Director Malcolm Ingram on a wall Photo by Tony Fong
Continental Baths was a legendary New York bathhouse that operated from 1968 to 1975. It didn’t just have rooms and a sauna; it had an Olympic-sized pool, a performance space and even a hair salon. Something for every gay need. “But once AIDS happened, no one wanted to talk about the good old times at the baths,” says Malcolm Ingram, director of the new documentary Continental, who hopes to cement the bathhouse’s place in gay history.
Ingram has made gay documentaries before. He is the director of Small Town Gay Bar and Bear Nation, both produced by his mentor, director Kevin Smith. “Narratives weren’t working out for me,” he admitted of his first two films, Drawing Flies and Tail Lights Fade. He was particularly disenchanted by the way Tail Lights Fade turned out.
“I wanted to do a fun modern update of Smokey and the Bandit, but once it went through Telefilm, it turned it into an atrocity. The stupidest mistake I ever made was to assume that they knew what they were talking about. It’s like William Goldman said, ‘Nobody knows anything.’”
Ingram began his career in high style. He met Kevin Smith while working at the Toronto film festival and, apparently, one day recommended Shannen Doherty for her role in Mallrats. Later, Smith got wind that Ingram had written a script and asked him how much he would need to make it. “So as a joke I said, ‘27,750 bucks,’ which is what it cost him to make Clerks,” Ingram says, and a partnership was born. However, they recently parted ways. “It was time to move on,” Ingram says. “We were friends for 18 years. Kevin taught me about filmmaking. But you just grow and head in different directions.”
The executive producer of Continental is Salah Bachir, whom Ingram met when he interviewed Bachir for Bear Nation. Ingram’s co-producer is former Fab editor Matt Thomas. “The day I read that he was leaving Fab I sent him a message asking him what he’s doing next. Matt is an incredible burst of energy.”
Ingram was lucky in that the man who ran the Continental, Steve Ostrow, is alive and well and living in Australia, where he is a committed gay activist. Ostrow was an opera singer, and he believed in providing top-drawer entertainment for his clientele. The list of performers who appeared at the Continental includes The Pointer Sisters, Frankie Knuckles, Gladys Knight, Peter Allen and, of course, Barry Manilow and Bette Midler.
“We tried to get Bette. We offered to fly to her and even offered her final cut, but she still said no,” Ingram admits with just a soupçon of bitterness. “I’m disappointed that she doesn’t want to acknowledge something that was a big part of her career.”
A self-described “goofy gay documentarian” and “a big fan of misfit culture,” Ingram has his sights set on his next film — about the rivalry between The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Beach Boys to make the greatest record ever. “After Pet Sounds came out there was a race resulting in Smile, Their Satanic Majesties Request and Sgt Pepper’s. One imploded, one was a misfire and one really is great.” For a pop music fan like myself, this movie sounds like heaven.
But back to Continental. Most bathhouses nowadays are fuck-and-suck marts filled with whacked-out guys and nonstop boots-in-a-dryer dance music. Maybe that’s what makes the idea of a cabaret inside such a facility so intriguing. I remember back in 1998 Spa Excess hosted an evening with a Bette Midler impersonator. I watched the show in a towel, for greater authenticity. It was so much fun, and for that brief moment, I understood what was special about the Continental.