Continental Baths

Coordinates: 40°46′48″N 73°58′55″W / 40.7801°N 73.982°W / 40.7801; -73.982
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Continental Baths
Alternative namesPlato's Retreat
General information
TypeGay bathhouse
AddressAnsonia Hotel, New York City
CountryUnited States
Coordinates40°46′48″N 73°58′55″W / 40.7801°N 73.982°W / 40.7801; -73.982
Opened1968 (1968)
Closed1976 (1976)
ManagementSteve Ostrow
Other information
FacilitiesPool, dance floor, fountains, private rooms, orgy rooms, saunas, games room, restaurant

The Continental Baths was a gay bathhouse in the basement of The Ansonia Hotel in New York City, which was operated from 1968-1976 by Steve Ostrow. It was advertised as reminiscent of "the glory of ancient Rome".[1]

It opened after Ostrow observed the crowds at Everard Baths and he wanted to improve on the Everard atmosphere of being "sleazy, secretive, unkempt, not to mention unfriendly."[2] "Ostrow’s business plan in 1968 was to create a gay fantasia, a palace devoted to hedonism."[3] Ostrow 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 bathhouse was raided by the police about 200 times, Ostrow said.[2]

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 September 16, 1932)[4] was a singer for the New York City Opera. He installed a stage designed specifically for a DJ, claimed to be the first of its type in the world. Discs were spun by Frankie Knuckles and Larry Levan.[2]

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, Melba Moore, Liz Torres, Wayland Flowers, Nell Carter and Peter Allen. The act most associated with the bathhouse was Midler who was accompanied by Manilow on the piano. Midler debuted her song Friends at the bathhouse and later recorded an album entitled 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 bathhouse and felt they were being gawked at. Ostrow cancelled the live performances in 1974 before closing the baths in 1976.[2]

It re-opened as the straight swingers venue Plato's Retreat in 1977.


The Ansonia Hotel, New York City, circa 1905

The features of this bathhouse included a small disco dance floor, a cabaret lounge with a baby grand piano (both only feet from a narrow "Olympia blue" swimming pool), sauna rooms, bunk beds in public areas, and tiny rooms as one would find in any gay bathhouse. The facility had the capacity to serve nearly 1,000 men, 24 hours a day.[citation needed]

One gay guide from the 1970s described the Continental Baths as a place that "revolutionized the bath scene in New York City."[5]

Some features of the Continental Bathhouse included a warning system that tipped off patrons when police arrived. There was a weekly STD clinic, a supply of A200 (a lice-killing shampoo) in the showers, a mouthwash dispenser, and K-Y Jelly in the candy vending machine.

The documentary film Continental by Malcolm Ingram covers the height of the club's popularity through the early 1970s.[6]


An attraction at the club was the entertainment provided by performers such as Barry Manilow[7] and Bette Midler.[7][8] Due to her performances at the baths, Bette Midler earned the nickname Bathhouse Betty. It was at the Continental, accompanied by house pianist[9] Barry Manilow[7] (who, like the bathhouse patrons, sometimes wore only a white towel)[10] that she created her stage persona the Divine Miss M.

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.[11]

— Bette Midler, Houston Voice

Despite Midler's constant complaints about "that goddamn waterfall,"[citation needed] her poolside performances were so successful that she soon gained national attention, beginning with repeat performances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.


The Continental Baths lost much of its gay clientele by 1974. The reason for the decline in patronage was, as one gay New Yorker was quoted, "We finally got fed up with those silly-assed, campy shows. All those straight people in our bathhouse made us feel like we were part of the décor and that we were there for their amusement."[citation needed]

By the end of 1974, patronage was so low that Steve Ostrow had decided to discontinue the lounge acts. He focused, instead, on resurrecting his business by making the baths coed. He even advertised on WBLS, but to no avail. In the end, Ostrow closed the Continental Baths for good. The facility, however, was reopened in 1977 as a heterosexual swingers' club called Plato's Retreat. Plato's Retreat relocated to W. 34th St. in 1980 then was shut down by the city of New York at the height of the AIDS epidemic.[12]

Police raids[edit]

In February 1969, the New York City Police raided the Continental Baths. Twenty-two patrons, whom an undercover, towel-clad policeman identified as having offered to have sex with him or actually had sex with him, were arrested. This happened again in December of the same year, when police entered the Continental Baths and arrested three patrons and three employees, charging them with committing lewd and lascivious acts and criminal mischief, respectively.[13]


  1. ^ Maer Roshan (April 6, 1998), 30th Anniversary Issue / Larry Kramer: Queer Conscience, New York Magazine, archived from the original on December 21, 2004, retrieved May 13, 2006
  2. ^ a b c d "Sex, disco and fish on acid: How Continental Baths became the world's most influential gay club". April 27, 2018.
  3. ^ Green, Penelope (February 11, 2024). "Steve Ostrow, Manhattan Bathhouse Impresario, Dies at 91". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved February 21, 2024.
  4. ^ "Steve Ostrow". IMDb.
  5. ^ Colter, Ephen Glenn (1996). Policing Public Sex: Queer Politics and the Future of AIDS Activism. South End Press. p. 200. ISBN 0-89608-549-X.
  6. ^ San Vincente, Romeo (December 2012). "Gay Documentary Round-Up". Gloss Magazine.
  7. ^ a b c Davies, Sam (April 27, 2018). "Sex, disco and fish on acid: how Continental Baths became the world's most influential gay club". The Guardian. Retrieved August 19, 2020.
  8. ^ SkyMovies (May 14, 2006), Bette Midler Biography, thebiographychannel, archived from the original on December 5, 2008, retrieved May 13, 2006
  9. ^ Spitznagel, Eric (June 2, 2011). "Barry Manilow Only Ever Played One Bathhouse with Bette Midler". Vanity Fair. Retrieved August 19, 2020.
  10. ^ "The History of Gay Bathhouses". Archived from the original on October 20, 2006. Retrieved February 23, 2004.
  11. ^ "Bette Midler". Houston Voice. October 23, 1998. Archived from the original on May 9, 2019.
  12. ^ Suzanne Golubski & Bob Kappstatter (January 1, 1986), The New York Daily News article: "Swinging doors shut", archived from the original on September 27, 2007, retrieved June 4, 2006
  13. ^ Jonathan Black (March 19, 1970), The Boys in the Snake Pit: Games 'Straights' Play, The Village Voice, In the last few months there have been several dozen arrests at Continental, on charges ranging from solicitation and sodomy to spitting and piling garbage.[permanent dead link]


External links[edit]