Op-ed: Continental Drifter
October 05, 2011
The director of the searing 2007 documentary Small Town Gay Bar shares the struggle to film his latest project, an in-depth look at New York’s legendary and notorious hot spot, the Continental Baths.
By Malcolm Ingram, op-ed contributor
The first time I heard about the Continental Baths was in regards to another lascivious venue, Plato’s Retreat. Plato’s was a heterosexual swingers club that took over the spot in the Ansonia Hotel at 2109 Broadway in New York City where the Continental Baths originally revolutionized urban nightlife, creating a safe haven for recently empowered post-Stonewall New Yorkers to congregate and connect. Once again, as often happens in the culture, the straights had been beaten to the punch.
For those unfamiliar with the Continental, its main claim to fame was as the launching-pad for Bette Midler, whose raunchy and powerful early performances (accompanied by a then-unknown Barry Manilow) still live in infamy. It was also the place Rudolf Nureyev would go to unwind after dancing the night away in the city’s legendary performance halls. Mick Jagger was spotted at the Continental checking out the acts, and one memorable night featured legendary American operatic soprano Eleanor Steber performing for men in black towels designed especially for the occasion. It was just that kind of place.
The venue itself housed a boutique, a salon, a restaurant, a disco, a travel agency, a chapel for non-denominational worship and an Olympic-size swimming pool, complete with waterfall. During the heyday of the baths, Continental towels were sold at Bloomingdale’s. The Continental can be directly linked to the creation of Studio 54, and many of the “superstars” from Andy Warhol‘s Factory were frequent visitors.
Behind the scenes, proprietor Steve Ostrow was instrumental in battling an oppressively conservative environment that made the Continental the target of a series of police raids. Men were rounded up and arrested, only to be bailed out by Ostrow himself, who felt an obligation to protect his customers.
It was this sense of duty that led Ostrow to take up the fight for gay rights. Through his position at the Continental, he was instrumental in changing the laws against homosexuality in New York City in 1972, which saw us no longer as criminals, and then again in 1974, when homosexuality was removed from the American Medical Association’s list of pathological disorders, and we were no longer “depraved.”
Steve Ostrow is a documentarian’s dream – a true raconteur with enough experiences to fill 10 lifetimes: a classically trained soprano with a penchant for full-length fur coats and fine dining, and a married bisexual, whose wife worked at the baths alongside her husband’s lovers. Only such a man as Ostrow could motivate me to explore the world of crowd funding and ultimately get my fat ass on a 17-hour flight to Australia for the privilege to sit down and interview him for my new feature documentary, Continental.
We first met in the lobby of my hotel, where a vibrant Ostrow, coincidentally enough, still utilizes the gym facilities. Getting right to the point, within the first five minutes of meeting me, Ostrow handed over a schedule of the time he was able to allot for filming.
At first I was taken aback by this gesture – I had flown literally halfway across the world to get this man’s story. Then I realized that it wasn’t some vain posturing on his part; rather, at 79 years old, Steve Ostrow is still very much in demand. Beyond his jobs as a vocal coach and as an Education Officer for the AIDS Council, he founded M.A.G. (the Mature Aged Gay men‘s group) more than 20 years ago. M.A.G. is now the largest gay organization in Australia, and in the world, catering to the needs and concerns of senior gay men.
My early cinematic backfires taught me the hard lesson of never picking up a camera unless you have something to say, and with Mr. Ostrow and his Continental Baths, I knew I had found a subject more than worthy of exploration.
“Notwithstanding its reputation as a sex palace, the Continental Baths was a home and haven for many people who lived, played, danced, and socialized [there],” Ostrow told me. “It was a place where doctors, lawyers, clerks, waiters, and the wealthy intermingled with each other at the lowest common denominator of human existence.”
“Inside this monstrous venue people found love and lost love,” he continued. “They caroused, they voted against citywide discrimination, they reclaimed their pride, but most of all, they created wonderful memories of a magical era that had never been seen until then, and has never been seen since.”
I definitely knew I’d found the right subject when Ostrow invited me to attend a M.A.G meeting. I watched this incredible man greet the large group of thankful, mature attendees, while still full of enthusiasm for playing host and ensuring that none felt left out of the gathering. This is a man who creates community. It has nothing to do with ego and everything to do with understanding the alchemy of human need. It is in Steve Ostrow’s bones to create a safe and comfortable environment where like-minded socially ostracized people can congregate and explore.
This man’s story, my friends, is one worth telling. And I hope to do just that.
Malcolm Ingram is a filmmaker best known for his documentary, Small Town Gay Bar, which won the grand jury award at Outfest in Los Angeles. He hopes to make the Continental Baths the subject of his next documentary. To find out how you can help Ingram complete Continental, check out his Indie GoGo campaign.