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The year is 1972.
You’re about to witness a future star in the making – a young Bette Midler is performing at the club you’re at, alongside Barry Manilow clad in a towel. There are flashing lights and pulsating disco records in another room; it’s the party of a lifetime. Are you at Studio 54? Perhaps you’ve stopped at the Hollywood Bowl. No, you’re in the basement of the Ansonia Hotel at the Continental Baths, one of the most iconic gay bathhouses in history and the unlikely spot where two future electronic music legends, the late and great Larry Levan and Frankie Knuckles, cut their teeth. In honor of LGBTQ+ Pride Month, we’ll be exploring the renowned venues and clubs where electronic music was born.
Until the landmark case of The People v. Onofre in 1980, sexual intercourse in New York state was defined as vaginal sex – criminalizing anal and oral intercourse, even in private. From the 1950s through to the 1970s, homosexual men were subject to consistent arrest and public humiliation, be it from neighbors, landlords, or others reporting them and their partners to police. Public facilities like those at the YMCA became a safe place for anonymous, consensual partners to meet. The Stonewall Riots of 1969, wherein gay and trans New Yorkers stood up to abusive police officers who regularly raided their premises, sparked the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement and increased visibility for gays and lesbians in New York. As a result, gay owned and operated community centers increased in popularity and bath houses became beloved places to socialize. Many extended far beyond hangout spots, with several including film screenings, voter registration, and live entertainment – offerings the Continental Baths was renowned for.
The opening of the Continental Baths
Hidden far below a once-dilapidated building called the Ansonia Hotel on the Upper West Side of Manhattan was an abandoned swimming pool and set of Turkish baths. Landlord Jake Starr decided to rent out the basement to an opera singer named Steve Ostrow in 1968. Ostrow saw the potential for a luxury bathhouse for the homosexual community. He (alongside his wife Joanne) wanted to create a club that was welcoming, safe, and above all – clean. They built palm fronds, opulent lighting, 400 private rooms, a waterfall pouring in the pool, and most famously, a discotheque and live entertainment room. “I built a disco room, a DJ booth, and these special things where you put the records – turntables!” Ostrow recalled to the Guardian in 2018. “It was spectacular – people would dance in their towels, bathing suits, nude, or anything.
The offerings – cabaret, disco parties, and concerts – transformed the social club into a full-on entertainment nightspot. On Saturdays, there were live performances. Iconic celebrities were invited, with standup sets by Andy Kaufman to shows by Lesley Gore and Patti LaBelle. Alfred Hitchock was a regular attendee of the shows, as was Mick Jagger.
Most famously, a young Bette Midler performed alongside Barry Manilow. The singer, nicknamed “Bathhouse Betty” by the crowd, convinced Manilow to accompany her on piano, clad only in a towel. “She’s performing in front of guys with towels on,” Manilow recalled in 2017. “She would sing ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ and they would all get up and the towels would drop.”
Enter Larry Levan and Frankie Knuckles
Yet, what cemented the Continental Baths in electronic music history were the disco rooms, where DJs Frankie Knuckles (who went on to run the Warehouse, the birthplace of house music) and Larry Levan (who went on to run Paradise Garage, the birthplace of garage music) got their starts. Nicky Siano, a resident DJ who also ran the Gallery, introduced Levan to the baths in 1973.
After a few messy live performances (with bad sound, no central AC, and faulty electrical wiring), the DJ sets became more and more of an integral part of the club’s entertainment. The Thorens TD-160 turntables and a janky soundsystem were upgraded to a high-quality Bose system. The early popularity of disco was reckoning. Several DJs manned the booth, including Bobby “DJ” Guttadaro, who regularly spun records like Carl Douglas’ “Kung Fu Fighting,” David Rodriguez, who had Gladys Knight and the Pointer Sisters on rotation, and Joey Bonfiglio. Bonfiglio gave Levan, a patron of the Baths who was new to DJing, his first shot at playing a set.
“Larry was bigger than life,” Baths manager Don Scotti said. “Larry would do a lot of crazy things, like dress in orange hot pants and dye his hair orange and dance on top of a car.” Now working weekdays as a DJ, Larry eventually invited his close friend Knuckles to join him.
“I didn’t wanna go anywhere near it,” Frankie recalled in the documentary Liquid Vinyl. “But Larry had already been working there about a year and he had asked me to come and play on Mondays and Tuesdays. I figured this was a golden opportunity for me to really try and hone my skills, try and concentrate on the music and build my record collection.” Frankie was still in high school in the South Bronx at the time and could only work the odd hours. Levan and him DJed together, with one manning the booth and the other manning the lights.
“You have some people who’d just sit on the dance floor because right across was an Olympic-sized swimming pool,” Frankie said. “Sometimes, a couple of guys would sit on the bench and just listen, so I could play anything. I could play jazz or classical and go anywhere musically – that was perfect for me.” The Baths was amassing a collection of records, due in part to resident DJs sharing their albums on rotation. Disco was now exploding in popularity. Eventually, record executives began sending early pressings and 45s directly to the club. Some of Knuckle’s favorite records on rotation included “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Gonna Go” by Curtis Mayfield, “Koke” by Tribe, and “Mighty Love” by The Spinners. Concurrently, Levan was rinsing Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You, Baby” and South Shore Commission’s “Free Man.”
The parties continued to be wild. Siano recalled having seventeen different sexual partners in one day. Knuckles remembered someone putting LSD in an aquarium and all of the fish jumping out. Despite the fun and debauchery, the Baths was a frequent target of police. There were at least 200 raids during its time of operation, with officers regularly entrapping patrons. “Policemen would come in, rent a room, get into a towel, go into the steam room, and then wait for someone to touch them,” Ostrow said. “And then, from underneath the towel, out would come handcuffs. Then they’d arrest everybody in the place.”
The closing of the Continental Baths
With increased police presence, burgeoning costs, and the rise of other gay clubs in New York, the Continental Baths’ popularity waned. Conditions in the baths grew dilapidated, with leaking pipes, rotting floors, and pealing paint. Drug use was rampant, and the declining conditions of the baths took a toll. “As I was trying to rekindle the spark in my mind, I was stepping over bodies passed out in the hallways. The smell of acid and the acrid taste of angel dust permeated the place,” he recalled in his book, Live At the Continental. “Stoned-out bodies were crushing into me as I walked – needles and syringes littered the halls. The hard-drug era had hit New York and it was not a scene that I could live with.”
Likewise, Larry Levan and Frankie Knuckles were finding opportunities elsewhere by 1974. Levan grew tired of the faulty sound system and accepted a gig in a new club called SoHo Place. After SoHo Place closed, Levan bounced from venue to venue, eventually finding his home at the Paradise Garage. Knuckles took over his slot at the Baths, but the declining conditions prompted him to seek elsewhere – eventually spearheading the Warehouse.
In 1976, Ostrow closed the Baths for good, but its legacy lives on. Electronic music, created on the foundations of house and garage music, would not exist without Levan and Knuckles’ early gigs at the Continental, where they crafted their sound and built their record collections.
Hear some of the tracks DJed by DJ Bobby Guttadaro, Larry Levan, Nicky Siano, Frankie Knuckles and more in our Spotify Playlist:
We’ll be exploring more iconic LGBTQ+ venues throughout this month – stay tuned to read about Larry Levan and Frankie Knuckles’ next ventures at Paradise Garage and the Warehouse.
June 12, 2019