“Continental,” which premiered at this year’s South by Southwest Festival, in Austin, Texas, bills itself as “a documentary about the infamous NYC bathhouse” where a brash unknown named Bette Midler, accompanied by a Jewish pianist named Barry Manilow, once entertained towel-clad gay men.
But it’s really the story of an unlikely sexual revolutionary named Steve Ostrow, who founded the baths in 1968 after a slightly more staid career in finance. In the basement of the grand Ansonia Hotel, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Ostrow created a rare safe space where gay men could express themselves sexually. (Ostrow had relationships with men and women throughout his life.)
“I think the Continental Baths changed things more than Stonewall did,” playwright and author Larry Kramer told New York magazine in 1998. “Everybody there was walking around half-naked and having fun. It was clean. It was a party.” With entertainers from Sarah Vaughan to Patti LaBelle to opera diva Eleanor Steber, the Continental also began drawing curiosity seekers who were straight. Gay patrons began to abandon the playground, which eventually spelled the baths’ doom. Ostrow shut down the Continental in 1974.
Now 81, and living in Australia — where he pursued a lifelong dream of a professional opera career — Ostrow remains as restless as ever; in Sydney, where he settled, he founded Mature Age Gays, now the world’s largest organization for senior-age gay men. The Forward’s Michael Kaminer caught up with him by email.
Michael Kaminer: In a 1970s newspaper profile, you described yourself as “a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn.” How did your family react to your atypical career?
Steve Ostrow: I had more problems running Freedom Finance Company, which I founded before the baths, and that was closed for “mail” fraud. I had invented a method of making loans across the country by mail, which had never been done before, and now every finance company does it. So at least the Continental wasn’t a “male” fraud. My wife, Joanne, helped me set it up; her father provided most of the financing, and my kids enjoyed the shows every weekend! [Ostrow has been involved with both men and women; he remained married to his wife until she died.]
Your jobs, before the baths, included newspaper delivery boy, assistant in a kosher butcher shop, sidewalk produce hawker, Fuller Brush salesman and finance executive. Which had the most influence on your career at the baths?
All of them contributed to my development as an executive, promoter, salesman, businessman etc., especially selling meat and plucking chickens!
Could a place like the Continental Baths exist in New York City — or anywhere — today?
It could, but I’m not around to do it, having gone out of the sex business with the advent of AIDS, and working instead with promoting safe sex and helping to teach people how to preserve their sexual health.
You had to deal with the Mafia back then. You bailed out patrons when the police, to whom you hadn’t paid protection, arrested them. If you had to do it all over, what would you change?
We actually were instrumental in having the laws against homosexuality amongst consenting adults [overturned] in New York. It had been illegal for two men to even dance together before we accomplished that in 1972, and in 1974 we were instrumental in having the [American Medical Association] remove homosexuality from its list of pathological disorders. So we were no longer sick and no longer criminals!
Jews have historically been at the forefront of shifts in sexual mores, from the adult-film business to people like you. Why do you think that’s so?
Initiative and perseverance. And business creativity.
You helped launch Bette Midler’s career. But in a 1973 Rolling Stone profile, she said: “‘That last show at the Tubs was the worst. I’m telling you, it was the pits, honey,” and the magazine called it a “chaotic gig.” Was it really that bad?
It was great, except Bette was pissed, as it was her last show, it was sold out to the rafters and she only got her normal salary!
Barry Manilow, Midler’s accompanist, became part of the Continental Baths’ fabric. What was it like working with him?
A total delight. He was and is a greatly talented and dedicated artist, and his act with Bette was fab. As Bette was quoted on Barry Manilow in my book, “More Hebrews worked on this act than built the pyramids.”
You’ve reinvented yourself since moving to Australia. How did you come to launch your organization for “mature-age” gay men?
I was approached by the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations to do a survey of the needs and concerns of older gay men. This was the time of the Grim Reaper [a 1987 Australian commercial raising awareness about AIDS] and the “gay plague,” but I found that older gay and bisexual men were more concerned with estrangement from family, loneliness, isolation, death of partners and the like. And so I decided that I would create a holistic project that would cater to those needs and concerns instead of screaming: “Wear a condom! Wear a condom!”
We’re coming off a couple of historic Supreme Court decisions around marriage rights here in the United States. How does that feel for an expat?
I believe in love, and that should govern all decisions wherever!