On December 12, 1969, New York police continued their ongoing harassment of the Continental Baths. Good looking young police officers dressed in towels enticed patrons to either proposition or grope them. They then produced handcuffs from under their towels and effected an arrest.
Steve Ostrow opened the Continental Baths the previous year. He told The Guardian in 2018 that he and his wife launched the business because of his disappointment with other (Mafia-run) venues he visited.
“I had been to a few clubs. But they turned me off. They were dirty … filthy. They treated you like shit.”
The police raid on December 12, 1969, was not an unusual occurrence. Steve Ostrow told the ABC in 2013 that the cops raided the venue 200 times in its first year of operation. He explained the police modus operandi — entrapment — to The Guardian.
“Homosexuality was illegal. Two men dancing together was illegal. Very good-looking policemen would come in, rent a room, get into a towel, go into the steam room and then wait for someone to touch them. And then, from underneath the towel, out would come handcuffs. Then they’d arrest everybody in the place.”
The police loaded the patrons onto trucks, still in towels, and hauled them off to jail. However, the raids never deterred patronage. Steve always followed the trucks downtown and bailed everyone out.
The Continental Baths enjoy a legendary place in LGBTIQ+ history. Bette Midler gave birth poolside to the Divine Miss M. Articles about her and Barry Manilow religiously chronicle their beginnings at the venue. But scores of other big-name entertainers also performed at the Continental Baths. Sarah Vaughan, The Pointer Sisters, Gloria Gaynor, Peter Allen, The Andrews Sisters… The list on the Continental Baths Wikipedia page is gobsmacking.
In 1973, Eleanor Steber, one of America’s greatest opera stars, sang at the Baths. Steve Ostrow knew few of the patrons would wear collars, let alone black-tie. But he wanted to acknowledge the significance of Ms Steber’s appearance, so he decreed the event black-towel and packed all the white towels away.
Prior to the performance, the lights dimmed and the mirror ball stopped turning. Someone even turned off the noisy, gushing waterfall that so frequently pissed off La Midler. The normally rowdy black-towel-clad cruising gays hushed and ceased their relentless seat-hopping.
The Camden Courier-Post wrote, “You could have heard a towel drop.”
Steve Ostrow eventually moved to Sydney and published his autobiography in 2010. In Saturday Night at the Baths, he wrote that he closed the venue when the hard-drug era hit New York.
“It was not a scene that I could live with.”
Read More: December 11 <— On this day —> December 13
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