Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Bathhouse Kenny

This advertisement for the Continental Baths has been making the rounds on gay social media lately, for obvious reasons. Although the bathhouse heyday was before my time, of course I know about the legendary den of iniquity, where Bette Midler accompanied by Barry Manilow honed their show(wo)manship skills. What was new(s) to me is that the performances were actually open to the general public -- which makes sense (all these later-famous people weren't just performing for men in towels) and no sense (who wants to be gawked at by married couples when you're trying to get laid?), in retrospect -- and that the venue was located a stone's throw from my newish apartment -- and that it later became a sex club for ... straights. (ICK!) 

Andy Humm, journalist, activist and co-host of "Gay USA," writes:
By the time I got there in the mid-1970s I don't remember any cabaret acts. I believe my friend Allen Roskoff took Bella Abzug there to campaign back then. I don't remember it as the cleanest of venues and within a few years it was turned into a joint for non-gay swingers: Plato's Retreat. I walked by the Ansonia the other day and there is no trace of these storied clubs. There ought to be a plaque up outside.
Keep reading BELOW.

To his point: Last night Damian and I had our Valentine's Day dinner at our favorite Spanish restaurant in the neighborhood, Tasca, so just happened to pass the Ansonia Hotel, the basement of which is where the famed bathhouse was located. Wikipedia notes that the Continental Baths were operated by Steve Ostrow from 1969-1979 -- and was advertised as reminiscent of "the glory of ancient Rome": 
It opened after Ostorow observed the crowds at Everard Baths and he wanted to improve on the Everard atmosphere of being "sleazy, secretive, unkempt, not to mention unfriendly." Ostorow said “from the first night, there were lines around the corner” Some patrons said they would have 150 sexual encounters in a single visit. Opened a year before the Stonewall riots the bath was raided by the police about 200 times, Ostorow said.

While the baths utilized the Ansonia's lavish Gilded Age décor for a Roman style bath, it is probably best remembered as being an influential offbeat music venue. Ostrow (born Sept. 16, 1932) was a singer for the New York City Opera. He installed a stage designed specifically for a DJ -- claimed to the first of its type in the world. Discs were spun by Frankie Knuckles and Larry Levan.

He then began showcasing live acts which were the launching points for Bette Midler, Barry Manilow, Melissa Manchester, Ellen Greene, Labelle, the Manhattan Transfer, Jane Olivor, Wayland Flowers and Peter Allen. The act most associated with the bath was Midler who was accompanied by Manilow on the piano. Midler debuted her song "Friends" at the bath and later recorded an album titled "Bathhouse Betty." The performances were actually open to the public and not just bath patrons. The gay crowd dwindled because they didn't like the public in the bath and felt they were being gawked at. Ostorow cancelled the live performances in 1974 before closing the bath in 1976.

It re-opened as the straight swingers venue Plato's Retreat in 1977.
Of note: Many commenters seemed shocked that the bathhouse would be located on the Upper West Side, which is rather upscale and subdued these days.

But my understanding is the area was much dicier back then -- and even as recently as my arrival in the city in the late '90s I can tell you it was quite gay, with half the gay people I met in Chelsea back then actually living up there, particularly couples. 

In fact, I met my best NYC friend at the Works (428 Columbus Ave.). And the neighborhood was also home to the city's oldest gay water hole, Candle Bar/Candlelight Lounge (309 Amsterdam Ave.), which closed in 2015, among others.

Despite living near NYC's premier sex venue of the early 21st century (the now-defunct West Side Club) for two decades, bathhouses were never my "thing." (I was famously asked the leave the Zone in Los Angeles in the early’90s because I was giggling too much!) However, I did visit a few around the turn of the century on vacations with gay friends (Paris, Montreal, Hollywood) and did see their utility, which was quickly replaced by the online and later app method of "ordering in." 

Here are some other Continental Baths memories circulating, as well as a couple more shots of the Ansonia Hotel for you to enjoy.

Anyone else as horrified by the prospect of a buffet there too?

"The Miracle on 74th Street"!

The closest Barry ever came to a woman

Thank you for your service.


A lot of people have been marveling at this list of acts who performed there. 

Upon closer inspection, I noticed the all-female band Isis was one of them -- and would you believe I'm friends and former colleagues with the band's onetime trumpet player, Lauren Draper?!!!

Lauren has told me some wild stories about those days. Might be time to circle back to pick her brain about the baths!

In 2019 

Read more about Isis -- which featured one of the first out frontwoman (Carol MacDonald, 1943-2007) -- HERE.

Wikipedia: Despite receiving positive reviews for the album and live appearances, Isis failed to reach mainstream audiences. One possibility for the resistance encountered by the band may have been singer Carol MacDonald's unwillingness to deny her homosexuality, which she sang about in the song "She Loves Me."

Having a song called "Cocaine Elaine" probably didn't help, either!


JimmyD said...

Have you heard of the documentary, CONTINENTAL? By Malcolm Ingram (SMALL TOWN GAY BAR)?
For some unknown reason it’s unavailable. I caught it at a film festival. Worth tracking down.

Duncan S said...

I lived in the UWS and UES and never knew this… I knew that a lot of wild things went on at the Ansonia but no clue about the bathhouse.

The Works was my goto bar… a group of us spent the 90’s doing Happy Hour there. We practically had our own dedicated barstools.

KAC said...

I met my husband of 30 years at THE WORKS.

normadesmond said...

I loved that song . . . .

'Let's all do the freak at Plato's Retreat!'

AB said...

I don't really enjoy bathhouses in the US. With the exception of Steamworks in Chicago. All others are pretty basic and many rundown. Now the ones in Europe are nice (and fun). The naked parties in Berlin are the best. Nobody can wear a towel so you get to see all the hot hung Germans. Wienerschnitzel anyone?

Billdp said...

I went to a cabaret show there in 1975. Half the audience was clothed. Men in towels would wander in from the bath section. It was a very surreal experience. It's a little sad that it's all but forgotten.

Critifur said...

Frederic Goodnow was pretty stunning. I wonder in what issue of Mandate did he appear? I would love to see that spread!