254 West 54th in Manhattan. A venue that became synonymous with the Disco Age. The Embassy of Hedonia, the place to Be Seen, for celebrities from both ends of the Posh Curve, from Mick Jagger (or Bianca) to Zsa Zsa Gabor - but the Common Folk were also let through the door, if their vibe was right. Various troubles with the IRS and the Drug Squad got them shut down, just as the sick-of-disco meme was reaching a peak - the posh moved on to undisco discos like The Mudd Club.

The night Studio 54 opened, it was like lightning striking. The thing just took off from the first day that it opened.

Ian Schrager, hotelier and partner, Studio 54

Do you have a hard time getting in, Truman?

— artist Andy Warhol, to writer Truman Capote, Interview Magazine, February, 1979

Occasionally, they can't see me. I'm too short.

— Capote, in response to Warhol's question.

The building known as 254 West 54th Street in Manhattan was built in the roaring twenties (1927) and was originally the home of the San Carlo Opera Company.  A theatre, its subsequent names included "The New Yorker," and "Federal Music Theatre."  The Columbia Broadcasting Company (CBS) purchased the theatre in 1943 and renovated the theatre portion of the building for use as a television studio and a sound stage. CBS called the place "Studio 52" merely because it was the 52nd studio the company had built (causing confusion among people who assumed that the "52" meant 52nd Street). Famous radio and television shows were broadcast from, or taped there. The roster of hit shows includes "Beat the Clock," "The $64,000 Question," and Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" when it was still broadcast from New York. The office building above the theatre became home to one of the first disco-genre record labels, "West End Records." The fact that disco sounds would find a home in the building at that time was a queer harbinger of what was to happen there a bit later in the 1970's.

Discotheques and The Demographics They Cater To

A concept that originated with Paris' Whiskey-À-Go-Go in the late 1940s, discotheques were nothing more than nightclubs which played recorded music spun by "disc-jockeys". The recorded music and a disc jockey were a bargain compared to staging live music. By the 1970s the discotheque craze was as popular as ever in New York. There was a discotheque for every demographic and social class. The opulent Regine's on the East Side catered to the rich and famous. Le Jardin was another nightspot in which to see and be seen. The notorious Paradise Garage on the West Side hosted a crowd that was predominately persons of color. 12 West in Greenwich Village was an exclusive, members-only gay night spot.

There had never been a nightclub where an automobile mechanic from Brooklyn could rub elbows with the likes of Mick and Bianca Jagger, Liza Minnelli, and designer Halston. Restaurateurs Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager changed all of that on the evening of April 26, 1977.

They Get Ready for "The" Party

In the summer of 1976 the aging theatre housed at 254 West 54th Street was offered for lease at the then-exorbitant sum of $50,000 per year. Others had talked of turning the theatre into a nightclub, but the concept failed to gel. It was only a week after Schrager and Rubell toured the facility that they signed the lease. Their financial backer was a silent partner, Jack Dushey, who'd gotten to know the two restaurateurs at their facility in the borough of Queens called "The Enchanted Garden." Dushey's involvement in the club was estimated at $600 to $700 thousand.

The renovation took nearly a year but was claimed to have cost less than $1 million. Rubell and Schrager were shooting for the moon; they retained party promoter Carmen D'Allessio to publicize the opening of their club — to a demographic they had no experience with whatsoever — New York's "A" list of the rich and famous, the fashion elite, and music and movie royalty.

The finished club was very large, with a legal capacity exceeding 450 souls. Upon entering, there was a long hallway leading back to the main room. The coat-check was located in this hallway, as well as the booth where admission fees were paid. The dance floor was the focus of the room, with a bar abutting it. Towers of pulsating lights hung all around the dance floor. Another bar was installed above what was the theatre's mezzanine, and there was seating (including some of the old theatre seats) up there, as well. The room was lined with rubber panels, and dubbed the "Rubber Room." The most outrageous part of the decor was the enormous lit-up "Man In The Moon" sculpture complete with a spoonful of glittering "cocaine" that rocked back and forth towards the icon's nose (no motors here; two stagehands pulled the ropes that operated the movement). Beside the larger main areas, there were smaller areas where people could avoid the crowds and the music that blasted every minute.

No expense was spared when selecting sound and lighting equipment. The club employed a lighting and sound staff of about five people who each worked a 40-hour week maintaining the equipment. The lighting design was cutting-edge and the sound system's power and clarity put the club at the forefront of technical innovation.

The staff had been hand-picked by Rubell and his cronies. Disc jockey Nicky Siano had been hired to play music, as well as lesser-known but skillful DJ Richie Kaczor. Each employee; manager, bartender, waiter, bus-boy, coat-check; had been interviewed by Rubell and completely briefed by him about exactly what their role was, and the persona each was to affect, as well. Mark Benecke, Studio 54's first doorman, was the only one Rubell could trust to get the mix of patrons (Rubell called it his "salad") perfect day-in and day-out. The result would be an attractive, fun-loving crowd; gay, straight, black, white, Asian, rich and attractive, poor and very attractive, witty, extrovert, introvert, dancers, people-watchers and more.

Public relations expert D'Allessio had sent five thousand invitations to members of her exclusive mailing list. Many were hand-delivered, accompanied by a clever gift, to the "cream" of the celebrity "crop." D'Allessio's friends and associates had created a buzz about the club that eclipsed all previous efforts by Manhattan club owners to get the "right" people into their establishments. Cindy Adams, Liz Smith and other New York gossip-columnists had duly announced the coming of something big happening on the night-life circuit. None imagined it would be as instantly popular as it was.

The Velvet Rope is Lifted for the First Time

At nine o'clock on the night of April 26th, 1977, workmen were still putting the finishing touches on the place. By opening time, the invitees started to trickle in. By midnight, there was no more room in the huge club, meaning that many latecomers were actually turned away, despite possession of an invitation. Hundreds more flooded 54th street, hoping to either get in, or just get a look at the celebrities arriving in a convoy of limousines about four blocks long.

The rest is history. April 27th's newspapers heralded the news of the biggest celebrity-magnet in the history of New York nightclubs. Only a precious few people would be allowed entrance into this den of hedonism. Rumors were rampant of all manner of debauchery taking place in the mezzanine level (the "Balcony"). Although cocaine use was widespread in all of the clubs of the day, the Man In The Moon (with Cocaine Spoon) sculpture underscored the fact that nearly everyone, patrons and staff alike, were partaking of the drug at Studio 54. And the most exclusive spot in town was no longer a table at Le Cirque, or Le Cote Basque, the French restaurants. Instead, it was the privilege of sitting in the basement of 54 (on cheap patio furniture). The basement was the club's notorious "V.I.P. room," where the rich and famous could party amongst themselves, out of the prying eyes of the paparazzi and the general public. A former employee told an interviewer "the VIP room made Sodom and Gomorrah look like kindergarten."

Celebrity Central

For the next thirty-three months, it seemed that the party would never end. Specially themed parties punctuated the club's calendar. There was no more prestigious place to host one's private party (on non-weekend evenings), and few places more costly. And nearly everyone who got in would, the next day, regale their friends, associates, and anyone else who'd listen with "We went to Studio 54 last night ..."

...it's all done by sight. That's why I stay by the door. People say, "Why do you subject yourself to staying by the door?" But if I leave the door alone, the crowd doesn't end up the way I want it. There's a certain type of person we don't pass. People come to me and say, "I'm a millionaire from Tucson, Arizona," but I don't care what they are if they're not fun, if they're going to be bumps on a log and sit around. ...  In other words, we want everybody to be fun and good-looking.

— Steve Rubell, partner, Studio 54

Everyone who was anyone partied there. Mick Jagger and wife Bianca, Elton John, Rod Stewart, fashion designer Halston, Liza Minelli, Sylvester Stallone, Robin Williams, Mariel Hemingway, artist Andy Warhol, Prince and Princess Rupert Lowenstein and myriad others made Studio 54 their new "home away from home." Rumors found their way into the media about the drinking and drug-taking habits of prominent politicians. Presidential mom "Miss" Lillian Carter attended once, saying "I don't know whether I was in heaven or hell, but it was wonderful."

Where else could Kennedy clan members rub elbows with the likes of notorious ultra-conservative lawyer Roy Cohn, who'd helped prosecute Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and went on to become assistant to Communist-hunter Joseph McCarthy. Cohn was a close friend to Schrager and Rubell, later coming to their aid when needed.

Rubell, once finished with the evening's selection of patrons at the door, was the quintessential host to his loyal patrons. He bragged that he could procure anything for his VIPs, from the finest caviar, Cuban cigars, to cocaine and all manner of drugs, as well as sex (with either gender). Rubell basked in his sudden role as party-giver to the "beautiful people." How else could a Jewish kid with humble beginnings suddenly count among his friends movie stars, famed fashion designers, movers, shakers, and even royalty?

"Let me in, let me in!"

Regardless of the celebrity or wealth of most of 54's clientele, there was still a place for the common folk. If one were clever (or attractive) enough, the doorman would lift the famed velvet rope and entry would be granted. A drag queen who always wore a white wedding gown and roller skates attended frequently. "Disco Sally," an older woman of some means whose sole claim to fame was that she was a perpetual club-goer, was a regular. An urban myth exists that one young woman who'd been turned away night after night showed up on horseback one evening. The horse was let in; the girl was relegated to the waiting line. This story has dubious beginnings; Bianca Jagger showed up on horseback for her Studio-54-hosted birthday bash one year. Sources for this article are silent as to whether Bianca was emulating the girl's arrival or vice-versa.

Even so-called "nobodies" could gain admission if their look fit the plan for the evening. One young man approached Rubell at the door and asked if he could get in. Rubell replied "not with that shirt, you can't." The fellow took off his shirt to reveal nicely-developed pectorals and washboard abs. He was admitted immediately. Remarkably, gaining admission to Studio 54 proved fatal for one man, who tried to sneak in through a rooftop ventilation shaft, got stuck, and was subsequently found dead (bedecked in full black-tie attire).

One evening record producer Nile Rogers and his entourage, the R&B band Chic, were refused entry to a party to which they had been invited. Incensed that his name had erroneously been omitted from the list, he returned home where he began writing a song about the experience. Initially entitled "Fuck Off," the music was quite catchy, so the lyrics were changed to "Le Freak" and the song was released. The song ended up being a sensational hit, with the 45 rpm single going platinum and eventually selling six million copies in the U.S.

Trouble in Paradise

What we were trying to do was have a party and exercise the same discretion and judgment people exercise when they have a party in their home. We thought it was quite innocent, but it almost destroyed me. At the time, it was all we could do to keep our arms around what was happening, it was moving so fast.

— Ian Schrager

Of the two partners, Schrager was quiet and collected at all times. Rubell, who had a predilection for both cocaine as well as prescription narcotics, was the "personality" of Studio 54. Rubell also had a big mouth, and repeatedly discussed, with almost any of his friends who'd listen, the enormous amounts of cash that went un-reported to the IRS, as well as the vast amounts of cocaine consumed. This soon soon came to the attention of the Federal authorities. Shortly after the opening of the club, silent partner Jack Dushey begged Rubell and Schrager to do the right thing and do away with the practice of "skimming" cash off of the place's revenues. There was plenty of money to be had despite payments to the IRS and New York State Revenue Department. Dushey's pleas fell upon deaf ears, however.

Rubell, a self-described "poor kid from Brooklyn," finally achieved super-celebrity status when his visage was featured on the front cover of the February, 1978 issue of Andy Warhol's Interview Magazine. His gleaming smile and bright eyes belied, perhaps, the troubles burdening his busy mind. The Internal Revenue Service was already investigating Studio 54's finances.

In December of 1978, gun-toting IRS and FBI agents raided the club. Schrager was arrested for possession of cocaine, although the amount found was minuscule. Of much greater interest to the Feds were the black plastic garbage bags filled with cash they found in the offices upstairs. A subsequent raid, in December of 1979, yielded more cash and more cocaine. One source for this article claims that on the night of the second raid, singer Dolly Parton climbed down a five-story wrought-iron fire escape, just in time to miss the Government agents. Other patrons were held and questioned but all were eventually released.

The Federal Government claimed that Studio's owners had skimmed more than $2.5 million in cash from the club's revenues in a two-year period. Schrager and Rubell were represented by power-lawyer Roy Cohn. Cohn lost his case. Rubell and Schrager pled guilty to tax evasion and obstruction of justice, fined $20 thousand apiece, and each sentenced to serve three and a half years in prison. Dushy had pled guilty to a single count of tax evasion earlier.

Schrager and Rubell were aware that they were in a heap of trouble. Cohn had reassured them that they would not be jailed; so the sentences were a big shock. Ever affirming that life's just a string of parties, the pair's "going-away party" was attended by the likes of Diana Ross, Andy Warhol, Richard Gere and baseball star Reggie Jackson.

Things Were Never The Same

Having serving only 13 months of their prison terms, Schrager and Rubell returned from jail only to sell Studio 54 to New York club owner and developer Mark Fleischman in 1981. For a short while, Rubell and Schrager stayed on as consultants, but left to pursue other projects less than a year after the sale. Although celebrities still patronized the place, their attendance dwindled. The club fell on hard times, and eventually Fleischman closed the club in 1986.

It turned out that the club itself was not the draw; it was Rubell's artistry at creating fabulous parties night after night. Worse, Fleischman faced stiff competition, first from The Red Parrot on West 57th Street, and later from the Palladium on West 14th Street. Other smaller yet just-as-popular venues also chipped away at Studio's attendance.

Studio's old. And dirty. Their time has come and gone. We'll blow their doors off.

- Sam Parisi, The Red Parrot night club

After the 1986 closing, it was re-opened by a different group but closed shortly thereafter. The club then went through a number of transformations, becoming a strip club and finally a theatre once more. It continues to operate as a theatre. The first show to be installed in the theatre was a revival of the hit Broadway play, "Cabaret." variable offers details: "Apparently, the creators of Cabaret (John Kander, Fred Ebb, and Joe Masteroff) said that if it ever came to New York, it must be set in a real night club. After a million dollar renovation, Studio 54 became the new home of Cabaret."

Studio 54 Lives! (Kind of)

The last vestige of the original Studio 54, the "Man In The Moon With A Spoon," was installed in a club also called Studio 54 in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S.A. The club is inside of the enormous MGM Grand Hotel and Casino. Anyone can get into today's Studio 54 for the price of admission. And the hotel claims that original 54 denizen Elton John "holds court" at the new club.

MGM's nightlife website claims that "after an 18-year hiatus, Studio 54 is reborn in the city where it probably should have opened in the first place." Woulda, shoulda, coulda. Had Studio 54 opened in 1977's Las Vegas, it would never have enjoyed the wide variety of famous (and infamous) patrons it did. This is merely because in 1977, many of the people who found it perfectly acceptable to attend a risqué nightclub in New York City would never have given any thought to venturing to "hedonism for the masses" Las Vegas. The concentration of "beautiful people" was highest at that time in New York and contributed to the success of the original club.

The lighting at MGM's club is similar to that of the original Studio. The decor is similar. The patrons are encouraged to wear "club wear." But that's where the similarity ends. Las Vegas' 54 is nearly five times the size of the original. And admission to the VIP room, like admission to the club itself, is not about fame or notoriety. It's all about money.

What's important to remember is that Studio 54 is an icon for a particularly carefree time in U.S. history. Dance clubs were far more popular during its heyday. Cocaine, although illegal, was considered by most to be far less harmful than we know it is today. AIDS had yet to visit itself on the populace.

The Song Has Ended But The Melody Lingers On

Studio 54 was not just a nightclub. It was a cultural experiment. Many people have spent millions of dollars trying to reprise its incredible success, but all have failed.

The club was the topic of two movies, both released in 1998. "The Last Days of Disco" was better-known for its retro soundtrack than its star power. "54" starred the up and coming Mike Myers as Steve Rubell, and featured young actor Ryan Philippe in one of his first major roles.

Ian Schrager is now a multi-millionaire who owns innovative, chic hotels worldwide. 54 doorman Mark Benecke manages Schrager's San Francisco operation.

Jack Dushey is still involved in real estate and commercial development. His office is located on Madison Avenue in New York.

Sadly, Steve Rubell succumbed to complications of AIDS in July of 1989. He was only 46 years old.

Time Magazine ran a short piece on Rubell's life and times. The article described a scenario that underscored the end of an era. Rubell was walking down Fifth Avenue in New York City one sunny afternoon, when all of a sudden he spotted a group of his old customers standing on the street, chatting ebulliently. They all looked fabulous, healthy and well-rested. It was only as Rubell drew closer that he realized they were all exiting a church basement, where an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting had just ended. The AIDS-sickened Rubell crossed the street to avoid being recognized by his former partners in hedonism.

SOURCES:

  • Interview:  Kevin Cahill, stage manager, The Red Parrot, New York (1983)
  • Anecdotal information:  Sam Parisi, General Manager, The Red Parrot, New York (garnered 1980-1986)
  • http://www.disco-disco.com/clubs/studio54.html
  • http://www.geocities.com/~discodiva/studio54.html
  • http://www.discomusic.com/forums/viewtopic.php?t=14261&highlight=studio
  • http://www.discomuseum.com/SteveRubell.html
  • http://www.nymag.com/news/articles/03/12/100yearsofhotscenes/16.htm
  • http://www.drakkar91.com/54/
  • http://www.studio54lv.com/
  • http://www.morbid-curiosity.com/id90.htm
  • Hackett, Pat and Warhol, Andy, "The Andy Warhol Diaries" New York: Warner Books 1991
  • Colacello, Bob, "In The Heat Of The Night," Interview Magazine, August, 1998
  • Grigoriadis, Vanessa, "Regine's Last Stand," New York Magazine, April 19, 1999.
  • Keil, Beth L., 30th Anniversary Issue, Profile "Ian Schrager: ‘In’-Keeper," (Interview) New York Magazine, April 6, 1998.

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