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Steven Ostrow, creator of NYC's legendary Continental Baths, dead at 91

Continental Baths flier owner Steve Ostrow gay bathhouse NYC 1970s sexual revolution lgbtq history
via Fire Island Pines Historical Society

An accomplished operatic singer, Ostrow is best known for the gay bathhouse where Bette Midler, Barry Manilow, and others launched their careers performing to naked gay men.

Steven Ostrow, the actor and singer best known as the creator of The Continental Baths gay men’s bathhouse where Bette Midler, Barry Manilow, and other stars launched their careers, has died. The Brooklyn native passed away on February 4 at a rest home in Sydney, Australia, where he has lived since the 1980s. Ostrow was 91.

Ostrow was born to Russian Jewish parents on September 16, 1932. He gained early success as an operatic singer and actor. Displeased with the seedy and sleazy state of gay clubs and bathhouses in NYC at the time, in 1968 he opened The Continental Baths in the basement of The Ansonio Hotel. The Continental Baths was clean, and safe, and it featured a dance floor and stage where DJs and other musical acts could perform.

Continental Baths owner Steve Ostrow stage show gay bathhouse NYC 1970s sexual revolutionSteve Ostrow on stage at The Continental Bathsvia Fire Island Pines Historical Society

“I built a disco room, a DJ booth, and these special things where you put the records: ‘turntables!’” Ostrow told The Guardian in 2018. “It was spectacular. People would dance in their towels, bathing suits, nude, or anything!”

The Continental Baths was an immediate success not just with customers, but also performers who jumpstarted their careers performing to throngs of gay men. Melissa Manchester, The Manhattan Transfer, Wayland Flowers, and Nell Carter are among the dozens of familiar names who got their start on the stage at The Baths. Midler and Manilow perfected Midler’s Divine Miss M persona during their performances at The Continental Baths, and earned Midler the moniker “Bathhouse Bette” as well.

Continental Baths performers Barry Manilow Bette Midler gay bathhouse NYC 1970s sexual revolutionBarry Manilow and Bette Midler were frequent performers at The Continental Bathsvia Fire Island Pines Historical Society

The action in the audience often made the action on stage seem tame by comparison.

“It’s unusual, I agree,” Manilow told The Hollywood Reporter last month. “But for me, it was a job for 75 bucks.”

Such performances attracted crowds of straight customers who often made the gay bathhouse customers feel uneasy. Ostrow closed the club in 1976, due in part to the issue of straight customers in a gay bathhouse.

Continental Baths guests gay bathhouse NYC 1970s sexual revolutionAudience members at The Continental Bathsvia Fire Island Pines Historical Society

Ostrow continued singing and performing after closing the club, and moved to Sydney a few years later where he became a director with the Sydney Academy of Vocal Arts. Over the years he performed with the Australian Opera, the New York City Opera, the San Francisco Opera, and the Stuttgart Opera.

In his later years in Australia, he started Mature Age Gays (MAG). The groups have regular gatherings for older gay men and long-term HIV survivors. The groups provide comfort for those who have lost partners and loved ones, while also providing a safe space for older gay men to meet and connect.

Ostrow was married to fellow opera singer, Joanne King. The couple married in 1960 and had two children together, Scott Ostrow and Maria Jaul. The couple divorced in the 1980s.

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