Steve Ostrow, who founded famed NYC bathhouse the Continental Baths, dies at 91

NEW YORK (AP) — Steve Ostrow, who founded the trailblazing New York City gay bathhouse the Continental Baths, where Bette Midler, Barry Manilow and other famous artists launched their careers, has died. He was 91.

The Brooklyn native died Feb. 4 in his adopted home of Sydney, Australia, according to an obituary in The Sydney Morning Herald.

“Steve’s story is an inspiration to all creators and a celebration of New York City and its denizens,” Toby Usnik, a friend and spokesperson at the British Consulate General in New York, posted on X.

Ostrow opened the Continental Baths in 1968 in the basement of the Ansonia Hotel, a once grand Beaux Arts landmark on Manhattan’s Upper West Side that had fallen on hard times.

He transformed the hotel’s massive basement, with its dilapidated pools and Turkish baths, into an opulently decorated, Roman-themed bathhouse.

The multi-level venue was not just an incubator for a music and dance revolution deeply rooted in New York City's gay scene, but also for the LGBTQ community’s broader political and social awakening, which would culminate with the Stonewall protests in lower Manhattan, said Ken Lustbader of the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, a group that researches places of historic importance to the city's LGBTQ community.

“Steve identified a need,” he said. “Bathhouses in the late 1960s were more rundown and ragged, and he said, 'Why don’t I open something that is going to be clean, new and sparkle, where I could attract a whole new clientele’?”

Privately-run bathhouses proliferated in the 1970s, offering a haven for gay and bisexual men to meet during a time when laws prevented same-sex couples from even dancing together. When AIDS emerged in the 1980s, though, bathhouses were blamed for helping spread the disease and were forced to close or shuttered voluntarily.

The Continental Baths initially featured a disco floor, a pool with a waterfall, sauna rooms and private rooms, according to NYC LGBT Historic Sites' website.

As its popularity soared, Ostrow added a cabaret stage, labyrinth, restaurant, bar, gym, travel desk and medical clinic. There was even a sun deck on the hotel’s rooftop complete with imported beach sand and cabanas.

Lustbader said at its peak, the Continental Baths was open 24 hours a day and seven days a week, with some 10,000 people visiting its roughly 400 rooms each week.

“It was quite the establishment,” he said. “People would check in on Friday night and not leave until Sunday.”

The Continental Baths also became a destination for groundbreaking music, with its DJs shaping the dance sounds that would become staples of pop culture.

A young Bette Midler performed on the poolside stage with a then-unknown Barry Manilow accompanying her on piano, cementing her status as an LGBTQ icon.

But as its musical reputation drew a wider, more mainstream audience, the club’s popularity among the gay community waned, and it closed its doors in 1976. The following year, Plato’s Retreat, a swinger’s club catering to heterosexual couples, opened in the basement space.

Ostrow moved to Australia in the 1980s, where he served as director of the Sydney Academy of Vocal Arts, according to his obituary. He also founded Mature Age Gays, a social group for older members of Australia’s LGBTQ community.

“We are very grateful for the legacy of MAG that Steve left us,” Steve Warren, the group’s president, wrote in a post on its website. “Steve’s loss will leave a big hole in our heart but he will never be forgotten.”

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Follow Philip Marcelo at twitter.com/philmarcelo.

 

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