This week beloved Studio 54 is experiencing a 40 year anniversary opening in April 1977. As I mentioned in a previous post there is a coffee table book coming out in September and a Ian Schrager sanctioned documentary as well. This is without a doubt the greatest nightclub of the 20th century and the article illustrates that this will never happen again makes it even more special. Enjoy the vibe.
The salacious 40-year history of Studio 54
By Steve Cuozzo April 23, 2017 | 2:33am | Updated
On a frigid night in February 1978, I had my first illicit taste of the creepy magic that made Studio 54 the world’s most celebrated, most notorious nightlife venue.
The colossal disco at 254 W. 54th St. was so hard to penetrate for those neither boldfaced nor “connected” that I had little confidence a friend and I would get in. Claudia Cohen, The Post’s Page Six editor at the time, had supposedly put the fix in for me. But as we fought our way toward the velvet rope, through gridlocked limos and howling scenemakers, I expected standard Studio 54 door abuse — which included splitting couples up (“he can go in, but not the chick”) and an alleged dismissal of Frank Sinatra along with his retinue of bodyguards.
No Big Apple nightlife venue of the last half of the 20th century ever made as big a splash on the popular culture as Studio 54, which opened 40 years ago this week. As an editor who worked in the same room where Claudia cranked out story after story about the latest antics there, I was near-desperate to experience it myself.
The sidewalk was a scary zoo of drunk and drugged clubgoers jostling for position. Everyone under the giant marquee was yelling, “Steve, Steve” (for co-owner Steve Rubell) or “Marc, Marc” (for all-powerful doorman Marc Benecke).
Marc Benecke selects who will enter Studio 54.Getty Images
Certain that we’d end up spending the night at Brew Burger around the corner, I timorously called out my name. The rope lifted as if the Red Sea had parted. I never forgot the drug-free euphoria I felt as we marched in through the imposingly chandeliered entry hall, chased by boos and curses from the less fortunate on the street.
Steve Rubell selects people in line to get into Studio 54.Getty Images
Studio 54 — which celebrates its 40th anniversary this Wedneday — had that effect on people. You didn’t need coke or furtive sex to get high on its singular allure of depravity and decadence, although many denizens merrily and regularly doped themselves up and indulged in high-risk amorous encounters.
The disco’s interior was an architectural wonderland where mystery lurked around every corner. Innumerable secret chambers, nooks, crannies and Orient Express-like alcoves lay tucked amid endless mezzanines, balconies and corridors. Today’s Studio 54, now a Broadway theater with many appendages closed off, gives only a hint of what it was like.
I spotted exactly one recognizable face that night: a very stoned-looking Art Garfunkel on a balcony. The rest of the crowd was anonymous: legions of shirtless young men who made the 11,000-square-foot dance floor writhe like a giant tarantula to the beat of Cheryl Lynn’s “To Be Real.” A giant coke spoon suspended from the 85-foot-high ceiling sashayed in a suggestive in-and-out with an open-mouthed, crescent moon.
The mob scene at least solved a mystery: How could a dance club large enough to hold 2,000 at a time be “exclusive”?
The secret of Studio 54 was that the doormen let in just about anyone who was gay, while male-female couples and women alone faced tough scrutiny at the velvet rope. In the pre-AIDS era, the gay club scene accounted for no small part of Studio 54’s clientele.
But where, I wondered, were regulars such as Calvin Klein, Halston, Liza Minnelli, Mick Jagger and Jimmy Connors? This is the place where Bianca Jagger once rode a white horse around the floor led by a naked guy covered in gold glitter. Rubell gave Andy Warhol a garbage can stuffed with cash for his birthday. A party for Dolly Parton featured live farm animals. O.J. Simpson put moves on women who later claimed to remember the incidents fondly.
Turns out it was Studio 54’s VIP areas under the dance floor where most of the real action took place. Although I got to Studio 54 a number of times during its heyday — the brief 33 months when it was owned by Rubell and Ian Schrager, before they were arrested and convicted for tax evasion — I regrettably witnessed none of the fabled incidents that lit up Page Six and the town’s lesser gossip columns.
The sex and drug scene took place all the time on divans in the alcoves and in a high-up “rubber room.” A regular participant was Roy Cohn, the malevolent, McCarthy-era villain who was Rubell’s lawyer and who died of AIDS in 1986 — and whose sordid saga helped inspire Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America.”
Cohn also fed tips to the gossip columns. His creepy presence only added to Studio 54’s deserved mystique.
It’s worth celebrating this on its 40th anniversary: “Studio” (the “54” was mainly used by tourists and Tony Manero-wannabes from Bensonhurst) gave the city a tonic of glamour and excitement when it sorely needed it. It was an eruption of celeb-blessed sex-and-drug abandon during the 1970s twilight zone when the decaying metropolis teetered on collapse. The place was terrifyingly era-specific.
Let’s have a ball for the Last Days of Pompeii before we fly off to St. Barts and Aspen!
Studio 54 was a seductive engine of denial that the city was inexorably sliding into a tailspin. We hadn’t heard of AIDS yet. There were half as many murders in 1977 as there would be in 1990. Even so, omens of doom were all around. The broke municipality had to fire thousands of cops. A power blackout prompted looting and arson that laid waste to much of my childhood Brooklyn neighborhood. Hundreds of thousands of residents flew town on the heels of Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” move to Los Angeles.
Forty years later, the city hasn’t collapsed — quite the opposite. And a new Studio 54, or anything like it, would be impossible today. Rents are much too high for such a gargantuan dance venue. The city is more family-oriented than the anything-goes whirl of the late ’70s. Neighbors wouldn’t allow their cleaned-up block to be used as a staging area for debauchery. There’s less tolerance for open drug use and sexual-favor-trading between employees and clubgoers who’d do anything to pass through the velvet rope.
But while it’s a pity that we’ll never see its likes again, it’s just as well. We don’t need another Studio 54. It was unique to its terrible time — one of the worst chapters in New York City’s history.
After Rubell and Schrager lost Studio 54 in 1980 and went to prison, it limped on under several different owners until 1991, shorn of its sinister allure that only a hell-bound city could love.