Steve Ostrow, founder of NYC’s Continental Baths, dies at 91

The NYC singer and entrepreneur who gave Frankie Knuckles and Larry Levan an early gig passed away in Australia.

The founder of the Continental Baths, where DJs Frankie Knuckles and Larry Levan got their early start, has passed away.

The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper announced Ostrow has died in the city he moved to in the 1980s. He was 91 years old.

Ostrow founded Continental Baths in the basement of the gilt palatial Ansonia Hotel in 1968. A unique twist in his “fantasia” was the creation of what might have been something like the first modern “DJ booth,” where friends Frankie Knuckles and Larry Levan would often play for $25 per night.

The New York Times obituary describes the scene:

Occupying a full block on Broadway, from 73rd Street to 74th Street, it is a florid wedding cake of a building, with cupolas, balconies and gargoyles. When it opened, there were Turkish baths and an enormous pool in the basement, billed as the world’s largest; seals in the lobby fountains; and, on the roof, an urban farm with goats, chickens and a bear.

 

The queer-oriented bathhouse (opened a year before the Stonewall Riots) was frequently raided by police — hundreds of times, according to Ostrow. It was later shut down and re-opened as a swinger’s club — Plato’s Retreat.

The Continental Baths turned out to be one of those places that Allen Ginsberg described as a “classic station of the earth” — a place where influential people met and collaborated and had fun years before they went on to do the things they became famous for. Ostrow published an autobiography, Live At The Continental, in 2007 after he’d moved to Australia decades earlier:

I built the Continental Baths in 1968 and discovered Bette Midler in 1969. The Baths were not only an expression of sexual liberation, but also heralded in a rebirth of Cabaret in the city of New York. Artists of the ilk of Barry Manilow, Manhattan Transfer, Peter Allen, Margaret Whiting, Melba Moore, Liz Torres, Patti LaBelle and countless others in addition to Bette got their first big break at the Continental Baths.

 

The Continental Baths, he wrote, “was a phenomenon that came out of a pre-AIDS world that we will probably never experience again.”

The Baths were a place where people came out of their closets and found out who they were. It was the first gay establishment to treat gay people as equals and not exploit them. It was instrumental in having the laws against homosexuality rescinded and gave birth, along with Stonewall, to a whole generation where gay was in. Beyond that it ushered in an era of sexual liberation and alternative lifestyles that, to this day, has never been equaled.

 

Working as a vocal coach and an activist in the LGBTQ+ community, Ostrow was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia in 2021. He was living in a retirement home in Sydney at the time of his death.