What is it about the Ansonia Hotel, at Broadway and Seventy-third Street, that makes people want to take off their clothes? In the nineteen-sixties and seventies, naked men, sometimes ten thousand of them a week, used to hang out downstairs in the sauna, Turkish baths, and massage parlor of the Continental Baths, where Bette Midler got her start (clothed), singing torch songs poolside, accompanied by Barry Manilow, to an audience of men wearing white towels (black towels on formal nights)—the very same outfit worn by the undercover cops who frequently raided the place. In 1977, women started getting naked, too, when the baths reopened as Plato’s Retreat, the heterosexual swingers’ club. (Of course, they might have been there for the all-you-can-eat buffet of bagels, lox, and Scotch.)
Look for more skin at this location now that it has been transformed into the newest branch of Loehmann’s. Many New York women have traumatic memories of zaftig matrons in giant bras and girdles preening in front of mirrors in the famous communal dressing room, and asking strangers to unzip them, while bored husbands sat in soiled armchairs by the curtained doorway, hoping to catch a glimpse of thigh. As one veteran shopper said recently, “As a child, everything scary I knew about women and female anatomy I learned in that dressing room.”
Turning the site of a former bathhouse into a women’s discount clothing outlet is a classic sign of the times, isn’t it? However, I’m happy to report that despite earlier press accounts, another Manhattan landmark, the former Limelight nightclub is not becoming an H&M outlet after all. Several weeks ago the building resurrected itself one more time as its last nightlife incarnation, Avalon, and is packing in the boys on Saturday nights once again.