WATCH: Bette Midler recalls working at the Continental Baths in archive 1973 video

WATCH: Bette Midler recalls working at the Continental Baths in archive 1973 video

You are currently viewing WATCH: Bette Midler recalls working at the Continental Baths in archive 1973 video
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As many of you will know, the divine Bette Midler began to build a following for herself when she performed regularly at the famous Continental Baths in New York City in the early 1970s.

The gay bathhouse was huge. It offered more than just dozens of cabins to cruise. It also offered food and regular entertainment, with a surprising number of acts booked to appear in the lounge area. Bette Midler was accompanied on piano by Barry Manilow. Regular DJs include names who went on to become legendary, such as Frankie Knuckles.

Midler performed at the baths in tandem with appearances at small clubs around New York. As her star began to rise, she was quite open with the press about her appearances at the gay venue.

The BBC recently posted an archive clip of an interview with Midler. It comes from February 1973, a couple of months after she released her debut album, The Divine Miss M.

“Bette Midler, then not widely known in the UK, speaks to Whispering Bob Harris on The Old Grey Whistle Test,” says the accompanying caption. “She explains how she built an audience performing at a bathhouse in New York City before her big break.”

“An exclusively homosexual health club”

When pressed about playing in bathhouses, Midler says, “I became very popular at a place in Manhattan called the Continental Baths, which was a steam bath for homosexuals. An exclusively homosexual health club.”

Although the word “homosexuals” is rarely used nowadays, it was more common back then. At the time, the UK had its own organization called the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE).

“When I started working there, it was really a dump,” she continues. “The plaster was falling off and the steam was coming out of the room… but I worked there. I caught on there. That’s really where I got my big boost. And the place has become quite decorated since. I spent a year there and it went through a lot of transitions. The man who owns it is constantly changing it. He brings in palm trees and birds.

“And the birds of course immediately die,” she says, wryly. “They spend two weeks in the steam and they pass away! I’m sending out an injunction against him,” she quips.

The late Steve Ostrow

The man who owned the Continental Baths was Steve Ostrow. He passed away in February at the age of 91 in Australia.

Ostrow, an opera singer, opened the Continental Baths in the basement of The Ansonia Hotel in New York City in 1968. Midler is the most famous name associated with the venue. She even recorded an album entitled Bathhouse Betty.

However, the live music eventually proved divisive as some gay patrons disliked the influx of straight people who turned up to watch the cabaret. Ostrow ended the live shows in 1974. He closed the baths in 1976.

He went on to enjoy more success after relocating to Sydney, where he was active on the local gay scene. Ostrow also taught at the Sydney Academy of Vocal Arts, continuing to see students up to the age of 90, according to an obituary in the Sydney Morning Herald.

You can watch the whole of the Bette Midler interview below.

Barry Manilow

Although Midler was open to talking about her experiences at the Continental Baths, her pianist, Barry Manilow, was less keen to do so when he began to find solo success. At the time, Manilow was in the closet.

He officially came out as gay, after decades of rumors, in April 2017. He married his long-term partner, Garry Kief, in 2014. The men have been together since 1978.

Since finding out that his fanbase cares very little about his sexuality, he’s been speaking much more openly. On a recent appearance on The Kelly Clarkson Show, he seemed at ease with his bathhouse gigs and the fun times he and Midler had.

Clarkson asked Manilow if people were running around without clothes.

“Well, they had towels,” Manilow clarified. “[Midler] would sing ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ and they’d stand up and the towels would….” he motions to indicate the towels dropping.

“Check out the merchandise. It was a great gig.”

Manilow said he took his suit off, jumped in the pool and joined in the fun.

“Everyone was happy,” he fondly recalled.


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