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.”

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But New York nightlife is fickle and the Continental was in some ways a victim of its own success: The gay clientele began to resent the straight “tourists” who were crowding the venue to see a show (and maybe enjoy a little titillation).

By 1974, attendance was so low, Ostrow discontinued the lounge acts and in 1975 closed the Continental altogether. It was resurrected in 1977 as the co-ed Plato’s Retreat, which was eventually shuttered by the city in the early 1980s with the onset of the AIDS epidemic.

Though the influx of straight people led to the club’s decline, it was a unique opportunity for different strands of sexually liberated New Yorkers to come together. As filmmaker Malcolm Ingram says, “the Continental ultimately became one of the most important metropolitan keystones for a sexual revolution, fostering an environment of tolerance and indirectly contributing to a level of mainstream gay acceptance the likes of which has never been seen again.”

Ingram—who’s garnered acclaim and awards for his previous docs, Small Town Gay Bar and Bear Nation—is currently working on a film about the Continental Baths. “The Continental existed in a very unique period, post Stonewall, pre-AIDS. That little window when gay ruled the zeitgeist and Continental was the clubhouse,” he explains on the film’s KickStarter page. “[The film] is a story of sex, celebrity, politics and most importantly…it is part of our history. Documenting our history while the key players are still around isn’t only an opportunity—it is a duty.”


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