LGBT History Month

Out Of The Past: NYC’s Bathouse Betties Do “The Continental”

 

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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9 Comments

  • Michael in Toronto

    Bette does Joni — terrific!

  • Spike

    It must be difficult/frustrating for Bette to watch Lady Gaga take the flag of gay liberation and carry it on in the direction of gay rights, esp when she holds such memories and remarkably this film exists.

  • WillBFair

    This is a far cry from Delores DeLago. But it’s precious.
    Thanks you guys, so much, for digging this up. The shows were just a smidge before my time, and I’ve always wanted a taste.
    By featuring these kinds of clips, you’re really doing your part for gay history month. Smooches.

  • Aunt Sharon

    @Spike: The Divine Miss M pretty much gave up that flag when she signed on to become the Queen of Disney Studios. Now that that ride’s over, she gets nostalgic for her roots. If we’re still loyal, it’s because of her huge talent, not her advocacy.

  • phallus

    She whipped out her ta tas at a concert at Pineknob. Priceless. Loved her Sofie jokes….. She is a great actor IMO

  • londonbridge

    Loved this clip and love Bette.

  • Chuck

    Stonewall, then the Boys in the Band, then Lance Loud on An American Family. 1969-1971. The ’70s were pretty amazing. Too bad the ’80s brought AIDS and Reagan.

  • Cam

    @Spike: said..

    “It must be difficult/frustrating for Bette to watch Lady Gaga take the flag of gay liberation and carry it on in the direction of gay rights, esp when she holds such memories and remarkably this film exists.”
    ___________________-

    Bette made some unflattering remarks about gays later. Sure, she was a performer who got paid to perform there, but GaGa uses opportunities to talk to the president about gay rights, whereas when Bette is asked about it she hardly sounds pro-gay.

    Here is Margaret Cho’s response to Midlers comments on thinking gay marriage wouldn’t work.

    http://prince.org/msg/8/75223?pr

  • Rob

    Cam-I also remember when Bette said how same gender marriage wouldn’t work because bisexual and gay men are all promiscuous and somehow can’t be monogamous. *facepalm*

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