Don't let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment
That was known as Camelot
ever bathhouse culture had a Camelot it would have to be the
Continental Baths of New York.
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
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
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?
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
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
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,
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
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.
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
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.