THE CONTINENTAL BATHS
The Continental Baths was a gay bathhouse in the basement of The Ansonia Hotel in New York City which was opened in 1968 by Steve Ostrow. It was advertised as reminiscent of "the glory of ancient Rome". The documentary film Continental, by Malcolm Ingram, covers the height of the club's popularity through the early 1970s.
The features of this bathhouse included a disco dance floor, a cabaret lounge, sauna rooms, a narrow "Olympia blue" swimming pool, bunk beds in public areas, and tiny rooms as one would find in any gay bathhouse. The facility had the capacity to serve nearly 1,000 men, 24 hours a day.
One gay guide from the 1970s described the Continental Baths as a place that "revolutionized the bath scene in New York City."
Some features of the Continental Bathhouse included a warning system that tipped off patrons when police arrived. There was also an STD clinic, a supply of A200 (a lice-killing shampoo) in the showers, a mouthwash dispenser, and K-Y Jelly in the candy vending machine.
An added attraction at the club was the first class entertainment provided by performers such as: Shelley Ackerman
The Andrews Sisters
Gladys Knight & the Pips
The Manhattan Transfer
Jaye P. Morgan
The New York Dolls
The Pointer Sisters
Charles Nelson Reilly
Due to her performances at the baths, Bette Midler earned the nickname Bathhouse Betty.
It was at the Continental, accompanied by pianist Barry Manilow (who, like the bathhouse patrons, sometimes wore only a white towel) that she created her stage persona the Divine Miss M.
Despite Midler's constant complaints about "that goddamn waterfall,"her poolside performances were so successful that she soon gained national attention, beginning with repeat performances on
The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.
The Continental Baths lost much of its gay clientele by 1974.
The reason for the decline in patronage was, as one gay New Yorker was quoted, "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 décor and that we were there for their amusement."
By the end of 1974, patronage was so low that Steve Ostrow had decided to discontinue the lounge acts. He focused, instead, on resurrecting his business by making the baths coed. He even advertised on WBLS, but to no avail. In the end, Ostrow closed the Continental Baths for good. The facility, however, was reopened in 1977 as a heterosexual swingers' club called Plato's Retreat.
Plato's Retreat relocated to W. 34th St. in 1980 then was shut down by the city of New York at the height of the AIDS epidemic.
In February 1969, the New York City Police raided the Continental Baths. Twenty-two patrons, whom an undercover, towel-clad policeman identified as having offered to have sex with him or actually had sex with him, were arrested. This happened again in December of the same year, when police entered the Continental Baths and arrested three patrons and three employees, charging them with committing lewd and lascivious acts and criminal mischief, respectively.