On Friday October 28, The Art Gallery of Ontario hosted a screening of Continental, a documentary in conjunction with Theater Gates’ How to Build a House Museum exhibition. Directed by Malcolm Ingram, Continental follows the story of the Continental Baths’ creation, the first gay bath house in New York City. The Continental was located in the basement of the Astoria Hotel. The bathhouse community not only influenced the LGBTQ community, but was a starting place for many emerging performers.
Steve Ostrow, owner of Continental Bathhouse, was an aspiring opera singer who worked in finance. In 1968, Ostrow wanted to create a place where gay men could freely express their sexuality in a society that deemed homosexuality illegal. The Continental was a place where men could be intimate with each other while still being treated as highly esteemed customers.
The Continental opened in the middle of the AIDS epidemic. As part of its services, there was a clinic inside that allowed men to get tested anonymously. The Continental would open every Friday and Saturday night, with lines that were out the door. Men of every age came to dance and explore their sexuality.
The Continental had a lot of challenges throughout its existence. It was raided by the police over 200 times in the six years it was open. Customers, still in towels, were forced out into the streets and treated like criminals. The police dehumanized them before putting them in jail. Ostrow had to bail out some of his employees with mafia money, because they didn’t get “paid protection” from the police.
In 1972, The Continental also aided in abolishing the homosexuality restriction in New York City. Ostrow and his team entered the New York streets and collected 250,000 signatures to change the law. At the time, there was a new mayor for NYC, and politicians were looking to get the “gay vote”. When the law was changed, The Continental became a notable part of the sexual revolution and liberation for the LGBTQ community.
The Continental not only provided services for gay men, but it was also an entertainment source. Ostrow believed that a good business had to keep changing if it would continue to be successful. So Ostrow hired Bette Midler and Barry Manilow to sing and play the piano, respectively, for $25 a night. Their act captivated the audience and set in motion a series of iconic performances in the coming years.
The Continental hosted several music acts, including Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles’ soul music, esteemed opera singer Eleanor Steber, and DJ Frankie Knuckles.
Knuckles stayed with The Continental until its closing in 1974. The Continental not only helped him launch his career, but also innovated the genre that is now called house music.
Due to these famous performances, The Continental opened to the public. For a short period, straight and gay people co-existed in a realm that produced some of the greatest talent of all time. Mick Jagger, Johnny Carson, and Alfred Hitchcock also visited The Continental.
However, gay men felt that The Continental lost its privacy when it opened to the public. As a result, the infamous bathhouse lost its business. In 1974, The Continental closed for good.
Continental is a humorous, informative documentary that emphasizes the trials the LGBTQ community overcame, and the people who created a welcoming community for them.