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,
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"
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
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
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."
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
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
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
— 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
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.
- Interview: Kevin Cahill, stage manager, The Red Parrot, New York
- Anecdotal information: Sam Parisi, General Manager, The Red
Parrot, New York (garnered 1980-1986)
- Hackett, Pat and Warhol, Andy, "The Andy Warhol Diaries" New York: Warner
- Colacello, Bob, "In The Heat Of The Night," Interview Magazine,
- 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.