Gay men have been meeting for sex in bathhouses since the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the United States.
Gay men on the prowl frequented and sometimes made sexual contact at most of the baths at Coney Island in New York, including one particular bathhouse where professional male models, bodybuilders and their admirers gathered in the 1930s. But two bathhouses, Stauch's and Claridge's, had the reputation of being a homosexual rendezvous.
In the late 1960's and throughout the 1970's gay bathhouses evolved from being discreet places that were talked about in hushed tones to the modern, fully-licensed establishments that operated to serve the needs and desires of the gay community.
In 1965, Jack Campbell and two partners opened their own bathhouse in Cleveland. The Club Bath Chain was born, complete with amenities such as television rooms, vending machines, Jacuzzis, shag carpeting and wood paneling.
Info courtesy Gay Tubs:
In the late 1960s, Steve Ostrow opened the Continental Baths at 230 West 74th Street in the basement of the Ansonia Hotel in New York City. Continental Baths was advertised as reminiscent of "the glory of ancient Rome."
The features of this bathhouse included a disco dance floor, a cabaret lounge, sauna rooms, an "Olympia blue" swimming pool, and could serve nearly 1,000 men, 24 hours a day.
An added attraction at the club was the first class entertainment provided by performers such as:
Jazz singer and bandleader Cab Calloway
Singer Tiny Tim
Singer and actress Melba Moore
R&B group Labelle
R&B group The Pointer Sisters
Vocal group The Manhattan Transfer
Puppeteer Wayland Flowers
Singer and comedienne Bette Midler, who began her career by performing there with Barry Manilow in 1970.
Due to her performances at the baths, Bette Midler earned the nickname Bathhouse Betty. It was at the Continental, accompanied by pianist Barry Manilow (who, like the bathhouse patrons, sometimes wore only a white towel,) that she created her stage persona the Divine Miss M.
The Continental Baths lost much of its gay clientèle by 1974. The reason for the decline in patronage was, as one gay New Yorker was quoted, "We finally got fed up with those silly-assed, campy shows. All those straight people in our bathhouse made us feel like we were part of the décor and that we were there for their amusement."
By the end of 1974, patronage was so low that Steve Ostrow had decided to discontinue the lounge acts. He focused, instead, on resurrecting his business by making the baths coed. He even advertised on WBLS, but to no avail. In the end, Ostrow closed the Continental Baths for good. The facility, however, was reopened in 1977 as a heterosexual swingers' club called Plato's Retreat.
Plato's Retreat was a sex club in New York City, owned first by Larry Levenson, and later by Fred J. Lincoln, that catered to heterosexual couples.
Prior to Plato's Retreat, the building housed the Continental Baths, a famous gay bathhouse. Plato's relocated to 509 West 34th Street in 1980.
During its heyday, Plato's Retreat was considered the world's most famous sex club and was popular with many celebrities as well as well-to-do couples. The clientèle was described as "an assortment of kinky types from the suburbs: dry cleaners and their wives or fat men in toupees with their heavily made-up girlfriends."
In 1985 despite his overall pro-lesbian and pro-gay-rights stance, NYC Mayor Ed Koch nonetheless backed up the New York City Health Department's decision to shut down the city's gay bathhouses in 1985 in response to concerns over the spread of AIDS.
The enactment of the measure the following year placed the city in a dilemma, as it apparently meant that the bathhouses would have to be re-opened because many heterosexual "sex clubs" — most notably Plato's Retreat — were in operation in the city at the time, and allowing them to remain open while keeping the bathhouses shuttered would have been a violation of the newly-adopted anti-discrimination law.
The Health Department, with Koch's approval, reacted by ordering the heterosexual clubs, including Plato's Retreat, to close as well. The club's NYC location was finally shut down on New Year's Eve, 1985 by the city of New York for violating public health ordinances.
Plato's Retreat relocated to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where it reopened under the new name Plato's Retreat 2.
Plato's Retreat Theme:
In 2006 Plato's Retreat closed, and then reopened keeping the same location and BYOB Club format, but as a sex club for men only. The club is currently operated under the business name Plato's Retreat 2 / The Slammer.
A Big Gay Bathhouse Full circle!