Continental Baths

Continental Baths (New York)
image sourced here.

Bathhouse celebrities and the Continental Baths

Singer Bette Midler is well-known for getting her start at the famous Continental Baths in New York City the early 1970s, where she earned the nickname Bathhouse Betty. It was there, accompanied by pianist Barry Manilow (who, like the bathhouse patrons, sometimes wore only a white towel) that she created her stage persona "the Divine Miss M." In an interview in the Houston Voice, Midler said,
Despite the way things turned out [with the AIDS crisis], I'm still proud of those days [when I got my start singing at the gay bathhouses]. 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. (10)

Other famous performers who appeared at the Continental include Melba Moore, Peter Allen, Cab Calloway, The Manhattan Transfer, John Davidson (singer) and Wayland Flowers. As word spread of these appearances more and more heterosexuals began to attend the shows, and the gay clientele began to go elsewhere. Realizing that it was losing its most important customers, the Continental made the decision to discontinue these performances at the end of 1974. Unable to lure back its original clientele, the Continental reopened as a straight swingers' club which closed in 1985. (11) -- [Mar 2005]

Steve Ostrow

In the late 1960's Steve Ostrow opened the famous Continental Baths in the basement of the landmark 1903 Ansonia Hotel, which was home to such greats as Caruso, Stravinsky and Toscanini. Famous for its lavish accommodations, the Continental Baths was advertised as being reminiscent of "the glory of ancient Rome." The impressive features of this bathhouse included a disco dance floor, a cabaret lounge, sauna rooms, an "Olympia blue" swimming pool, and clean, spacious facilities that could serve nearly 1,000 men, 24 hours a day. One gay guide from the 1970's described the Continental Baths as a place that "revolutionized the bath scene in New York." An added attraction at the club was the first class entertainment provided by performers such as Melba Moore, Peter Allen, Cab Calloway, The Manhattan Transfer, John Davidson, Wayland Flowers and Bette Midler, who began her career by performing there with Barry Manilow in 1972.

Municipal baths

The "bathhouse" phenomenon began with the need for their existence as municipal baths. Not every building was required, or had bathing facilities, and in an effort to keep up with proper hygiene and disease control, these municipal bathhouses were set up.

Tee Scott

1972 Tee Scott: "Continental Baths was getting popular around the time I started at Better Days (may/july 1972). Larry Levan was just getting started at that time."

Larry Levan

Larry Levan in [Collusion magazine 1983?]: "The first place I played at was the Continental Baths. I was doing lights and the DJ walked out. [...]


The resident DJ at the Continental Baths walks out and the owner tells light-man Larry Levan that he’s got six hours to find a record collection. Levan becomes resident. The nightclub soundtrack of Motown and Soul gives way to Gamble and the Huff’s Philly sound. MFSB release, ‘Love Is The Message’ typifies gay clubbing in NYC. -- Kevin Lewis

Barry Manilow

Several new baths opened up, and the Continental Baths on the Upper West Side provided live cabaret acts as entertainment. It was sitting at poolside there, along with several dozen other men wrapped in towels, that I first saw Bette Midler in person. A bit later when she became famous she knocked the socks off of most television show hosts by being very straightforward about the fact that she got her start at "the tubs." Barry Manilow had played piano and sung there before her.



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