Night … Midtown Manhattan… on Monday, when the club was normally closed, the supermodel Bianca Jagger (married to Mick Jagger at the time) threw her 32nd birthday party. Only celebrities in the room, from Jacqueline Bisset to Mikhail Baryshnikov… Heralded by a Lady Godiva-esque naked woman with long blond hair, who rode in on a white horse led by a nude man, (“Clothes” were body-painted on both). The image of Mick crossing the dance floor on horseback was captured by photographers and became an enduring Studio 54 image.
The story about the club’s heyday and cultural revolution, and how it all came crashing down. The time before social media, photo filters, and the era’s most unforgettable “It” celebrities.
“Studio 54 is one of those stories everyone thinks they know, but they don’t,” Mr. Tyrnauer said in a telephone interview. – “The phenomenon is very different from perception — which is sex, drugs, disco, mountains of cocaine, Liza Minnelli, period. Studio 54 is a well-known party icon of Big Apple nights going back almost one hundred years. However, the times were not without their challenges. The tragic story of the years ending the sexual revolution. The timing is haunting — Studio was open for 33 months, from April 1977 to January 1980. That 1980 date was also the beginning of the H.I.V./AIDS era, with the first cases surfacing about that time.
Studio 54 ‘s original incarnation was an opera house. Gallo Opera House was first opened in 1927. The venue went into foreclosure after only two years. They had failed to attract crowds enough to pay the creditors. The building changed hands a few times throughout the 1930s, always serving as a theatre.CBS bought the building in the early 40s. It was named Studio 52 where it served as a sound stage. It would have this purpose until the mid-70s.
The people in power were the two ambitious owners from Brooklyn—Ian Schrager, a respectable lawyer and married heterosexual, and his publicity-addicted best friend from college, a gay extrovert named Steve Rubell—plus a battalion of doormen with delusions of grandeur and security guards on the velvet carpet who blocked the entrance like sentries. Their duty was to welcome the rich and famous and keep out the riffraff. I still don’t know how they could tell the difference.
It was in the mid-70s that it would become the icon of nightlife that it is famed for today, Studio 54. Indeed, this club would play a cult role in disco and party culture of the day. It was bought by The Broadway Catering Corp. This did not go without its scandal and protest from residents. In the first month, the club was shut down for illegally selling alcohol. It was not long before it reopened serving fruit juice. However, it was the drugs and sex that made the club the in the thing. Stories of cocaine being snorted off of cocktail tables and open sex in the club are very numerous. During the 1970s the studio came equipped with sex balconies and basement mattresses. It spoke to the depraved times in America during and post-Vietnam era.
The likes of Lisa Minelli and Elizabeth Taylor also frequented the club, however, they were not having sex with everyone every night. They were celebrities that just went to be seen.
At one point in the new documentary “Studio 54,” Michael Jackson wanders into a television interview that the club’s co-owner Steve Rubell is doing. Asked what it is that he likes about Studio 54, a shockingly relaxed and smiling Jackson says, “I like the atmosphere — the feeling, the excitement. – “It’s where you come when you want to escape. When you dance here, you’re just free.”
on photo: Mikhail Baryshnikov and Mick Jagger.
Keith Richards of Rolling Stones was another member of the scene in the 70s. He and Mick Jagger were well known to take part in the bisexual orgies happening in the club at the time.
Freddie Mercury also was a lover of the hedonist atmosphere of Studio 54.
Grace Jones and Dolph Lundgren first met while he was her bodyguard. At Studio they had wild sex orgies while under the influence of crack cocaine, which was a major public health epidemic in the 80s. The couple would later split up when Dolph’s career began to outshine Graces’.
On photo: Debbie Harry, Andy Warhol, Jerry Hall, Truman Capote, and others – Studio 54, circa 1978
Andy Warhol, the famous artist, was among the no limit regular patrons of the club in the 70s. It is aid he could be seen downing amphetamines with champagne.
Celebs in the late 1970s pretty much had to go to Studio 54 or risk being left-out and permanently excluded. (Even Frank Sinatra and Jack Nicholson were allegedly turned away at different times.) The nightclub had its regulars: Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, Halston, Cher, Diana Ross, Brooke Shields, Michael Jackson, Calvin Klein, Bianca Jagger, Liza Minnelli, Rudolf Nureyev, and Debbie Harry…. but to list every celeb who graced its disco floor would be nearly impossible: Stallone, Beatty, Travolta… it was a who’s who of the disco-era’s “beautiful people”.
Because of high profits, it also attracted the attention of the IRS, being investigated for drug money laundering. In 1978 the club was raided and one of the principles of The Broadway Corporation was arrested and convicted for tax offenses. IRS agents raided Studio 54 on December 14th, 1978, seizing garage bags of cash, financial documents and five ounces of cocaine. Both Rubell and Schrager were arrested and accused of skimming $2.5 million in club earnings. That November they pled guilty to two counts of corporate and personal income-tax evasion. Judge Richard Owen shocked the court by imposing the maximum penalty: three-and-a-half years in prison and $20,000 fines.
It had its last party sometime in 1980. The following February, just before they were due to serve their time, Rubell and Schrager threw one last bash, billed as “The End of Modern-Day Gomorrah.” This final blowout was intimate compared to most nights, with just 2,000 of Studio 54’s most faithful, including Richard Gere, Halston, Reggie Jackson, Andy Warhol, Lorna Luft, and Sylvester Stallone. Diana Ross serenaded the owners from the DJ booth, and Liza Minnelli sang “New York, New York.” Rubell, donning a Sinatra-like fedora, piped in with a spirited rendition of “My Way,” which played on repeat during the night, as did Gloria Gaynor’s Studio 54 anthem “I Will Survive.” From a mechanical platform high above the dance floor, Rubell addressed his guests with an emotional speech. “Steve was coked out of his mind,” remembered one in attendance, “Bianca was hugging him, and he was saying, ‘I love you people! I don’t know what I’m going to do without Studio!’ And everyone was crying and weeping.”The party was over.
The club reopened in 1981 hosting all the big names of the day including the Fox News personality Geraldo Rivera. Geraldo who had a wild night there including oral sex from the estranged wife of the prime minister of Canada Margaret Trudeau.
The story of Studio 54 had a postscript. They got their sentences reduced by ratting on the owners of other New York clubs, but Schrager lost his license to practice law and both buddies were forced to surrender their credit cards, driver’s licenses, and their right to vote. Schrager eventually resurfaced with a string of boutique hotels and was pardoned by Barack Obama in 2017, but Steve Rubell never entirely survived the disgrace. He died of AIDS in 1989, at the age of 45.
In the late 80s the club was renamed The Ritz under new ownership. Ultimately, it was the epidemic of HIV/AIDS that really did Studio 54 in. There were failed attempts to restore its former glory by many financial groups. Most notably a group headed by disco legend Gloria Gaynor failed to bring it back. It would serve as a cabaret and theatre until the present day.
Studio 54 is a well-heeled Broadway theater now; ticket owners there can try to summon a ghostly pageant of its glory days as a club. Visitors may find themselves speculating if they would have been summoned inside the velvet rope by Rubell or left to fume on the sidewalk, as those of us without style, fame, cachet, or beauty would have been. Studio 54 may have been an exemplar of sexual egalitarianism, but there’s little doubt its “us and them” elitism ruined many a New Yorker’s (or New Jerseyite’s) night.
Studio 54 was a big part of the party culture of the day and its memory and spirit will live on.
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