Who knew a history lesson could be this much fun? From its opening, eye-popping title sequence, Continental spills over with lively interviews, hilarious anecdotes, crazy stock footage and loads of gossip.
Ingram’s skill as a documentary filmmaker comes into full play here. Continental is the story of the legendary bathhouse, which existed from the late 1960s to the late ’70s. This, of course, was a pivotal time for the gay community and for civil rights advances, and the film shows us how an institution that operated 24/7 and was essentially one gigantic orgy was part of that change. People showed up, partied, had sex, shopped in the boutique or had a coffee, then had more sex. Some men would stay for days at a time.
The star of the documentary emerges as Steve Ostrow, an entrepreneur who realized men wanted to meet up with other men for sex but often had no way or nowhere to do it. He set up shop, soon to realize that the police would not allow for such an obvious gay-orgy outfit. But Ostrow explains that after a couple of raids the police pointed out that if he simply bought some tickets to their weekly fundraising ball — $8,000 worth each week — the raids would stop. Ostrow agreed, given the burgeoning success of his business and his need to protect his customers’ anonymity.
While acknowledging that the bathhouse culture accommodated those who remained closeted, Continental also shows us that Ostrow was himself a man discovering his own gay sexual identity and that he and bathhouse staff always fought for the decriminalization of gay sex. It’s a strange time to look back at because there was a sense of euphoria that went with the sexual revolution and there was no stigma of AIDS. Interviewed for the film, author Edmund White quotes Susan Sontag, who suggested there was, in fact, a brief window of about 30 years — from the widespread dissemination of birth control pills and antibiotics to treat STDs to the outbreak of the AIDS crisis — when people could live with complete sexual abandon. The Continental bathhouse stands as a potent symbol of this time.
But perhaps the strangest part comes with the Continental’s status as a multipurpose space. Leave it to gays to decide they had to put on a show. Ostrow had a dancefloor installed (the first glass disco floor ever, he claims) and recruited talent to perform live. Most legendary is the story of how he discovered Bette Midler, who was a struggling performer paying her way by waitressing, and how she got her start there, accompanied by a then-unknown Barry Manilow on piano. (They didn’t get along at first, Ostrow says.) Peter Allen played there, as did Sarah Vaughan and Patti LaBelle. It sounded like quite the party.
But Ingram, to his credit, doesn’t gloss things over. A disgruntled White suggests that the shows got in the way of the sex party, which he feels was the main reason the Continental existed and should have been its focus. The Continental became the talk of the town, and as such, all sorts of people starting showing up to check things out, among them Johnny Carson, Hitchcock, Woody Allen and Diane Keaton. Ingram doesn’t skimp on gossipy details: Nureyev loved rough trade! Holly Woodlawn occasionally performed while lying down, as she was too wasted to stand up!
Given what would come down the pipes not so long after the Continental shut its doors, Ostrow’s story makes for a beautiful — and quite uplifting — story arc. He got to pursue his lifelong dream of being an opera singer and now works to better the lives of older gay men. It’s a fitting punctuation mark to an invigorating documentary, which, in the Grindr era, seems almost like science fiction. By the final credit roll, I was sure of one thing: watching Continental made me want to see the Continental.