White-Hot American Summers
Bloomberg Businessweek|August 30, 2021
The epic family drama behind an iconic American weight loss camp for kids
David Gauvey Herbert

In the Catskill Mountains of New York, just off state Route 17, there’s a large gate flanked by totem poles. Beyond are rolling green hills, run-down cabins, banks of payphones, and a clue about the summer camp that once operated here: a dining hall signpost tagged ironically with the McDonald’s golden arches.

Until its abrupt closure this summer, Camp Shane was America’s longest-running weight-loss camp for kids. Thousands of children trekked to those 42 acres in Ferndale, Sullivan County, from 1968 to 2019, when the camp relocated. They lost weight together, usually regained it, and returned to lose it all again. Fad diets and fitness crazes came and went, but Shane was a constant. At its peak it hosted more than 500 campers, enrolled the children of celebrities, and netted $2 million a year for its owner. It inspired the 1995 Disney film Heavyweights and was featured in BBC and MTV documentaries.

David Ettenberg is the longtime owner of Camp Shane. Now 74, he’s always been fit and trim, and he keeps his own calorie counts low. In March he drove his cherry-red Mercedes to White Plains to be interviewed over lunch, and he ordered scrambled eggs and whole-wheat toast. As he ate he mused about pushy modern parents and the gluttony he’d recently witnessed at an airport Subway. He was determined to open this summer, despite the pandemic. But why? Why not just retire? “It’s not about money anymore,” he said. “It was in the beginning.”

A lucrative enterprise will create enemies, and Camp Shane has made many. Alumni bitter about the deprivation they experienced, and a few who now allege more serious abuses. Competitors who swiped trade secrets and poached campers. But the bitterest rivalries were among members of the Ettenberg clan, who carried on a multidecade feud that included the alleged theft of a grandchild’s safari souvenirs, acrimonious lawsuits, a suspected arson attempt, the eviction of another grandchild, a crashed bar mitzvah, a possible IRS tip-off leading to a felony tax evasion conviction, disinheritance, and the endowment of a multimillion-dollar foundation whose beneficiaries have included a charity that provides helper monkeys.

Over lunch, David came across as a man content with the fruits of his labor. He giggled about his international travels—65 trips and counting—and recounted the millions he’d earned and the millions more he said he’d turned down. But as he reflected back on Camp Shane, he often started sentences with “we” before restarting with “I.” The key to the camp—the driver of all its drama, intrigue, and betrayal—lay in that slip of the tongue. Shane was always a place for children who felt they didn’t live up to their parents’ expectations. And so it’s fitting that it began with David’s mother.

Selma Ettenberg had a hunger in her. She was the middle of three children, born in Brooklyn in 1923 to immigrant Jewish parents. She was smart and pretty, with dark hair and eyes. But her older brother got to attend college, and Selma did not. Her mother didn’t seem to like her.

Selma married and became a mother to three children herself: Lesley, David, and Diana. Living in the Marine Park neighborhood with her husband, Irving, a kind-hearted pushover, Selma was tough on David, who was smart, thin, and handsome. She was determined not to treat him like a golden child, as her older brother had been treated. “She overdid it,” says Lesley Weinberg, the eldest of the Ettenberg kids. In David’s closet he once hung up a small sign that read, “More than any other, I hate my mother.”

In the mid-1960s, when David was a teenager, Selma took a summer job as director of a weight-loss camp for girls in upstate New York. She’d struggled with her own weight as a child, reaching 200 pounds by age 15 then losing it through sheer force of will. She fed campers veal and raw vegetables, advised them to chew slowly, and forbade eating after 5 p.m.

Every night, she noticed, the girls would put their hair up in curlers and talk about boys. “They were frustrated into a state of hunger,” she later recalled to a newspaper reporter.

Here it was, a chance to prove her worth. Selma would open her own camp, but with a twist: It would be co-ed. She asked two girls what they thought.

“Why would you want to go to camp with fat boys?” one asked.

“Fat boys are better than no boys,” the other replied. “And besides, maybe they’ll get skinny.”

The Catskills resort industry was in decline at the time, with borscht belt hotels closing by the dozen. But new entrepreneurs were moving in, and in 1968, Selma and Irving cobbled together their life savings to make a down payment on a dilapidated $50,000 bungalow colony in Sullivan County.

When Selma showed off the wooded wonderland to her family, her mother exclaimed “Sheyn!”—“beautiful” in Yiddish. Camp Shane it would be.

The stars twinkled above, a film played on the projector, and Alan Pfeffer saw neither. He was too busy under a blanket, getting his first kiss, rounding first, and heading for second. All around the grassy hill were other frisky couples. “Come on,” he thought. “Does it get any better than this?”

It was 1971, and Pfeffer had arrived at Shane at age 14, standing 5-foot-4 with a 44-inch waist. He was weighed in with the other “fat little Jewish boys,” as he puts it, then photographed shirtless and turned loose. At home in Brooklyn, his parents owned a candy store, a constant temptation. Only 5% of American children were considered obese back then, and for the first time, Pfeffer was surrounded by kids who looked like him.

In the early years, Selma charged parents roughly $1,000 for seven weeks. Her diet program was straightforward: 1,400 calories a day, lots of exercise, and a 12-foot fence to keep kids from sneaking offthe property in search of food. There was swimming, archery, soccer, and, for the delinquent, 3-mile morning hikes that Selma led herself. The dining hall sat at the bottom of a steep hill; former campers recall moaning as they climbed it after meals. (Details of camp life across the decades are based on interviews with more than 60 former campers, counselors, and parents, and have been confirmed by multiple sources except where otherwise indicated.)

Romance blossomed. Selma dispatched a “nooky patrol” of flashlight-toting counselors, but in reality, hookups among campers were a selling point, not a problem. “There was a sense of us getting slimmer and more handsome,” Pfeffer remembers. “It was happening before our eyes.” He lost 38 pounds his first summer. He also kissed another girl, Ruth Fisher, under a tree. They’ve now been married for 40 years.

Around the country, the attitude toward obese children was blunt: It’s your fault that you’re fat. Campers rolled with the disapproval, sneaking into the woods to gorge on wild blackberries or smuggling in Freihofer’s chocolate chip cookies. Sympathetic counselors surreptitiously tossed takeout over the camp fence. The kids glorified their plight in song, to the tune of A Teenager in Love:

Each time I lose a pound

My fat heart goes round and round

All I want is to be thin

See my bones instead of skin

Each night I ask the stars up in vain

Why must I be a fat kid at Camp Shane?

By the early 1970s, 175 children were attending each summer. Selma marketed widely, placing newspaper ads around the country that featured a camper standing in profile, grinning as he tugged on his now comically oversize waistband. She barnstormed across America, meeting parents and making media appearances. The resulting coverage could be casually vicious. “Nobody loves a fat kid, an ex-fattie finds,” read a New York Daily News headline from 1972. “Her objective is to make a human being of a child who enters camp looking like a ‘glob,’ ” a Detroit Free Press reporter wrote two years later.

There was an elegance to Selma’s business plan. “My mother, who couldn’t cook a decent meal, made a fortune from not feeding children,” Lesley says. Selma reported that boys and girls lost an average of 35 and 25 pounds, respectively, in seven weeks. On pickup day, parents sometimes walked right past their own kids, then burst into tears upon recognizing them. “My parents love me now,” one boy told a reporter. “They don’t pick on me anymore.” But Camp Shane was essentially a crash diet, and kids often gained the weight back by Thanksgiving. The following June, many returned to lose it again.

Throughout the 1970s, Selma had her children, now in their 20s and 30s, come upstate to help during the summer. Lesley refused, but David worked in the office and Diana in the kitchen. David was quiet and genial, with dark hair and a thick mustache. Female campers thought he looked like the swimmer Mark Spitz and swooned for him.

At the time, David was in a band that played around the tri-state area, and on weekends he liked to go bar-hopping. Then Selma asked him to set music aside and join the family business full time. “I was very sad,” he recalls. But he did as he was told and began working year-round for his mother.

Bn 1979, Shane was charging parents $1,475 for the summer and had almost 200 campers. Adjusted for inflation, that translated to roughly $1 million a year. But Selma appeared ambivalent about her newfound wealth. She owned a Mercedes but mostly drove a Chevy. She bought expensive jewelry but dressed modestly around camp.

Selma was also developing a reputation for squeezing contractors in Sullivan County, who were already devastated by the summer hotels’ decimation. “People kissed her ass because she was a big buyer of stuff,” says Paul Kasofsky, whose dad sold her paint and carpet. “She really was the most miserable f---ing woman you ever wanted to meet, and just brilliant at what she did.” (Kasofsky’s father went on to date Selma after Irving died.)

Counselors, the camp’s primary expense, were a cost-cutting target, too. Selma had always backloaded their pay with an end-of-season bonus, and around this time, numerous former employees say, she started a new tradition: As August approached, she fired counselors she didn’t like, allowing her not to pay their bonus. “You’re a multimillionaire, and you have to steal from a college kid?” asks Dave Sherman, a camper for five years in the late 1970s and early ’80s and a counselor in 1985 and 1989. “For $750? Ridiculous.” When Selma fired Sherman and he refused to leave without saying goodbye to friends, he says, she called the police and had him arrested for trespassing. (The charges were later dropped.)

Many kids adored Selma, despite her flaws. They could tell she genuinely loved running a good camp. She put on special shows featuring magicians, hypnotists, and the Harlem Globetrotters. She and Irving would start impromptu, camp-wide water fights. Selma even let favored girls do her nails.

Still, she made clear who was the boss. “You didn’t mess with her,” says Marc Tanner, a camper and counselor for three summers starting in 1977. “She didn’t take any crap.” One particularly harsh camp song from the mid-1980s had the kids pushing back:

There was a bitch who ran this camp

And Selma was her name-o.

S-E-L-M-A

S-E-L-M-A

S-E-L-M-A

And Selma was her name-o.

In 1982, David became camp director, and his mother worked him hard. When the season ended, she and Irving would jet offto their new condo in Boca Raton, Fla., leaving their son behind to toil in the winter gloom. “It was, ‘David, that moron,’ ” Lesley says of her mother’s attitude. “I love children,” Selma once quipped to her. “Other people’s.”

To keep David and Diana in line, Selma dangled the prospect of their eventually owning the business. In 1987, Diana gave birth to a son. According to Lesley and David, Selma was furious that her daughter’s attention would now be divided, so she fired Diana and cut off her health insurance. David stayed on at the camp, opening a lasting rift between the two siblings. (Diana didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.)

“She wanted to be better than her children,” Lesley says of Selma. “She couldn’t stand that we could be successful on our own.”

By 1988, America’s childhood obesity rate had doubled from its early 1970s level, to 10%. The country had also been through a phase of diet and exercise mania, shunning saturated fats and cholesterol, embracing SlimFast and NutraSweet, and donning spandex to do home-video aerobics with Jane Fonda. Camp Shane’s clientele started to shift, with wealthier parents joining middle-class ones in throwing $500 a week at their children’s perceived weight problems. Singers Steven Tyler and Michael Bolton and supermodel Iman all sent their daughters. On visiting day some parents tossed car keys to counselors as if they were valets. Weed was no longer the contraband drug of choice: Selma told a reporter some campers were arriving with bags of amphetamines, tranquilizers, and diuretics.

Shane made nods to the mental health issues the children faced, holding rap sessions and running role-playing exercises with cardboard slices of pizza to practice handling cafeteria bullies, according to a BBC documentary that aired in 1990. Some of the campers were clearly in pain. “People look at you in the street like you’re something from another planet,” a 14-year-old said on camera, sobbing. “It’s like you exist only so normal people have something to laugh at.” The lesson appeared lost on some British reviewers—one TV critic dubbed the kids “proto-Mobys.”

Sex, a fraught issue for any teenager, could be especially problematic at Camp Shane. Beyond the innocent rendezvous between kids, a male counselor led boys in pelvic thrusts toward the girls’ side of the camp, and adult counselors regularly hooked up with underage campers, according to a half-dozen campers from this period.

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