File:Continental Baths.jpg

Early Continental Baths advert

In the late 1960s, Steve Ostrow opened the Continental Baths at 230 West 74th Street in the basement of the Ansonia Hotel in New York City. Continental Baths was advertised as reminiscent of "the glory of ancient Rome."[1]

A gay man with $15 can get both sex and entertainment of the Continental and know he is mixing with the beautiful people. He might still turn up to work on Monday and be fired for being a fag.[2]

Dennis Altman, 1971



The Ansonia Hotel, New York City, circa 1880

The features of this bathhouse included a disco dance floor, a cabaret lounge, sauna rooms, an "Olympia blue" swimming pool, and could 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."[3]

Some features of the Continental Bathhouse included a warning system that tipped off patrons when police arrived. There were also a STD clinic, a supply of A200 (a lice-killing shampoo) in the showers and K-Y Jelly in the sweets dispensing machine.

"The Continental Baths in New York, the most exciting club of the lot, were host to the social register on Fridays. The baths were on the West Side, above Columbus Circle, in an old building: $11 entry. The dance floor was alongside a very large swimming pool with fountains, surrounded by beach chairs. Off to the side was a labrinthine, white-tiled Turkish bath whose corridors ended in pitch black. The scalding steam took your breath away; in the darkest recesses a continuous orgy was under way, but the heat was so searing that only the most intrepid could get it up. Besides the Turkish bath, there were saunas, 100 bedrooms, a restaurant, a bar, a games room, a hair-dresser, backrooms with bunks, pitch-black orgy rooms and a sunroof; on a weekend it would be packed. It was possible to live there and, at $11 a night, cheaper than a hotel or apartment. I met one young man who had lived there for three months; he had only left the building a couple of times. Like the desert, though, the baths played disturbing tricks, down there where time dissolved you in the shadows. The handsomest were the drug dealers, sprawled on their bunks, gently masturbating, their doors slightly ajar to trap the unwary, and if you swallowed their bait, inhibitions cast aside, you'd be making love in that swimming pool, packed with naked bodies." [4]


An added attraction at the club was the first class entertainment provided by performers such as:

  • Singer and actress Melba Moore
  • Singer and songwriter Peter Allen
  • Jazz singer and bandleader Cab Calloway
  • R&B group Labelle
  • R&B group The Pointer Sisters
  • Vocal group The Manhattan Transfer
  • Singer and actor John Davidson
  • Puppeteer Wayland Flowers
  • DJ Larry Levan
  • Metropolitan Opera diva Eleanor Steber
  • Drag queen/actress Holly Woodlawn
  • Singer Melba Moore
  • Singer and comedienne Liz Torres
  • Singer and comedienne Shelley Ackerman
  • Singer and comedienne Bette Midler[5], who began her career by performing there with Barry Manilow[6] in 1970.


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[7]) that she created her stage persona the Divine Miss M. Template:PQuote

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.

Michael: Now this relationship you had with Mr Manilow, it goes back many years. Now I don't want to take you back into the bath houses for too long.

Bette: He doesn't look as good as me! [...]
Bette: Was I wearing a towel? Were they wearing a towel?
Michael: Were they nude or not?
Bette: No they had towels around their private parts, sort of low slung. No I never saw a penis. (Laughter) And I was looking very hard.
Stephen (Fry): Did you want to? I didn't bring it anyway. (Laughter)
Bette: it's getting hot in here.
Michael: So this nude audience.
Bette: Well no I never thought of them that way,... I didn't care what they were wearing. And they were so sweet. They were so shocked that there was anyone there singing that they would come from all over, you know all over the building and they would sit there and I made an effort to be a friend. I had a friend write jokes for me and I was very au courant with the gay scene and I had the lingo and so they thought "oh look a drag queen"! (Laughter)

Parkinson interview, ITV 18 March 2006


The Continental Baths lost much of its gay clientèle 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, but it was shut down by the city of New York at the height of the AIDS epidemic[8].

Police raids

In February 1969 the Continental Baths was raided by the New York City Police. Twenty-two patrons were arrested, identified by one undercover towel-clad policeman who identified the men who offered to have sex with him or actually had had sex with him. 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.


  1. Maer Roshan. "30th Anniversary Issue / Larry Kramer: Queer Conscience", New York Magazine, 1998-04-06. 
  2. Miller, Neil (1995). Out of the Past, Gay and Lesbian history from 1869 to the present. Vintage, p424. ISBN 0-09-957691-0. 
  3. Colter, Ephen Glenn (1996). Policing Public Sex: Queer Politics and the Future of AIDS Activism. South End Press. ISBN 089608549X.  quote used from p200
  4. Jarman, Derek (1987). The Last of England. Constable, 249 pages. ISBN 0-09-468080-9. quote used from p60-62
  5. SkyMovies. "Bette Midler Biography", thebiographychannel, 2006-05-14. 
  6. Laurie Wheeler. Manilow, Barry. Continental Baths appearances. Retrieved on 2006-06-04.
  7. The History of Gay Bathhouses. Online. Accessed February 23, 2004. Available:
  8. Suzanne Golubski & Bob Kappstatter (1986-01-01). The New York Daily News article: "Swinging doors shut".


  • Miller, Neil (1995). Out of the Past, Gay and Lesbian history from 1869 to the present. Vintage, 657 pages. ISBN 0-09-957691-0.  (2005 rev. ed. ISBN 1555838707)
  • Butler, Patricia (2002). Barry Manilow: The Biography. Omnibus Press, 272 pages. ISBN 0711991979. 
  • Jarman, Derek (1987). The Last of England. Constable, 249 pages. ISBN 0-09-468080-9. 

See also

  • Gay bathhouse
  • Barry Manilow
  • Bette Midler
  • Ansonia Hotel
  • Plato's Retreat

External links