Business has not been good lately for bathhouses, the urban meeting places for gay men who enjoy using steam rooms and saunas or getting blowjobs from complete strangers in them. The Hollywood Spa, a long-time haunt in LA, closed its doors this year after decades in business, and the Associated Press recently looked at the decline in the importance of these fabled sex dens.
Now the North American Bathhouse Association (NABA) is using a combination of awareness-building, steep discounts, and social media outreach to entice a new generation of young dudes to put down Grindr and Scruff (the apps that are basically a bathhouse in every gay’s pocket), pick up a towel, and channel the 70s spirit of cavorting with the hottest bods in town. It might be an uphill battle, but it’s one that Dennis Holding, NABA's 75-year-old president, says that they’re winning.
I recently chatted with Holding, who has invested in bathhouses all over the country since he opened his first club in 1972, about the past, present, and future of the industry.
VICE: How did you end up in the bathhouse business?
Dennis Holding: I worked in the automotive industry at the time on the racing side, selling parts. I was in Indianapolis for the qualifying for the [Indy] 500, and it was raining, so I went out and met somebody. We went to a brunch the next day with his friends, and they got talking about how Indy needed a gay bathhouse. I looked at the demographics and realized there wasn’t one for 100 miles in any direction. And that’s how it came to be. A couple weeks later, I met the principals of the Club Baths chain [which had 42 bathhouses in its prime]. At that time, six or eight guys would throw in some money, and one guy agreed to go build it, and that’s how they were built. It was the 70s, so things were going great guns.
An opportunity came in Houston because I met some guys who said they needed a bathhouse. I went down, and we found a building and bought it, and we’ve been on that property for 40 years. We tore the original building down, and we built a $1.8 million new structure about 12 years ago.
Were you visiting the bathhouses a lot back then?
I had just come out a few years before. So yes, I was. I was running amok. I traveled constantly for business for several years before I settled down in one city. Every city I would look at bars and bathhouses and see what was going on.
Were the clubs busy? Were the guys having tons of sex?
They were busy, and it depended on the person—some were fairly promiscuous and some were picky. One of the by-products was the number of couples who first met in a bathhouse. Two of our principal partners met in the club in Cleveland in the late 60s. A lot of people, even to this day, say, “Oh, the Club Baths. I met Leroy there. We’ve been together 27 years.”
What was the atmosphere like in the clubs?
It was a social place then. That’s what I believe our function is even today. Yeah, there was sex, of course, but the clubs we were building had swimming pools, gyms—they had a lot to offer. We have people who have been going to one of our clubs for 20 years, 30 years. It’s part of their social thing. There are plenty of people I know just by there being there so much. It’s part of their routine.
Why do you think young guys aren't into bathhouses?
We did a forum with a couple of guys who were very active in gay marketing and promotion in Las Vegas, and they came in and both of them said, “No, we’ve never been to a bathhouse.” There are two bathhouses in Las Vegas, and neither are shining examples of what they could be, but they were judging and hadn’t been.
So how are you going to get young guys to show up?
We’re finding out. We’ve done various promotions where 18- to 24-year-olds get free entry. Pretty soon someone would come by and he would try the bathhouse and he would tell his friends and we’d get three or four guys. As long as they don’t cluster and giggle they enjoy themselves. We’ve seen these promotions skew our age much younger. Now our age is about mid 30s rather than late 40s.
Back in the day were the clubs just full of super hot young guys?
There was a club in LA called The 8709. It was on the second floor. In its day, there would be a line down the stairs to the street, and you’d wait and you’d climb all the way up, and if the attendant didn’t like your looks he wouldn’t let you in. I got rejected there once, but I got let in three or four times, and I remember the process quite well. But if they thought you weren’t attractive enough they wouldn’t let you in.
So, in the age or Grindr, how are you going to convince young guys that bathhouses are better?
Let’s say you’ve met Sam Stranger online. That’s cool. You want to bring a stranger into your apartment? Maybe not. You want to go to his place, which is far out in Queens or wherever? Maybe not. But if you had a place to go on the East Side or West Side that you thought was clean and pleasant and welcoming, why not meet there?
But then you have to compete for your guy with everyone already at the club!
Well, you may. But you may find out that Mr. Ripped had torn a picture out of a magazine and was Mr. Saggy and think, “Whoa this isn’t for me,” and you want out. Then you’re not trapped at his apartment.
At first we thought [Grindr] was going to be the end of it. Now we attract business using social media. We’ll put four or five Facebook blasts an evening on Friday and Saturday, and we’ve created the buzz, and a lot of that goes to Twitter and what have you. It keeps the pot stirred. In Miami, probably 50 percent of our people live at home with a mother or a wife or kids or partner or some combination, and they can’t play at home. We see pairs and couples meeting up and using the club—that’s how it works. The bisexuals are another ingredient. Bisexual folks are still very much a part of our business and they need a discreet place to go. That’s not going to change.
I was at Der Boiler in Berlin this spring and they had a bar and a café and tons of hot young guys hanging out. Would having bars and restaurants help the bathhouses here?
It would be a godsend. It would be wonderful. But it’s just not possible. I have gone through the paces of trying to get a beer and wine license, but it never works.
It’s the old Puritan way. You can’t have sex on the premises where food and beverage are served. There are cities where you can’t even have a bathhouse or sauna or social club, whatever. Statutes were written in the 80s by [men] who were gay who had HIV issues and were angry. The bathhouses were blamed for all sorts of things that weren’t true. They wrote statutes in Boston, Minneapolis, a number of cities that are just airtight.
Do you have a really funny story from all your years in the bathhouses?
The only story is funny is a guy years ago in Dallas. I was living there at the time, and [we] met in the Club Dallas and we had a nice time. He was working overseas, but when he came back to town, we'd bump into each other again and have a nice time. Six or nine months later, I go by a back-room bar that was pitch black and my hands were roaming around and I said, “Oh, hi, you’re back in town!” I happened to grab his member and recognized him immediately. But I couldn’t see anything!
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