It’s hard to imagine a respectable Upper West Side building was the epicenter of gay hedonism. But in the 1960s and 1970s, beneath the Ansonia on West 74th St, steam and sex was in the air at the legendary Continental Baths.
Steve Ostrow opened the Continental in 1968, just months before the Stonewall riots, to provide a haven for the new breed of gay men in New York—guys who were out of the closet and ready to embrace their sexuality (and a few other things). Open day and night, the Continental differentiated itself from other bathhouses by being bigger and better: In addition to saunas, Jacuzzis and n Olympic swimming pool, there was a café, a library, an STD clinic, a gift shop, and vending machines stocked with lube.
And it wasn’t all about sex: There was also a spacious dance floor, where the latest disco hits blared, and a cabaret room that welcomed A-list acts like Sarah Vaughan, Peter Allen, The Pointer Sisters, Labelle and Gladys Knight & the Pips.
Perhaps the most famous (and infamous) graduate of the Continental was Bette Midler, who got her start singing there in 1970 and earned the nickname Bathhouse Betty. Her pianist was none other than Barry Manilow who, like many of the patrons, sometimes wore nothing more than a towel.
Years later, Midler told the Houston Voice:
“I’m still proud of those days [at the Continental]. I feel like I was at the forefront of the gay liberation movement, and I hope I did my part to help it move forward. So, I kind of wear the label of ‘Bathhouse Betty’ with pride.”
Images via OutHistory.org
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