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

continentalposterbAccording 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we learn about Ostrow’s own fascinating sexual evolution—and his pivotal role in getting laws against homosexuality repealed in New York.)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:           Mar 13, 2013
Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , ,

  • 16 Comments
    • oldgayvermonter
      oldgayvermonter

      Sounds like this is a must-see film! Especially for those of us of “a certain age” who survived the plague. I had the privilege of being there sometime in the 70s (alternate day gas rationing was in force) when Bette made a surprise visit, swooping in with her entourage, gushing thanks to the patrons, and doing a set…then vanishing into the night just a quickly. Won’t ever forget that trip! Very classy lady for sure!

      Mar 13, 2013 at 5:38 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Teleny
      Teleny

      Wow, that’s cool OldgayVermonter! Wish I could have seen that… I hope to see this film and maybe someday someone will do one on the 1910s&20s.

      Mar 13, 2013 at 9:05 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Teleny
      Teleny

      Were women and trans allowed at the Continental?
      How did that work?

      Mar 13, 2013 at 9:12 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • gppm1103
      gppm1103

      @oldgayvermonter: I never had the chance to go to the Continental Baths.
      I graduated in 1971 and spent the ’70’s in Columbus OH. In the mid ’70’s Bette Midler came there (and other parts of the midwest)….she was a very rapidly rising star then…(1975-76)….What fun. And being the home of Ohio State the city was like a big party for gays back then….believe it or not, the Midwest was pretty liberal…
      Indianapolis, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Cleveland……

      Nice piece of gay history Queerty…thanks.

      Mar 14, 2013 at 9:30 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Spike
      Spike

      I’m guessing that Bette M. really really wishes that the footage of that one performance at the C.Baths did not exist. They contacted her but she was busy, yea right. No question that she is gay friendly/supportive but this is one aspect of her past that she really doesn’t want to come up over and over and over again.

      Mar 14, 2013 at 11:10 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • tardis
      tardis

      I’m not a fan of the gay subculture.

      Mar 14, 2013 at 12:32 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Chad
      Chad

      @Spike: Uh…she named on of her more recent albums, “Bathhouse Betty” and still regularly discusses it. I’ve seen basically every interview that she’s ever done and her only comment that’s even remotely negative is that she’s pretty sure her tombstone will read, “Here Lies Bette Midler (She Began Her Career at the Continental Baths)”.

      I’m so excited to see this film, not only because of Bette’s history, but because this filmmaker is one hell of a documentary film maker!!!

      Mar 14, 2013 at 4:38 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Tone
      Tone

      @tardis: If we do not document, record and celebrate our history, who will? There are hatemonger organizations like NOM and AFA that are doing their best to distort our past even as they try to erase us from the present. Ensuring that we have an accurate historical narrative will prevent them from succeeding in their quest to eradicate us.

      Mar 14, 2013 at 6:58 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Rusty
      Rusty

      @Teleny: I heard they didn’t so when I went to NYC I didn’t go there. They didn’t allow them @ the Houston baths either if you had tits. For some reason I felt that gay men believed that m to f trans belong in a league of their own and not around real gay men. And the question is “why would a trans thinking she was trying to be a woman want to be at a gay bathhouse?”

      Mar 14, 2013 at 7:49 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Rusty
      Rusty

      I would love to see this movie to see what I missed as an m to f trans.

      Mar 14, 2013 at 7:51 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Steve Koenig
      Steve Koenig

      QWEERTY readers interested in the Continental Baths will enjoy listening to BETTE AND THE CONTINENTAL BATHS: a Lecture by Jeff Auer, presented at CUNY/CLAGS, streaming at my magazine, Acoustic Levitation : A Journal of Arts, Music & Culture. http://www.acousticlevitation.org/midler.html (free, no ads).

      Mar 14, 2013 at 11:34 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • tardis
      tardis

      @ Tone I understand that, and I wholeheartedly agree. History is an important part of any minority group. Still, living in this day and age, what is there to like about the gay subculture? Personally speaking, I’m just not a fan of it.

      Mar 15, 2013 at 12:56 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Spike
      Spike

      @Chad: Yes I know of the album, I have it. Now which song in the album does to reference the continental baths or the origin of the the albums title? BTW, did you read my post before you replied? Probably not. It was in reference to the footage of her performance. Again, if she supported and/or wanted to have anything to do with this project she would not have been ‘busy’.

      Celebrity ‘Busy’ = Not Interested.

      Mar 15, 2013 at 11:21 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Jerry12
      Jerry12

      What a pleasant surprise! I had moved to New York City in 1968 and was living on West 76 St; a few blocks North of the Continental Hotel, a residence for several actors and actreses of the day. I was at the Continental the night Bette Midler sang. Also,another Saturday night, one of the residents of the Continental (I cannot remember her name now, but She was one of the all time best female Opera Stars of the time) came down and gave us a concert. For the occasion, we all wore Black towels that night.

      Mar 22, 2013 at 11:16 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Steve Koenig
      Steve Koenig

      Hi Jerry, You saw Eleanor Steber, known for opera but also classical song, especially Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 and Berlioz’ Nuits d’Eté.

      From another website: “It was an affair to rank with the coming of Christ, the death of Garland, the birth of the blues, and the freezing of spinach.” — Arthur Bell, Village Voice.

      “Miss Steber appears from the steam room in a chiffon gown, loaded with diamonds and a black towel draped around her waist. Mrs. Leonard Bernstein, Suzy, Patrice Munsel, a lot of Metropolitan Opera stars and half of New York society love it. Miss Steber is in good voice, singing everything from Tosca to Strauss waltzes while boys yell, ‘Brava!’” — Rex Reed, Daily News.

      From October 4, 1973, Eleanor Steber‘s iconic recital at the Continental Baths.

      Mar 22, 2013 at 11:50 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Rusty
      Rusty

      @Jerry12: LOL well you were being formal you know!

      Mar 23, 2013 at 9:18 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·

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