In the late 1960’s Steve Ostrow opened the Continental Baths in the basement of the landmark Ansonia Hotel, which at one time 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. (And many patrons did!)
One gay guide from NYC in the 1970s described the Continental Baths as a place that “revolutionized the bath scene in New York.”
An extra added attraction at the Continental was the first-class entertainment provided by performers such as Melba Moore, Peter Allen, Cab Calloway, The Manhattan Transfer, John Davidson, Wayland Flowers, and Madame and Bette Midler, who began her career by performing there with Barry Manilow in 1972.
Despite Midler’s constant complaints about “that goddam waterfall,” her poolside performances were so successful that she soon gained national attention, beginning with repeat performances on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
Many of those who were fortunate enough to see Bette’s early bathhouse shows attest to the fact that her greatest achievement in show business took place the night she convinced the otherwise shy Barry Manilow to accompany her on the piano while wearing only a white towel, which was considered “proper bathhouse attire.”
As the popularity of the cabaret shows increased, a wide variety of entertainers were invited to “give it up” at the Continental Baths, including the soprano Eleanor Steber, who gave a “black towel” concert there in 1973.
The list of visitors to the Continental Baths read like a “who’s who” of the entertainment world, from actors, singers, artists, and producers, to the mafia and even the Metropolitan Oper. They all paid a visit either to see Bette or have some fun.
And for those unfortunate souls who never descended into that legendary basement bathhouse, the Continental Baths were able to come to them in the form of the highly popular Continental Baths towel, which was sold by Bloomingdale’s department store at the height of the club’s fame.
During this period even the mainstream news talk show The Pat Collins Show broadcast live from the club. In one segment, Pat sat by the pool and interviewed proprietor Steve Ostrow while nude men, apparently indifferent to the television cameras, went splashing (WCBS-TV received only one complaint about the program.)
Below watch one of Bette Midler’s final performances in its entirety at The Continental Baths. (With Barry Manilow on the piano of course)
Apologies about the quality of the videos below but it’s a miracle that it exists at all
“Chattanooga Choo-Choo” (Andrews Sisters)
“Empty Bed Blues” (Bessie Smith)
“For Free” (Joni Mitchell)
“Easier Said Than Done” (The Essex)
“Chapel Of Love” (The Dixie Cups)
“I Shall Be Released” (The Band)