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The Continental Baths 1968-1976

Don't let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment
That was known as Camelot

If ever bathhouse culture had a Camelot it would have to be the Continental Baths of New York.

For a brief eight years the Continental Baths reigned as a gay Mecca for New York and the world. Developed by entrepreneur Steve Ostrow when he accidentally stumbled upon an abandoned health club on the basement level of the Ansonia Hotel, which was once one of the most prestigious hotels in New York. Steve quickly grasp the potential of the subterranean health club which had laid dormant for over 15 years before its "discovery."

At the time the Ansonia Hotel opened in 1904 the basement level was accessed by a grand stairway from the lobby which led to a shopping arcade, a health club, a Turkish bath and (at the time) the world's largest indoor swimming pool. When the hotel was purchased by a new owner in the 1960s the basement level had long been sealed off and forgotten. The hotel had fallen into neglect and badly needed expensive repairs. Desperate for cash the new owner agreed to lease the basement to Ostrow for his luxurious bathhouse that he promised would be "reminiscent of the glory of ancient Rome."

With a $15,000 investment Steve merged all the elements of the basement level [shopping arcade, Turkish bath, swimming pool etc.] and reopened it as the "Continental Baths." And from the day it opened, a new standard for bathhouses was set.

On opening day it contained 50 rooms and 200 lockers which quickly sold out. Over time the club grew and grew until it took up almost an entire city block. At its peak it contained 400 rooms and 2500 lockers, spanned some 90,000 square feet and took up three floors as well as the roof which was connected by private elevator. The roof was used for sun bathing and contained a "beach" with sand [pictured below].

The relatively low price of a room at the Continental [compared to regular hotel rooms] and the scarcity of apartments in Manhattan led some enterprising gay men to call the Continental their home. A few dozen rooms at the bathhouse were, for a period, set aside for "monthly" rentals. You could rent exclusive use of a room for an entire month and come and go as you please. And why not? The club had amenities of all sorts including a restaurant [pictured below], a disco, a full service bar, a travel agent, a chapel, a Wrangler jeans boutique and a venereal disease clinic operated by the New York City health department.

It also contained a cabaret theater which featured live entertainment. Bette Midler began her career at the Continental which earned her the nickname "Bathhouse Betty." Her piano player at the time was then-unknown Barry Manilow.

 

Chattanooga Choo Choo

 

Other performers at the Baths included: Melba Moore, Peter Allen, Cab Calloway, The Manhattan Transfer, John Davidson and Wayland Flowers.

By the 1970s, going to the cabaret at the Continental to watch an emerging act and sit alongside naked men in towels became the hip & edgy thing to do for the fashionable in-crowd looking for the next sensation.

The line to get into the cabaret went down the block as did the string of limousines dropping off the well-to-do.

The crowd was a mixture of women in mink coats with their suited husbands in tow as well as gay men in leather jackets with their boyfriends.

The author Edmund White remembered that "it struck me for the first time at the Continental Baths that gays were being seen as chic and exemplary." In some ways it was the precursor to that other exotic mix of entertainment and public sex, Studio 54.

Roslyn Kind singing at the Continental Baths
[Roslyn Kind is Barbra Streisand's half-sister]

The Continental also inspired two movies: the low-budget "Saturday Night at the Baths" [which was actually filmed inside The Continental] and the screwball play that was later adapted into a big-budget Hollywood movie "The Ritz" starring Jack Weston, Jerry Stiller and Rita Moreno.

 

Ballet superstar Rudolph Nureyev was a frequent guest at the Continental. Steve Ostrow wrote: "I had often seen Nureyev running through the bathhouse at odd hours, always mercurial. For a moment you would see his unmistakable, beautifully etched body, pale as milk and topped with reddish hair, and then before your very eyes, he would disappear as if vaporized."

In the photo below Steve Ostrow is on stage at the Continental. Note the fully clothed men [and women!] in the audience. Many gays resented the stage shows feeling that they detracted from the true purpose of the bathhouse and made them feel like they were on display for the amusement of the visiting straights.

As the 70's wore on, gays became more and more emboldened and the Continental lost its monopoly on gay sex life. Increasingly, gays could get sex for free at waterfront piers, truck loading docks, discos and bar backrooms. And the success of the Continental eventually lead to more competition from upstart bathhouses.

By 1974, the Continental Baths had lost much of its gay clientele. The reason for the decline in patronage was, as one gay New Yorker put it, "we finally got fed up with those silly-assed, campy shows. All those straight people in our bathhouse made us feel like we were part of the decor, and that we were there for their amusement. So we ended up going to other bathhouses where sex was taken more seriously."

Slowly, these forces chipped away at the Continental's customer base until it finally had trouble making its rent payments. In the end, the club was handed over to new owners in exchange for assumption of the club's debts. [As the club grew in size so did its indebtedness to construction contractors.] For a few more years it operated as a heterosexual "swingers" club until it was finally closed by the New York heath department during the AIDS crisis of the mid-1980's. 

The Joni Mitchell song "They paved paradise and put up a parking lot" could have been written with the Continental in mind. The basement level of the Ansonia Hotel, which was once the epicenter of gay hedonism in New York and hosted over 3.5 million towel-clad men, is now a parking garage.

Wikipedia: Continental Baths

Bathhouse History: Continental Baths

Bathhouse Addict: "The Ritz"

Opera singer Eleanor Steber recorded an album "Live at the Continental Baths" for RCA Records.

Steve Ostrow has written a book "Live at the Continental" chronicling the history of the Continental Baths. It is available from Amazon.

When Ostrow sold the club to new owners they turned the Continental Baths into a heterosexual swingers club called Plato's Retreat.

 

               
               
               
               
               

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