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As gay acceptance rises and hooking up goes online, US bathhouses adapt to stay in business

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LOS ANGELES, Calif. - Gay bathhouses that once remained in the shadows to stay in business are now seeking attention to keep their doors open.

Some are doing aggressive online advertising and community outreach. Others tout their upscale amenities like plush towels and marble baths. A bathhouse in Ohio has even added hotel rooms and a nightclub.

Gone are the days when bathhouses drew crowds just by offering a discreet place for gays to meet, share saunas and, often, have sex.

"The acceptance of gays has changed the whole world. It's taken away the need to sneak into back-alley places," said Dennis Holding, 75, who owns a Miami-based bathhouse.

In the heyday of bathhouses in the late 1970s, there were nearly 200 gay bathhouses in cities across the U.S., but by 1990, the total had dropped to approximately 90, according to Damron, the publisher of an annual gay travel guide. In the last decade, bathhouses, including ones in San Diego, Syracuse, Seattle and San Antonio, have shut down and the total nationwide is less than 70. Most patrons are older.

Hollywood Spa — one of the largest bathhouses in Los Angeles, a city regarded as the country's bathhouse capital — closed in April. Owner Peter D. Sykes said fewer customers and rising rent put an end to four decades in business.

"Bathhouses were like dirty bookstores and parks: a venue to meet people," said Sykes, who still owns the smaller North Hollywood Spa. "Today, you can go to the supermarket."

Bathhouses date to the Roman Empire. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, American bathhouses were built in many cities to maintain public hygiene among poor and immigrant communities. Chicago and Manhattan each had about 20 public bathhouses.

But the need for public places to wash up declined and by the 1950s and '60s, bathhouses largely had become rendezvous spots for gays, prompting occasional raids because sodomy was still criminalized.

Privately run, gay-owned bathhouses proliferated in the 1970s, offering a haven for gay and bisexual men to meet. Clubs like New York City's Continental bathhouse and Los Angeles' 8709 Club saw a steady stream of patrons.

Each venue was operated like a speakeasy: a nondescript building often located in the urban fringe. In-house entertainment was common, from DJs to live performers. Bette Midler even launched her career from the stage of the Continental.

Amid the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s, bathhouses were vilified for enabling promiscuity and helping spread the disease, and many either closed voluntarily or by legal pressure. Those that remained were stigmatized, and now many younger gays see them as anachronisms.

"The younger generation's main fear is that it's some dark, seedy place," said T.J. Nibbio, the executive director of the North American Bathhouse Association. NABA formed two years ago for bathhouse owners to pool best practices for marketing and operations.

To attract younger patrons, some bathhouses offer steep discounts, cutting admission by as much as 60 per cent. At the three-story Midtowne Spa in downtown Los Angeles, 18- to 20-year-olds get in for $5 any time. On Tuesdays, Los Angeles' Melrose Spa lets those 18 to 25 in for free, a deal that brought 22-year-old Brett Sparks on a recent midweek visit.

"You're either hooking up online or you are here, or you go to bars in West Hollywood, get drunk and hook up," said Sparks, acknowledging that although the bathhouse crowd skews older, it's not as risky as going home with a stranger. "Here it's a safer environment — there's condoms and other protection."

The CEO of Ohio-based Flex Spas, Todd Saporito, has positioned his bathhouse chain as a pillar of the gay community. Saporito uses the chain's Cleveland-based flagship spa, whose 50,000 square feet include luxury hotel rooms and a nightclub, to run the city's annual pride parade and this year's Gay Games, an international LGBT athletic competition.

Flex Spas also has sponsored the White Party, an annual electronic music festival in Palm Springs, and partnered with the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, part of an effort to frame the bathhouse as an opportunity for preventing risky behaviour.

Flex Spas has had mixed success over the past few years. Its location in Atlanta has seen "exponential" growth, but clubs in New Orleans and Columbus, Ohio, have closed, Saporito said.

Saporito said more progressive views on homosexuality aren't evenly spread across the country, underscoring the need for modern bathhouses in some areas. Still, he takes nothing for granted, regardless of the location.

"Bathhouses at some level will go extinct if you don't offer something more than a towel," Saporito said.

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