From 1968 to 1974, the Continental Baths reigned as New York’s premier bathhouse. Best known now as the place where Bette Midler went from waitress to gay icon, the baths become in this documentary a fascinating look at gay history from the year before Stonewall to the so-called Golden Age of gay male promiscuity, just before disco would give gay men the spotlight before AIDS broke up the party.
At the heart of "Continental" is Steve Ostrow, a truly larger-than-life personality. A married father when he opened the club on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in 1968, the history of the Continental Baths neatly parallels Ostrow’s coming to terms with his own sexuality.
When it opened, the Continental was something entirely new: a sexual playground that, unlike other gay bathhouses at the time, was clean, well run and above all, huge. I doubt if any bathhouse, at least in the States, has ever come near it. According to Ostrow, it could accommodate a few thousand men at one time.
Like proprietors of other gay establishments at the time, Ostrow was forced to pay off the Mafia and the police. He still had to stand by helplessly as a handsome undercover cop would put on a towel and, as soon as anyone touched him, set off a raid. He claims there were 200 raids in its first year, but I have to doubt patrons would have kept lining up to get inside if true.
Whatever the number, Ostrow was outraged enough to ask patrons to sign a petition. Armed with 200,000 signatures, he persuaded then-Mayor John Lindsay to decriminalize homosexuality, thus opening New York to the salad years of gay sexual freedom.
Ostrow, whose first love was always opera, didn’t stop there. He began featuring cabaret performances on weekend nights. His first signing was a singer that became so closely associated with her devoted towel-clad audience that she became known as Bathhouse Bette.
Introducing her, he forgot her name, and so, for all time, the "Divine Miss M" was born. Along with her piano accompanist, a radio jingle writer named Barry Manilow, Better Midler became an instant gay camp icon.
His eye for talent didn’t end there. Ostrow helped propel the careers of Peter Allen (then married to Liza Minelli whom he discovered sleeping on the beach on Fire Island), LaBelle and pioneering DJs Frankie Knuckles and Larry Levan (both then still in their teens). His eclectic line-up ranged from jazz legends such as Sarah Vaughan, Margaret Whiting and Cab Calloway to famed Metropolitan Opera soprano Eleanor Steber, whose performance was recorded and released as "Eleanor Steber Live at the Continental Baths."
By then, the Continental had become the place to see new talent. It was so well known that everyone from Mick Jagger to Woody Allen and Diane Keaton were in attendance. One night, Alfred Hitchcock emerged from the giant indoor pool.
Another of Ostrow’s innovations was one of the city’s first discos, like the cabaret performances open to all. What was once an underground establishment had become so famous that Rolling Stone Magazine devoted 16 pages featuring it.
The gay clientele started to feel like freaks on display; with bathhouses opening closer to the action, the Continental began to lose its gay patrons. Ostrow relates how, after an extended stay in Europe, where he revitalized his opera career, he returned to find the place run down and mismanaged.
By 1974, the shows and the sex were over. Forced into bankruptcy, Ostrow closed the Continental and eventually rose to prominence singing opera in Sydney, where he still lives and has started an organization to give elderly gay men a place where they won’t feel isolated and alone.
One of the best-directed and edited documentaries about a slice of gay history I’ve every seen, "Continental" offers an array of talking heads. All of them offer valuable insights, but none more so than LaBelle’s Sarah Dash, who beautifully describes the importance of the baths to gay men at the time.
The site of the world’s most prominent gay bathhouse was reborn in 1977 as the world’s most famous straight swinger’s playpen, Plato’s Retreat, which, oddly, is never mentioned here. There are a few other gaps, such as jump-cutting Knuckles’ career to Chicago, where he became the "godfather" of House music, without mentioning the Paradise Garage, where Levan honed the DJ’s art.
These are small qualms, however. An hour-and-a-half long, "Continental" is longer than the average documentary, but I was sorry to see it end. This is a must-see for anyone interested in our history.