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BATHHOUSE BET

Back To The Continental: The Birthplace Of Bette Midler, House Music And Gay Sex

continentalposterb[Editor’s note: This interview was originally published in March. The documentary will screen at Outfest, L.A.’s LGBT film festival, July 13.]

According to the history books, the modern LGBT rights movement began at Stonewall. But one year prior, and some 60 blocks north, businessman Steve Ostrow started a quiet revolution by opening the Continental Baths, a gay bathhouse that, in its own way, had as much of an impact on gay life as those fateful days in June 1969.

Continental, a new documentary by gay filmmaker Malcolm Ingram (Small Town Gay Bar, Bear Nation), shares the largely untold story of the largest and most celebrated gay bathhouse in New York—heck, the world.

Opened in 1968 in the basement of the Ansonia, a famed residential hotel on Broadway and West 73rd, the sprawling sexual Xanadu offered unencumbered sexual contact in an era when that was hard for gay men to come by.

But it also offered a thumping disco, a tchotchke shop, library, juice bar, barber shop, café, gym, a health clinic (where you could get tested for STDs) and live entertainment.

And what entertainment: Bette Midler, Barry Manilow (her accompanist), Nell Carter, Melba Moore, and Patti LaBelle all got their start there.

Legendary DJ Frankie Knuckles, then just starting out, developed what became known as house music on the Continental’s multi-colored dance floor, which predated Saturday Night Fever by some years. (Ostrow also claims he came up with the idea of the standalone DJ booth.)

Before it shuttered in 1975, the Continental drew established stars like Cab Calloway, the Andrew Sisters, Lesley Gore, Peter Allen, Sarah Vaughn and opera diva Eleanor Steber, who recorded a live album there. It inspired Terrence McNally’s Broadway show The Ritz and was immortalized in the 1970 film Saturday Night at the Baths.

Roslyn Kind Singing at Continental BathsThe Continental was the Studio 54 of its day—except that, next to Mick and Liza, were gay men in towels, either  coming from or going to have sex.

It wasn’t the only bathhouse in town, certainly. But it was a much classier affair and, more importantly, it treated its gay clientele as equals, not perverts to be exploited. (Through the course of the documentary we learn about Ostrow’s own fascinating sexual evolution—and his pivotal role in getting laws against homosexuality repealed in New York.)

But perhaps the Continental’s greatest legacy was that it allowed gay men to express themselves sexually—around each other and around straight people—in a way that’s never happened before or since.

We chatted with Ingram before he jetted off to SXSW, where Continental screened on Sunday evening.

 

Malcolm Ingram

Malcolm Ingram

Why focus on the Continental Baths after doing Small Town Gay Bar and Bear Nation, which seem more, I don’t know, community-minded?

But the Continental was a community, too!  Maybe not the same way as they did in Gay Bar and Bear NationBut all my films are kind of contained narratives about misfit communities—people finding each other.

How did you finance the film?

It was crowd-funded, first through two Kickstarter campaigns and then an Indiegogo campaign. It was really amazing to be able to reach your audience directly and have them, not just give you money, but really say to you “this is something we want to see.”

There were people that knew my name from Small Town Gay Bar, people who knew me through Bear Nation,  even people who knew of me through Kevin Smith. [Ed. note: Smith appeared with Ingram on the cover of A Bear’s Life in 2010.] Continental never would have been made without crowd-sourcing—or it certainly wouldn’t have been the film it is. I definitely wouldn’t have been able to film the intro in Australia with Steve Ostrow.

Steve Ostrow

Steve Ostrow

Steve is really the heart of the documentary—in fact, it almost becomes a documentary about his incredible life. How did you meet him?

I wanted to do something about a slice of gay history and there wasnt a lot about Contintental, except that Bette Midler started there. And she had mentioned Steve’s name in interviews. We tracked him down three or four years ago and started talking. Through our conversations he realized he could trust me to tell the story. And he was so ready to tell his story.

But it was a very drawn-out process—I shot Bear Nation in the interim. So it was a thrill to sit down and talk with him: He’s such a dignified man, with a very classy demeanor. I think that’s why a place like the Continental could work. He comes with a lot of class and it rubbed off on the place.

It’s great hearing all the stories—about Mick Jagger’s appearance there, about how Steve would bail out guys if they got busted in a raid. Were there any stories that di12682685.c0161afd.560dn’t make it into the film?

My favorite story that didnt make it into the film actually isn’t that shocking—it was just so indicative of the atmosphere there. There was a lot of casual drug use there, and this manager told me a great story about tripping balls while watching Bette Midler perform. The look of fear and awe on his face as he was describing it was priceless. [But it wasn’t very cinematic], so we didn’t end up using it.

I kind of wanted someone to talk about a specific sexual experience at the baths. But for all the sex going on there, no one really wanted to talk that much about the actual sex.

Most people who have heard of the Continental know it because that’s where Bette Midler got her first real break, and earned the name “Bathhouse Betty” We some resentment from people in the film because they think she downplays her start there. Did you try to interview Bette for the film?

We tried to visit her but she was busy. Bette-Midler-Continental-Bathsx390Ultimately, though, I’m thankful she didn’t get involved. If she had it would’ve overshadowed the whole project.

The question is asked in the film whether the Continental was all about the sex—or was there something more to it. What’s your take on it?

Well, yeah, for some people it was all about sex. But for some it was just a place to not feel ashamed, whether they got laid that night or went home frustrated. And for a lot of people the entertainment really was an incredible draw.

Could we see a rise of bathhouse culture again?

Not as long as the Internet is around. The baths were kind of a necessity, and now, if you can hit someone up on grindr, or Manhunt, or Adam4Adam, you don’t really need to schlep to a bathhouse—you can order in.

Provincetown is the closest thing we have to the Continental Baths: You’ve got this incredibly charged sexual atmosphere on the Dick Dock and other places, and then you’ve got great performers and entertainers right around the corner.

Continental is screening this weekend at SXSW, and will presumably hit the film-festival circuit and get a theatrical release. What do you hope people take away from the film?

I will have done my job if, when people think of the Continental, they don’t think of Bette Midler—they think of Steve Ostrow.

Below: A trailer from Continental , Bette Midler performing at the baths in 1971, and a trailer for Saturday Night at the Baths

 

 

 

 

By:           Dan Avery
On:           Jul 13, 2013
Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , ,
  • 10 Comments
    • hephaestion
      hephaestion

      So that’s where Bette learned to think that gay men are not capable of sustaining a marriage, and thus didn’t need marriage equality.

      Jul 13, 2013 at 8:45 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Jackhoffsky
      Jackhoffsky

      @hephaestion: I can’t defend her, and so I won’t. I will just say that spending that much time at a bathhouse during that section of gay history will condition you to a certain callousness about life (a “thick skin” if you will) and what you can and cannot achieve.

      With that, social and sociological evolution can sometimes move faster than one “conditioned” group of people can keep up with. It’s not their fault… the world changes in a matter of weeks when it used to take years. (If you want to take it to the race side of the argument… we have Paula Deen).

      I’m glad I was born in a generation where change comes fast… and so I welcome it. She (they) were not. I found her initial comments hurtful, but not any different than any old queen getting drunk at a bar in the middle of the day who is about the same age as her. So…

      Jul 13, 2013 at 11:41 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • BigWoody
      BigWoody

      There are a few bathhouses still operating in major cities. Even though internet hookup sites have filled the void left by the decline of bathhouse culture, the baths were safer than today’s Craigslist when it comes to theft or murder.

      @Jackhoffsky: Jackhoff sky… hehe (I owed you that one lol), very true regarding evolution.

      Jul 13, 2013 at 12:59 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • FLOGGERDADNYC
      FLOGGERDADNYC

      I missed the Divine Miss. MatzoMeal, but did get to the Continental one evening. Very peculiar to me. We hung around awhile, then vamoosed.

      Jul 13, 2013 at 1:12 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • blech
      blech

      Zabars was great too…also dying out.

      UWS sucks…Trader Joe’s…whoo-hoo. Expensive, commercial, boredom-breeder hell.

      Jul 13, 2013 at 1:50 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Homophile
      Homophile

      It was 9 years ago when she said the “horrible horrible” things.

      What she said was basically, she thinks we should have all the same civil rights as everybody, so who does it hurt if we get married, but she understands that religious people might have a problem with it. She also said lesbians fall in love and commit too easily and gay men like to “get around”. Both of which is true.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2791ih71QSA

      Midler gets a pass on this.

      Jul 13, 2013 at 3:03 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Reid Condit
      Reid Condit

      Frankly I don’t know why anybody should especially care about what Bette Midler thinks about anything beyond commercial entertainment. She is after all just a pop singer and sometime actor/comedian. But aside from that, I have a couple of comments.

      1)The Queerty set-up sets the opening as 1968, but Ingram dates the opening as post-Stonewall. Can both be true? Maybe the opening was pre- and the notariety post-. I was only there once — on a non-entertainment night — and can’t recall any sex, but I do remember the steamroom as curvaceous and tiled with black mosaics. Pretty sexy!

      2)The idea that bathhouses are “only about sex” is both sex-negative and inaccurate. Bathhouses serve gay men as important social institutions. In San Francisco where the Health Dept. and an assimilationist LGBT political leadership has managed to prevent gay bathhouses from reopening, at least two gay sex clubs and maybe more continue to operate. Moreover, gay bathhouses in both Berkeley and San Jose appear to be prospering. Neither gay marriage nor on-line hooking-up are likely to put Bay Area gay bathhouses out of business any time soon. Only political timidity and a desire to appear respectable keep bathhouses closed in SF. When over a dozen years ago the SF Director of Public Health, a Harvard-educated gay man, rejected the recommendation of the HIV Prevention Planning Council to end the ban on privacy that prevents gay bathhouses from reopening, he admitted to having no empirical evidence to indicate that gay bathhouses spread HIV.

      3) May I suggest that a documentary should be made about the attempted closure of gay bathhouses in San Francisco? I say “attempted” because the court order of December 1984 (pace George Orwell), which expired in 1989, only succeeded in taking away the right to privacy in certain SF bathhouses. The last gay bathhouse in San Francisco did not close until 1987 under pressure from City Attorney Louise Renne. Christopher Disman has written a basic history of what happened in those years available in Gay Bathhouses and Public Health Policy (Harrington Park Press, 2003).

      Jul 14, 2013 at 12:34 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • ncman
      ncman

      @Homophile: you say

      “She also said lesbians fall in love and commit too easily and gay men like to “get around”. Both of which is true.”

      But, it’s only true if you add “some” lesbians and “some” gay men to the statement.

      Jul 14, 2013 at 11:08 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Homophile
      Homophile

      @ncman:

      Yes, thank you. Where would we be without pedantic people like you. ;)

      Jul 14, 2013 at 2:56 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • ncman
      ncman

      @Homophile: the point is that it isn’t a profound statement. The same exact thing can be said about straight men.

      Jul 14, 2013 at 10:31 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·

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