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Will Catskill’s success spoil Rip Van Winkle?

February 28, 2019 12:36 am

To paraphrase William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” Act 3, Scene 2, Page 4: We have come to bury Rip Van Winkle, not to praise him.

The Catskill Village Board of Trustees is doing the unthinkable by looking to rebrand the village and attract more businesses — possibly discarding the historic face and cache of Rip Van Winkle.

Rip Van Winkle — the iconic character in Washington Irving’s 1819 short story of the same name — has been the true face of the village for two centuries. According to folklore, Rip, henpecked but deeply devoted to his wife and child, falls asleep for 20 years in the Catskill Mountains. When he awakens, his wife is dead, his daughter is happily married and America is a new, independent nation.

But it’s the fun-loving Rip who welcomes visitors to the village of Catskill (you know, “the ever-improving village”) on a sign posted a short distance from the Greene County side of the Rip Van Winkle Bridge. The state (or somebody) even named a bridge after the guy, for Pete’s sake. What does it take for a legend to thrive?

A statue of the old boy stands at the head of upper Main Street in the village, except for winters, when he is moved into storage so plows have room to clear snow. There is Rip at his post, gazing down Main Street, part sentinel and part reminder of local history’s meaning.

But now, village officials are looking to hire a marketing agency and keeping Rip alive is one of several decisions they face, Village President Vincent Seeley said.

“Everything is on the table,” he said. “We have to decide whether to transform our current image or completely start over.”

Seeley is in favor of taking a new direction.

“Maybe it’s time to retire the look and feel of Rip,” he added.

Wait, what? Say it ain’t so.

To us, Rip Van Winkle is part of the Catskill family — like a grumpy old uncle whose grouchiness hides a heart of gold.

Village Trustee Joseph Kozloski does not think the public would support Rip’s retirement. Catskill residents are fond of seeing a wooden Rip carving at the top of Main Street.

“People are always asking in the spring when he’s going to be out,” Kozloski said. “I don’t think they’re ready to give up on that.”

The plan was inspired by the village local development corporation’s Come to Catskill campaign — a promotion of Main Street’s economic development — which is in its early stages, Seeley said, adding his vision is to expand the rebranding to the village and beyond.

“We want new images, fonts and themes to present ourselves,” he explained. “We will be improving our web presence, our social media, our communication and our advertising. We need solid marketing, branding and communication to better move forward.”

That’s great, but looking to the future doesn’t have to mean abandoning the past, or a literary creation rooted in that past. “Rip Van Winkle” is widely accepted as one of the first American short stories. That alone is distinction enough to keep Rip around. Rip Van Winkle is as much a part of Catskill as pinstripes are to the New York Yankees. Hey, village trustees, give the guy a break.