, March 30, 2020

If you grew up in the New York metropolitan area during the 80s and 90s, and I sang the jingle, "All you have to bring is your love of everything..." I bet you could finish the song for me with "BEAUTIFUL MOUNT AIRY LODGE!"  

When even cable TV only had 20 channels to watch, we were inundated with the same few commercials over and over.  Among one of the more memorable was this advertisement that frequently played on WPIX-11 and other channels that featured syndicated content I so often watched, like FOX or WWOR.  Every so often, it still pops into my head, and I'm taken right back to 30 years ago as I sat on my living room floor on a summer morning.


I can still picture the commercial in my head when I hear those two lines of the song.  I can still see the happy couple riding in golf carts, lounging poolside, dancing in formalwear, riding bicycles in gaudy 80s activewear, and a happy couple embracing on a rock in the middle of a small brook. As a matter of fact, I tend to think this commercial created an image of wealthy and leisure-filled adult life that my tiny prepubescent brain decided I must strive to attain.  The "beautiful" part of the song was so ingrained in our heads as kids, many still today think it was in the actual name of the vacation resort.

Mount Airy Lodge was a vacation resort in the Pennsylvania Pocono mountain region.  The Poconos were a regional rival to the famed resorts in the Catskills mountain area in New York.  These types of vacation resorts began popping up in the 1940s as a summer getaway for mostly Jewish New York City residents.  The popularity of these resorts peaked around the '60s and '70s as a way to beat the summer heat. At the same time, they wined and dined, enjoyed outdoor leisure activities, and be entertained by big names from the national comedy scene such as Rodney Dangerfield, Henny Youngman, Don Rickles, Schecky Green, and Joan Rivers.  Think the resort in "Dirty Dancing," and you'll have an idea of what these resorts were like during days of Yester-Year.

Mount Airy Lodge wanted to separate itself from the "rocking chair" summer vacation model and began branding itself as "the Honeymoon Capital of the World" full of glitz and glamor.  While the Catskills featured "all you could eat smorgasbords," the Pocono resorts would feature 3 gourmet meals per day.  Soon, the entire Pocono region began to be known as a romantic getaway, as seen on several sitcoms like Seinfeld and King of Queens.  If you provided the marriage license, Mount Airy would provide the officiant, a beautiful mountain backdrop, and a honeymoon suite complete with a red heart-shaped bathtub.


The name Emil Wagner is essential to the Mount Airy Lodge story. Wagner's Aunt and Uncle sponsored him to immigrate to the US from Czechoslovakia when he was 17 years old in 1932.  He began working at their hotel The Mount Airy House immediately, and through the years, he became a 56% owner.  Wagner turned the House into a Lodge and became the largest employer in the region.  In the 60s, Wagner brought many immigrants from Communist countries to work at Mount Airy Lodge, earning him the Ellis Island Medal of Honor.


Wagner himself was quite the showman.  He instructed reservations agents to use colorful language and big words to make people feel like they were getting value for their dollar.  Famously, the reservation agents would discuss the many snow-related winter activities like skiing and sledding even while it was 60 degrees outside.  Rather than terms like "gourmet food," he instructed them to use fancy names like "Epicurean delights."


The ad was for Mount Airy Lodge was simple.  They painted the resort as a magical place with heated, in-room swimming pools, fireplaces, Jacuzzi tubs, and endless leisure activities. Wagner's imagery created a buzz, and he earned a large following of guests who paid their money to receive all of the amenities in one single fee.  Food, lodging, horse riding, skiing, all kinds of recreational activities.  The only extras were the greens fees for golf, alcoholic beverages, and souvenirs.  It sounds quite similar to a modern cruise line.


Speaking of cruises, they spelled trouble for Mount Airy Lodge in the early 80s.  Mount Airy was humming along in the early 70s, having purchased some of the surrounding resorts to expand its size.  The complex of huge resort buildings, cabins, and secluded suites for honeymooners, their indoor and outdoor pools, man-made lakes with white sand beaches, were raking in tens of millions of dollars annually but was suddenly not enough to compete with cheap Caribbean cruises to island getaways.  To make matters worse, the Atlantic City casino boom just hours away deepened the losses.  As Mount Airy Lodge bled money, essential maintenance and upkeep suffered.


Towards the end of the 90s, airfares began to drop, making travel beyond a half-day drive from New York possible for a much larger population.  As resort attendance declined even further, the honeymoon resorts in the Poconos began to close.  Emil Wagner died with his retreat, killing himself at 77 years old the day before a bankruptcy court hearing in 1999.


The Mount Airy lodged was demolished in 2001 after being sold at a bankruptcy Sheriff's auction.  The new owners built a casino and hotel on the site, now known as Mount Airy Casino, and markets towards vacationing families and outdoor sports instead of a romantic weekend.


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