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Electric Relaxation:
The Continental Baths birthed NYC disco and the careers of Frankie Knuckles and Larry Levan

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Housed in the basement of a grandiose turn-of-the-century hotel on New York’s Upper West Side, the Baths were at the epicenter of gay culture and the burgeoning equal rights movement. The club’s early success in breaking new talent like Bette Midler and Patti LaBelle soon gave way to DJs moving front and center as the main attraction for its towel-clad patrons. After the sound system was overhauled on a shoestring budget, the club recruited well-known Fire Island selector Bobby DJ, who brought over his own following. In the stimulating nights that followed, the Baths would birth the careers of dance icons Larry Levan and Frankie Knuckles, two young DJs who were soaking in the nascent disco scene of the early ’70s—and who soon got their own shot behind the decks. Despite the technical limitations of the club’s equipment, both DJs honed their skills and moved on to influence the dance scene in immeasurable ways.

In the spring of 1968, disco didn’t exist, homosexuality was illegal in New York City, and the basement of the Ansonia Hotel was covered in forty thousand square feet of dust.1 Over the course of the next eight years, that dusty space transformed into the world-famous Continental Baths. It served as the preeminent hub of gay culture and a disco incubator that helped to birth two of the most famous DJs in history: Larry Levan and Frankie Knuckles.

In order to succeed at business, “you can either fulfill a need or create a desire,” wrote Continental founder Steve Ostrow in his book Live at the Continental. “If a business can create a desire that fulfills a need, how can you lose?”2 Ostrow aimed to serve New York City’s burgeoning gay community with a safe place to meet, socialize, and have sex. He stumbled onto the space that would become the Continental Baths while attending a vocal lesson at a suite in the towering Ansonia. Although the basement was in severe disrepair, it had formerly functioned as a spa and had the necessary infrastructure to fulfill Ostrow’s vision.

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The building itself was an architectural marvel. Located between West Seventy-Third and Seventy-Fourth on Broadway, the Upper West Side hotel was constructed in 1899 with the intent of breaking the world record for tallest building. It fell only slightly short of its intended grandeur, clocking in at seventeen stories and fifteen hundred rooms. The hotel also boasted the world’s largest indoor swimming pool, as well as a rooftop that housed five hundred chickens,3 and would later be covered in hundreds of pounds of sand, beach lounge chairs, and the sound of proto-disco wired up from the basement DJ booth.

Continental Baths Ad 1

Nicknamed “the Tubs,” the Continental was a unique mix of hedonistic playground and community center that served up to twenty thousand gay men a week. Unlike other bathhouses that were mostly seedy and rat infested, the Continental would have a safe and welcoming atmosphere. The main draw for most visitors were the four hundred private rooms rented out to be used for casual sex, but these were supplemented with an incredible range of amenities that included a steam room, swimming pool, dry sauna, cabaret stage, disco dance floor, licensed bar, café, and STD clinic. There was even a space for religious services.4 The first time that house-music pioneer Frankie Knuckles visited the club with Larry Levan in 1973, they didn’t leave until two weeks later. I spoke with Knuckles shortly before his passing, and when I asked him if there was a contemporary comparison to the Baths, he claimed there’s nothing even close.

Frankie Knuckles and Larry Levan at the Continental Baths, from Tim Lawrence’s Love Saves the Day (original photo courtesy of Bob Casey).

Frankie Knuckles and Larry Levan at the Continental Baths, from Tim Lawrence’s Love Saves the Day (original photo courtesy of Bob Casey).

 

Unfortunately, not everyone was so ecstatic about the club’s presence. Homosexuality was still technically illegal in New York City, and the club was raided on opening day. Despite buying tickets to the policemen’s ball to try to stave off the vice squad, the Continental Baths was raided over two hundred times. The invasive tactics led the club to organize a petition to change New York City’s antiquated laws. Over 250,000 signatures were delivered to the mayor’s office, resulting in the repeal of the laws and a major victory for the gay liberation movement.5

The Continental’s scope and influence was unprecedented, but the main thing that put it on the map was that it became a destination for Ostrow’s first passion: music. In the early days, the sound was supplied by a jukebox that played everything from rock and roll to gospel and was within earshot of the gigantic swimming pool. “You have to understand, there was no disco music at the time,” says Nicky Siano, a regular Baths patron and resident DJ at legendary dance venue the Gallery. The jukebox was later upgraded to a rudimentary pair of Thorens TD-160 turntables helmed by whichever staff member had the free time. “This was the unit that had a floating isolated turntable and tone arm, and was belt driven. There was hardly any torque, so mixing was near impossible,” says soundman Bob Casey.

Bette Midler Ad

As the popularity of the club and spirit of liberation grew, the focus began to shift more to the entertainment. Splitting MC duties with manager Don Scotti, Ostrow would introduce the cabaret singers to serenade the crowd of towel-clad men taking a break from the back rooms. “Steve knew how to cater to the entire variety of customers; everyone had something. And those people were loyal. The crowd would follow you to Radio City Music Hall,” Scotti tells me. “It was the place to play—if you could get a gig.”

The Continental launched many successful careers, ranging from Patti LaBelle to Andy Kaufman, but the most notable of the crop was Bette Midler. Then known as Bathhouse Betty and supported on piano by Barry Manilow, Midler and her bawdy stage persona was perfectly suited to the raucous crowd. As word spread, she began playing more prominent gigs, culminating in a performance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Mention of the Tubs on Carson raised the public profile of the club and drew attention from New York’s cultural elite, inspiring visits by everyone from Andy Warhol to Alfred Hitchcock.

The Continental Bath - Labelle

Midler’s final show at the Baths in 1972 was a disaster that led directly to the increased prominence of the DJs. The club was packed over capacity with men who’d come to hear songs off her debut album, The Divine Miss M. She wore a skintight pantsuit and heels, delivering classic bits where she would rip off a man’s towel and make fun of his manhood, twirling the towel around her head in impersonation of a beehive hairdo. The crowd loved it, but, unfortunately, the venue wasn’t equipped to handle the show. The air conditioning broke down, the rented sound system failed, and Midler became frustrated to the point of no return. The following day, Bob Casey received a call to install a proper sound system.

Casey had been used to adapting to complicated spaces when he installed the system at the Cherry Grove Hotel’s Ice Palace, the most popular Fire Island dance club of the time. Several of his ingenious adaptations included rigging air-conditioner hoses into the amplifiers to keep them from overheating and stabilizing the turntables by filling the foundation under the DJ booth with sand. The Baths was a new challenge—how to outfit a sprawling low-ceiling space to satisfy the crowd who’d followed the new resident DJ, Bobby Guttadaro aka Bobby DJ, in from Fire Island.

Until then, the DJ booth was merely a bit of space that performers walked past between the dressing room and the stage. “As time went on, DJs became an integral part of the venue,” says Ostrow. The booth was upgraded to match the DJs’ increasing prominence at the club. “It was enclosed with big glass windows and covered in mirrors,” recalled Frankie Knuckles, who equated it to the grandiose booth in the 1978 film Thank God It’s Friday. Along with the booth came a serious rig of strobe and colored lights, as well as the soon-stereotypical LED dance floor.

The Continental Baths

The system was still in many ways a poor man’s setup. Music played through a set of sixteen Boss speakers hanging like birdcages. They delivered an unprecedented 3000 watts of sound but couldn’t create the same level of bass becoming popular in other clubs. Instead of a more expensive Bozak mixer, the Baths used a pair of homemade equalizer preamps. The heart of the system was a Phase Linear amplifier, which was dubbed “the Flame Linear” for its tendency to over-drive the speakers to the point that they literally caught on fire, a problem that was made worse by DJs replacing the fuses with foil to attempt to pull even more volume.

The DJ mixer was also a custom creation, with oversized RCA broadcast knobs, no crossfader (they weren’t popularized until the late ’70s), two channels for a pair of high-torque Lenco turntables, and a middle fader dubbed “the manager’s knob.” It controlled a tape deck to be used if the DJ passed out on the decks, which wasn’t uncommon thanks to a short Dutch door to the booth through which partygoers often passed a variety of “mind enhancers,” says Casey.

Early resident selector Bobby DJ brought an enthusiastic Fire Island crowd to the dance floor, causing it to become more than just a minor diversion from the rampant sex and drugs. “I always considered Bobby the best,” says Bob Casey. “He looked like a nerdy guy, but he was my favorite DJ because he was a party DJ. He had the balls that he could break out a Carmen Miranda record from the 1940s. In other words, he wasn’t afraid to laugh.” Bobby’s credited with popularizing records like Carl Douglas’s “Kung Fu Fighting” and Disco Tex and the Sex-O-Lettes’ “Get Dancin’.”6

But perhaps Bobby Guttadaro’s most important contribution was in the field of record distribution. With the help of Baths manager Don Scotti, Guttadaro drafted a letter to the record executives petitioning for the same access to first pressings as radio DJs. “Bobby felt DJs in the club circuit should have the same rights as radio DJs, because they were just as effective at breaking hits,” recalls Scotti. Soon thereafter, broadcast-only 45 singles were making their way into the hands of club DJs.

After Bobby DJ left the club, the turntables were taken over by David Rodriguez in summer 1973. He was acknowledged for breaking tracks like “Yes We Can Can” by the Pointer Sisters and “I’ve Got to Use My Imagination” by Gladys Knight and the Pips, and was known for trying to line up lyrics between songs to tell a story.7 But despite his talents, alcohol abuse got in the way. “One of the mantras of the DJ is that too much is never enough, and that applied to David,” says Casey.

To say that the Baths were conducive to indulgence is an understatement. In the recent documentary Continental, Steve Ostrow remarked that only ten to twenty percent of the crowd was there for the sex, while Frankie thought differently, putting the number of sex-driven clientele somewhere between ninety-nine and 144 percent.8 When asked for his craziest memory of the club, Nicky Siano recalls a twenty-four-hour period in which he had seventeen different sexual partners (he couldn’t remember who was DJing). Knuckles recalled an anecdote where someone dropped LSD into the aquarium near the dance floor and the fish started jumping out. When the staff tried to put the fish back in, they’d jump right back out.

The Continental Baths

After David Rodriguez left in spring 1974, the next person behind the decks was Joey Bonfiglio, a soundman who assisted Casey and had worked the lights for the previous DJs. Joey was known to lubricate the turntable platter with actual wax underneath a primitive, felt slipmat for easier cueing. Frankie Knuckles called him one of the unsung DJs of the club’s history, and he’s credited with being the first to invite Larry Levan into the booth. “Someone needed to work the lights to segue with the songs seamlessly, and Larry was great at that,” says manager Don Scotti. When Ostrow wouldn’t give Bonfiglio a raise, he left, and the gig was open to the first person who could piece together a record collection.

By now, the young pair of best friends Larry Levan and Frankie Knuckles were mainstays at the club. “Larry was this crazy, talented kid, and Frankie was very level-headed and grown up for his age. 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. Frankie would protect him from all the people who would want to beat him up,” says Siano. “They had very different personalities,” says Don Scotti. “Larry was bigger than life, and Frankie was like a sponge soaking up that energy from Larry. Frankie was nice in capital letters. Larry was more caustic, more of a smash queen. He was spontaneous, where Frankie Knuckles was more involved and personable,” says Casey.

Their first taste of DJing was during the day when there wasn’t a scheduled DJ. “We spent many hours, days, and nights playing one-for-one, honing and sharpening our skills,” said Knuckles. Although they were still both under twenty-one, the pair had received a serious education in music as regulars and informal assistants at Nicky Siano’s Gallery, where they’d blow up balloons before the shows and do other odd jobs around the club.

Continental Baths

Eventually, Nicky and Larry became romantically involved, a relationship Levan leveraged in order to build the record collection he’d soon use at the Baths. Although Levan has claimed in an interview that he borrowed records from another friend,9 Siano remembers it differently: “Larry went behind my back to the record companies I’d been taking him to for years and told them he wanted records for me,” says Siano. “Then [Larry] used those records at the Baths.”

In those days, DJs kept their collections at their main club of residence to avoid transporting heavy crates of records. Soon the walls of the Continental Baths DJ booth were lined with Levan’s growing record collection. While Larry was mixing, Frankie would work the lights. “Musically, we’d be all over the place, which could’ve been fun for our towel-clad listeners, or a nightmare,” said Frankie. Larry began mimicking other DJs of the time, playing safe mixes like Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ “Bad Luck” into MFSB’s “The Sound of Philadelphia.” According to Siano, Larry took some pages from Siano’s book of tricks with signature moves like dropping a blaring 707 jet-plane sound effect over MFSB’s “Love Is the Message.” But once Larry gained more confidence, he began to be the first to break songs, such as South Shore Commission’s anthemic “Free Man.”

Manager Don Scotti took notice of Levan’s talents. “He was a creative genius, he broke new ground,” Scotti says. “His ability was knowing exactly what song to play at what time in the evening. There could be ten great DJs who all had the same records, but Larry could change between songs so that you couldn’t even hear the transitions. Sometimes, he’d mix back and forth. He was like a really great entertainer—he knew how to read the dance floor so that it never went cold.” Some of the biggest anthems Scotti recalls from the era were Love Unlimited Orchestra “Love’s Theme” and Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You, Baby.”

Despite Larry’s knack at the turntables, sometimes his spontaneity got the best of him. “When Larry was a little more clearheaded, he was the next generation of DJs,” says Casey. “But without warning, he’d take a few hits of ethyl chloride and head to a back room and leave Knuckles alone in the booth to fend for himself.”

Frankie had begun playing at the era’s most prominent Black disco club, Better Days, and was soon taking over for Levan at the Tubs several nights a week. “It came easier to Larry, but Frankie was much more focused,” says Don Scotti. Casey says that “the talent of Larry Levan was captured by Frankie Knuckles; he got the idea of how it works, how to be a good disc jockey.” Some of Frankie’s favorite songs from the era were “Koke” by Tribe; “City, Country, City” by War; “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Gonna Go” by Curtis Mayfield; “Blood Donors Needed” by David Ruffin; and “Mighty Love” by the Spinners.

By the end of 1974, Larry Levan had outgrown the Continental Baths. “Larry wanted to go further at the Continental, but the sound system wasn’t designed for where he wanted to go with music,” says Casey. Disco’s premier sound engineer Richard Long opened a loft space called SoHo Place and invited Levan to be the resident. He accepted, leaving his regular gig at the Tubs to Frankie. The SoHo Place was not open long. Shortly thereafter, Levan played at a club called Reade Street, and then found his permanent home at the Paradise Garage. The Garage would go on to become one of the most legendary clubs in disco history thanks to Levan’s otherworldly control of the crowd.

Frankie continued to play at the Continental, but the bathhouse was becoming a shadow of its former self. The cleanliness and quality control that Steve Ostrow once prided himself on were things of the past. “I couldn’t help noticing the paint peeling from the walls, the ceiling pipes leaking, and the dank smell everywhere,” Ostrow wrote in his book.10 Debt was looming, and bills were often paid by selling off assets like paintings or the massive fish tank. A decision to allow women into the club had polarized much of the original gay crowd, who were now exploring other new bathhouses. And as more and more discos opened, what once was a revolutionary sound system was now antiquated. “The sound system at the Baths [at that time] wouldn’t work in the lobby of the Paradise Garage,” says Casey, “let alone the main room.”

Continental Baths Ad 4

In 1976, the Continental Baths closed its doors for good. Steve Ostrow relocated to Montreal and opened the short-lived Continental Sauna with help from Don Scotti. After its closing, Scotti pursued a career in film, and Ostrow followed through on his dreams of singing opera. Bob Casey continued working as a soundman but left the world of disco for larger gigs like running the sound for the pope at Yankee Stadium. Knuckles would soon move to Chicago for a residency at the Warehouse, a club whose name became synonymous with a new style of disco music simply called “house.” He would go on to champion the new style through production work and worldwide DJ gigs. He died in March at age fifty-nine from diabetes complications. Levan played at the Paradise Garage until its closing in 1987, while branching out into remixing and production with the group NYC Peech Boys. He died of AIDS in 1992.

Although today it’s remembered mainly as a footnote in New York City’s gay liberation movement, the Continental Baths can be seen as an encapsulation of the entire disco era. Musical genres evolved to suit dancers whose once-taboo concepts of sexuality spread to the mainstream, technological adaptations encouraged DJs to push their art form further, and just when it seemed like the good times would never end, the venue shuttered. Much like the disco era, the key figures of the Continental Baths will always be remembered for their ability to keep the crowd dancing.

Notes

1. Steve Ostrow, Live at the Continental: The Inside Story of the World-Famous Continental Baths (Bloomington: Xlibris, 2007).
2. Ibid.
3. Steven Gaines, “The Building of the Upper West Side,” New York, May 16, 2005.
4. Ibid.
5. Continental, documentary directed by Malcolm Ingram, USA: Blowhard Films, 2013.
6. Peter Shapiro, Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco (New York: Faber and Faber, 2005).
7. Tim Lawrence, Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970–1979 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004).
8. Continental, Ingram.
9. Lawrence, Love Saves the Day.
10. Ostrow, Live at the Continental.

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  1. Bravo, well done!!!!
    Steve Ostrow

    – Steve Ostrow

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