Back To The Continental: The Birthplace Of Bette Midler, House Music And Gay Sex
March 12, 2013
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 forgotten 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, cafe, gym, 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.)
Eventually, the bathhouse 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.
The 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we learn about Ostrow’s own fascinating sexual evolution—and his pivotal role in getting laws against homosexuality repealed in New York.)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.
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 Nation. But 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 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 didn’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. Ultimately, 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.