A “Black Towel” Event

SteberLargeLocated in the basement of the Ansonia Hotel, the Continental Baths were the nexus of New York’s hedonistic gay scene in the early 1970s.  Its upper west side location reflected the quality and cleanliness of the bathhouse found inside.  Opened by Steve Ostrow in 1968, the Continental had all the expected accoutrements, but also featured a boutique, a hair salon, even a room for nondenominational religious services!  The Baths were enormous popular, and became even more so with the introduction of live entertainment.  It was here that a very young Bette Midler connected with the gay community, backed on piano by one Barry Manilow.   Other performers who graced the small stage included Sarah Vaughan, Cab Calloway, Peter Allen, and funk group Labelle.  But perhaps the most unexpected artist who sang at the Continental was the opera diva Eleanor Steber.  Ostrow, himself a professional opera singer earlier in his life, somehow convinced Steber, a resident of the Ansonia, to appear onstage and promised her a live recording of the event.  The sold-out audience was comprised of opera-goers in traditional black-tie garb who mingled with libidinous gay men who donned only black towels.  All of them were treated to an unforgettable evening of Mozart, Massenet, Puccini, and Charpentier.  New York City  Mayor John Lindsey even sent a telegram to Ostrow:  “I wish to extend my congratulations to the Continental Baths and Health Club on the occasion of your black tie, black towel concert.  Your sponsorship of…Eleanor Steber is a wonderful opportunity for the community to enjoy her great talent outside the Metropolitan’s halls…”  Released in 1974 on the RCA Red Seal label, “Eleanor Steber Live at the Continental Baths” is a definitely a record of a unique moment in time.