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Hot Springs, Arkansas November 24, 2011

Posted by homolog88 in film festivals, Hot Springs Documentary FF, Travel Dispatches.

Hot Springs postcard


What was the first land reserved by the federal government for the protection of a natural resource? If you answered Yosemite (1862) or Yellowstone (1872), you’d be wrong. In 1832 the federal government set aside undefined parcels of land to protect a hot springs in the Ozark Mountains that puts out over 700,000 of odorless water a day.

I’m going to date myself here, but those of a certain generation will remember a really stupid TV show from the 1960s called The Beverly Hillbillies.

Come and listen to a story of a man named Jed.

A poor mountaineer, barely kept his family fed

Then one day he was shootin’ at some food

When up from the ground came a bubblin’ crude.

Oil, that is . . . black gold . . . Texas tea.

And so the stereotype of the American rube, the Ozark Arkie, became forever enshrined in American popular culture. I’ve never visited the Ozarks, so I don’t know how distorted the popular conception is, but I can tell you from the four days I spent in Hot Springs for their annual documentary film festival that this town doesn’t adhere to my preconceptions of fundamentalist fear and prognathous facial features. But, because of its history as a spa town, Hot Springs, I suspect, has always been a slightly bluer enclave in a deeply red portion of the country.

Bath House Row

Much of the downtown area is a national park. After the original inhabitants, the Quapaw Indians, generously ceded the land to the United States (no doubt preferring some inhospitable Western reservation in return), the hot springs area was taken over by the federal government in 1832. Up until the late 20th century, federal oversight was lax, and the remarkable springs were commercially exploited in the chaotic and colorful ways of 19th and early 20th century capitalism. The town of Hot Springs grew from a raw frontier outpost, to “sophisticated” European spa wannabee, to Ozark Babylon and gambling haven (a gangster museum celebrates that piece of its heritage), to its current incarnation as a local arts center, camping Mecca, and tacky tourist destination. Although the wonderful 20th century buildings of Bathhouse Row have been preserved, taking the waters is but a minor activity.

The vulgar tourist dimension was visible enough, but since I was there as a guest of the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, I had a chance to see the town’s artsy side. And the physical setting is beautiful: tree-covered hills turning into the reds and golds of fall. The National Park service makes sure that the historic bath houses are properly maintained and has turned one of them into a museum of 19thcentury bathing practices, a confounding combination of upper-class fantasy, quackery, and medical practice.

Bathhouse skylight


Oddly enough, I have a family connection to this resort town in the Ozarks: a hospital is named after my paternal great great uncle, Leo N. Levi. (Nobody current knew what the “N” stood for.) Old World Jews were familiar with the idea of spas as places of healing, and both the wealthy and the poor came to Hot Springs in the early 1900s for extended stays. The local Jewish community (now much diminished) was overcome with requests for housing and transportation, so the B’nai B’rith stepped in, authorizing the construction of a hospital facility in 1910. Its illustrious president, Leo N. Levi, had died of a heart attack six years earlier, and the hospital that finally opened its doors in 1914 bore his name.

Hot Springs is a large town, but it’s still a town, and the vaunted six degrees of separation are reduced to two, or at most, three. When I told the film festival volunteer who picked me up at the airport of my family connection, she had her friend, Donna Casparian, who works there, contact me at a reception the evening of that same day. The next morning, I was given the grand tour of Levi Hospital by its CEO, Patrick McCabe.

As you might guess from the CEO’s name, Levi Hospital has drifted away from its Jewish roots. Although there are still Jewish memorabilia in various spots (mezeuzot, a menorah in the window of the old front entrance), I had to explain to this Scotch Irish descendent that the year 5763 inscribed as the erection date referred to the Jewish calendar. With typical Southern hospitality, Patrick, on short notice, took almost two hours out of his schedule to show me around, treated me to lunch at the modest hospital cafeteria, provided me with documents relating to the hospital’s history, and gave me a thin hardback book on the topic as well as a paper weight.

Busted with my great great uncle, Leo N. Levi

As for the family connection, you will see a picture of me with the bust of my great great uncle. [Leo and me.] Also the same multi-generational family portrait of the Levi patriarch, Abrahahm (Victoria, TX), which I had framed for my stairwell also hangs in the hospital meeting room. Other than that, not much.

In 2003, motivated by curiosity about the Texas branch of my family (my father never talked about our Texas relatives), I took a trip to San Antonio, Victoria, Galveston, and Houston to do some research in the local libraries. On the Levi side of things, Uncle Leo is far and away the most prominent of my ancestors.  Though his father was a typical Jewish-merchant-turned-banker, Leo was sent to the University of Virginia in Charlottesville to be turned into an American gentleman. It worked. Even though he remained Jewish, Uncle Leo hewed closely to the model of American cultural and business success. (His classmate, writer Thomas Nelson Page, based the character of the noble Jew, Wolfert, on Levi.) He settled in Galveston as a prominent lawyer when that town was the biggest and most important in Texas. Elected national president of B’nai Brith in 1900, Levi moved to New York in that year, thereby missing the hurricane that still counts as the deadliest natural disaster ever to hit the U.S. (some 2500 dead).

Part of Uncle Leo’s fame stemmed from his windy gifts as a Victorian orator. In a time when public speaking was considered a form of entertainment, Levi’s prose was particularly orotund. I have in my possession an 1879 letter that Leo wrote to his sister, Rosa, upon learning that she was betrothed to the San Antonio merchant, my great grandfather, Moses Haas. And I quote: “… it is natural that I should rejoice when one so near to me as you are has entered the radiant avenue that leads to the temple of Hymen; and I am the more disposed to rejoice at the step you have taken, when I reflect that your chosen spouse is one so eminently fitted to make your life a long succession of happy days.”

Top that, Kanye West!


Such was one of the slogans used to promote the city. But Uncle Sam was a racist. African Americans had to open up their own baths in 1905 because they had no access to the waters otherwise. However, they were extensively used in their familiar menial capacity. And, for those yearning for the pleasures of Jim Crow service, you can still have that experience at the Buckstaff Baths. (Pun intended?) This was an aspect of Southern tourism I couldn’t pass up.

Bathing has sadly fallen out of fashion in Hot Springs. Only two bath houses are currently in operation, one modern one (been there, done that) and the Buckstaff, which has been in continuous operation since 1912 – hasn’t been upgraded since then either.

The Buckstaff opens at 7:00 a.m. and closes at 3:00 p.m. Strange hours, but if you want to avoid the crowd, you have the option of going really early. I arrived around 8:30 on a Monday morning and had the place to myself. And it was an odd experience. After dropping off my valuables at the front reception, I was led to an area of small dressing rooms, also with lockers. The Black dressing room attendant then took me back to the bath area where I placed under the care of Jim (!), an older Black man who shepherded me through the various stages of the Traditional Bathing Package ($68) without ever meeting my eyes. I was given towels with which to drape myself, but since the bathing areas are sex segregated, nudity was clearly the norm. The bathing area itself was out of another era: white small-tiled floor, stalls with marble dividers but no doors, iron tables, everything rusty and careworn but spotlessly clean. Everything white white white except for the attendants.

I began with a whirlpool soak in a clawfoot bathtub, made to drink a few cups of the water to demonstrate its lack of mineral taste. At the end of 20 minutes, Jim came with my purchased loofah and scrubbed me down: arms, back, legs. I knew better than to attempt conversation. I was then led to the stall where I enjoyed my sitzbath and an unimpeded view (no doors, as I said) of the bathing area. On to the needle shower, a Jules Verne-looking set of pipes that peppered my body with thin sprays. More drying off, then Jim wrapped me in hot towels as I lay supine on a table. By this time I was ready to give up on the cultural anthropology and just submit to the hedonism of the experience.

After the towel wrap, Jim led me to another part of the building where the massage rooms were located. My masseur was an interesting and voluble émigré from Roumania. I turned a 20-minute massage into a 30-minute one by simply getting him to talk about his life story. I had now left the traditional South and was back in familiar multi-culti territory.



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