Studio 54: A Story Of Decadence, Debauchery, And Dancing
Dancers grooved wherever they wanted in Studio 54
Studio 54 has gone down in history as the ultimate nightclub, a place where everyone who was anyone went to get down, boogie, and be seen. For 33 short months the club was the height of cool in Manhattan, with club goers who managed to get past the velvet rope falling into a deluge of drugs and debauchery.
Even after the original owners went to prison for skimming millions of dollars, the club stayed open until 1990, although the magic of the first years never returned. These photos show what really happened at Studio 54, with celebrities like Mick Jagger, Grace Jones, and Andy Warhol leading the way. Groove on!
Aside from the dancing and debauchery, one thing that everyone remembers about Studio 54 is the club’s interior design. The moon with a coke spoon hanging over the dance floor along with a giant sign announcing that dancers were, yes, in Studio 54 hooked to rigging material and hung from the ceiling so dancers could grind the night away on top of the designs if thy so felt like it.
Ian Schrager, one of the co-owners and founders of Studio 54 explained his idea behind the design:
We were trying to generate a combustible energy, explosive — a mayhem for people to have fun.
Explosive mayhem is the perfect way to describe this scintillating night club.
Regular people could escape at Studio 54
Going to work day in and day out all week can grind a person down. All of that pent up stress can make someone blow a valve, Studio 54 served as a way for people to escape; it was the perfect place for someone to cut loose as long as they could get through the door.
Studio 54 had an intense door rule that made it hard for people to get in regardless of who you were. Andy Warhol once said "It's a dictatorship at the door and a democracy on the dance floor." Once inside people were allowed to be whoever they wanted to be, cutting loose and grooving with everyone, it was the place to go when someone needed to escape.
Diana Ross sang from the DJ booth on the club’s final night
The rise and fall of Studio 54 happened as if an unseen force was holding down the fast forward button on the club’s success. After the studio was raided by IRS agents on December 14th, 1978 they grabbed garbage bags of money, financial documents and five ounces of cocaine. Both Rubell and Schrager were arrested and charged with taking millions of dollars off the top of the club’s gross.
Before the co-owners went to jail they threw a party to end all parties called “The End of Modern-Day Gomorrah.” They only invited a small crowd of about 2,000 revelers – many of them A-list celebrities. The night peaked with Diana Ross singing to Rubell and Schrager from the DJ booth.
Celebrities loved getting down on the floor
When a nightclub is as hot as Studio 54 the place is going to be crawling with celebrities. A-listers were just as susceptible to Steve Rubella’s door policy as regular people unless they reached the vaulted heights of being an “NFU,” otherwise known as “No F*ck Ups.” The club’s former publicist explained:
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards could get in, but other Rolling Stones members had to pay.
It looks that in order to become an NFU a celebrity had to be so hot that it would be a huge mistake to not have them in the club. By 1977 Stallone had an Oscar on his mantle, but did that make him an NFU?
Everyone lost their coats on opening night
The opening night of Studio 54 was huge mess. People spilled into the streets, they poured over the police barricades and they caused a traffic jam that was so bad that it supposedly kept Frank Sinatra’s limo from coming within walking distance from the club. The people who worked at Studio 54 were so ill equipped for the craziness on opening night that they broke down under the stress of the crowd.
In 2018’s Studio 54: The Documentary one doorman explains that the crowd was so intense that the people in the coat check couldn’t handle the demand of the people. The dancers kept throwing their coats at the workers and the ticketing system stopped working altogether. They finally just started throwing coats on the floor and no one got them back.
Bowie went to Studio 54 for inspiration
Even if Bowie was in the “normal person” phase of his career, he was always looking for new sounds. In 1977 he was deep in the thralls of ambient music and groups like Can, but he was already looking for something new. He began incorporating dance music and disco into his sound, and to find inspiration he went to the club and paid close attention. In the liner notes of “Sound and Vision” Bowie explained why he was drawn to the club and dance music:
One day in Berlin around 1976, Eno came running in and said, ‘I have heard the sound of the future’ … he puts on ‘I Feel Love’ by Donna Summer … He said; ‘This is it, look no further. This single is going to change the sound of club music for the next fifteen years.
Steve Rubell wanted to create a club like nothing else
There was a theatrical quality to Studio 54 that club goers had never seen before. It touched all your senses and left you wanting more. Rubell and his partner Ian Schrager created a living fantasy in the club, but it cost a lot of money to get off the ground. Multiple people tried to purchase the theater - which was owned by CBS at the time - but it was Rubell and Schrager than won the bid.
With the help of their financial backer the two were able to hire enough people to rebuild the inside of the theater, add the lights and designs, and paint the entire thing within six weeks. The whole thing cost them $400,000 - that’s $1,690,376.24 in 2019.
Debbie Harry says that she didn’t go to 54 that often
In an interview with the Guardian Blondie singer Debbie Harry tried to set the record straight about how often she went to Studio 54. In 1977 the New York scene was such a sprawling organism of parties, dancing, and punk rockers, and Harry was one of the artists who was in the middle of it all. Harry was at 54, she was the Mudd Club, and she was at CBGBs.
When the Guardian asked Harry which club she liked hanging out at the most she was honest about her allegiance to CBGB’s in spite of brilliant outfit in this photo, she explained:
Probably CBGB because I was there more often. I wasn't at Studio 54 all that much.
Grace Jones knew all the secret rooms in the club
Whatever you were looking for, you could find it at this dance club that was essentially a modern day Rome. Artist and model Grace Slick explained what happened in the basement and the strange goings on in the rubber room upstairs. She wrote in her memoir:
Celebrities headed for the basement. Getting high low-down. Not even those who got inside the club could all make it into the basement. You’d stumble into half-hidden rooms filled with a few people who seemed to be sweating because of something they had just done, or were about to do… Up above the balcony, there was the rubber room, with thick rubber walls that could be easily wiped down after all the powdery activity that went on. There was even something above the rubber room, beyond secretive, up where the gods of the club could engage in their chosen vice high up above the relentless dancers. It was a place of secrets and secretions, the in-crowd and inhalations, sucking and snorting.
Everyone was welcome in Studio 54
It didn’t matter if you were famous, straight, gay, or trans, you were welcome in Studio 54. The club acted as an alternative reality to the late ‘70s in New York City where homophobia and racism ran rampant. According to one of the doormen in a documentary about the club, they made sure that the club at least have 20% gay men, 10% lesbians and trans people, and the rest of the crowd could be whoever. One drag queen in the doc explains:
People didn’t judge, you can be who you are when you’re there. Transgenders took their lives in their hands walking down the street in New York City [in the '70s], but in Studio 54 they were protected and free.
Truman Capote could wear whatever he wanted
For the most part there was a strict dress code applied to the revelers at the club. It was hard for some people to get into the club wearing normal club clothes - polyester shirts, gold chains, and the like - but at least one celebrity was able to forgo the normal dress code whenever he wanted, author and playwright Truman Capote.
While Capote is pictured here in a very nice tailored suit, it wasn’t out of the question for the author to show up to the club in a bathrobe and a pair of slippers. You can’t blame the guy for wanting to be comfortable while staying on the dance floor all night.
In the ‘70s Studio 54 was the center of the universe
For a brief period of time Studio 54 changed the pace of New York night life. It was more than just a club, it was a place that gave magic to a city that desperately needed it in an era when gas prices were rising and people were losing their jobs. Ian Schrager is still proud about what he and co-owner Rubell did:
All that we wanted to do was make the best nightclub in New York. It was historically there were a lot of things going for it that acted as a catalyst. There was a lot unrest in Europe, so a lot of people there rolled into New York. It was New York’s time then. Like London was in the 60’s. It was also the worst time for New York in a lot of ways. The infrastructure was crumbling. It was unsafe in lots of areas. But it was also the last time New York was the center of the world.
Steve Rubell gave Andy Warhol a trash can full of money for his birthday
What does everyone want for their birthday? Cold hard cash, baby, even professional provocateur Andy Warhol. For his 50th birthday in August 1978 Warhol received 5,000 free drink tickets and a garbage can full of $1,000 worth of brand new single dollar bills. When sone of the party people poured the trash can over his head he freaked out and grabbed al the cash to make sure he got it all.
After the arrests of Rubell and Schrager a list of “party favors” (their code for drugs or anything illicit) that went into the Studio 54’s official books was printed in November 1979, Warhol was shocked to find out that the trash can only had $800, not $1,000. Warhol’s friend Bob Colacello wrote in his memoir:
Andy’s first reaction was, ‘You mean they told me there was a thousand dollars in there and it was only $800? Oh, I knew I should have counted it.
The club had its own ecosystem
To create a club that lives up to the theatrical standards of the Rocketman himself, Rubell and Schrager did everything they could to turn the former theater into an experience. It wasn’t just some other club - there was fog, wind, and snow. The son rose and set inside the club, literally. They had lights rigged so there was a sunrise and a sunset. Schraeger discussed the concept behind the theatrics with Architectural Digest:
The level of expectation was an assault on the senses and made everyone’s heart beat a little faster. I think it was a catalyst caused by other elements as well, including the design of the space… up to that point there was never an effort made to make the design flexible and fluid. This all worked together and made people let their hair down and have a great time.
No one could get in on opening night so people partied in the streets
On the opening night of the club there was no way that someone could get in if they showed up late. By 11 pm there were thousands of people outside the club with no hope of getting in, so many of the revelers ended up having a sex-fueled party in the street. One club goer claimed that a doctor was hanging outside the club with everyone and that he came prepared with a huge bottle of Quaaludes:
The doctor started handing them out. About 30 people standing around us took them, and then everybody started having this mad sexual orgy. All the men had their d*cks out… everybody was feeling everybody else… the crowd was moving in wave… all of a sudden you would find yourself next to someone you didn’t know.
The club represented absolute freedom
While some clubs existed to create the a party atmosphere, Studio 54 was meant to represent something special – a place where everyone was welcome regardless of who they were out on the streets. Co-owner Ian Schrager told Variety:
There are very few times in life where people can experience something close to an absolute freedom where anything goes. There was a complete diversity of people. There were celebrities all over the place, but nobody cared. Nobody gawked. Nobody went up asking for autographs. There was sex all over the place. Nobody cared. That level of freedom, it’s the human condition to desire that. It was a seminal cultural event.
The standard busboy were gym shorts and nothing else
To work at Studio 54 a few things were required. First, you had to have the kind of bod that looked good in a pair of gym shorts and not much else, and second you had to have a willingness to show it off and a desire to be at the club every night. Former busboy Scott Bitterman wrote about his experience working at the club and how he knew he had to work there from the moment he stepped foot inside:
I was introduced to Studio 54 by my college roommate, NYU film major and freelance photographer Bob Brady. Bob brought me along as Photographer's Assistant on numerous photo shoots including a party celebrating Richard Kiley's thousandth performance as Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha on Broadway. A month later, I accompanied Bob to shoot the Studio 54 Premier Party for the opening of the movie, The Turning Point.
Mesmerized by the energy of the celebrants in the club, I approached a classmate and fellow dance major from the NYU School of the Arts that was working his way through NYU as a busboy at Studio 54. Just after Studio 54's first New Year's Eve Party in 1977, I left my pocket-money job at Betty William's Studio and went to work for Studio 54.
One way to get into the club was to look interesting
Rubell was open about the fact that he didn’t want normal or schlubby looking people inside his club. There was no written rule about the dress code, it was left up to his subjective taste. He didn’t like baseball caps, and he wasn’t into a the “bridge and tunnel” look of Saturday Night Fever. The thing he appreciated was someone being different.
When he was questioned about his dress code on local New York television show he said, “The only thing that it’s not based on is money/,” and that he lets in “Really fun-loving. We want people who are just in there to have fun.”
Everything in the club was a mind opening spectacle
Stepping onto the dance floor of Studio 54 was like entering a new world - especially if you were only used to the white bread world of average Manhattan. There were drag queens sashaying from wall to wall, and straight up circus performers were known to just take over the club every once in a while.
Regulars at the club became cult icons. These unique and very weird people were the lifeblood of the underground community in New York City, and even if attendees weren’t interested in dressing up in leather or lingerie and throwing on a pair of roller skates, being in proximity to someone who would automatically broadens your horizons.
Drew Barrymore partied at Studio 54 when she was 7-years-old
Noted wild child Drew Barrymore has lived more lifetimes than anyone should, and pretty much all of them are cool. At the age of 7 she regularly partied at Studio 54, opening her up to the debauchery and drugs that were available to every other guest. Looking back on her time as a child Barrymore said:
When people are like, 'Aren't you worried your daughters are gonna end up like you?', I'm like, A) thanks; [and] B) I, in some ways, hope they do, now, in the later years. And in the younger years, like, they're not gonna have my life, you know. Not going to Studio 54 at 7 years old will probably make them a lot more normal than I was.
Waiting in line was its own kind of reward
There were other dance clubs in New York City, but none of them shared the “you had to be there” power of Studio 54. People traveled from across the world in order to just stand in line outside this club with hopes of getting in, or at the very least seeing a few celebrities. The people who crowded around the club every night came from all walks of life - from bankers to drag queens, but for the few hours that the sun was down they all just wanted to have a good time.
After the tragedy of the Vietnam War and the distrust of the Nixon administration people just wanted to go out and forget about their troubles. Studio 54, both the interior and the street outside, allowed people to dance off their problems and be apart of something at the same time.
The club was built for voyeurism
The best part about going to Studio 54 wasn’t the dancing, and it wasn’t the drugs, it was the people watching. Studio 54 director Matt Tyrnauer explained to Architectural Digest that the entire interior was constructed to make it easier to watch people on the dance floor:
The adaptive reuse of the theater ends up being very significant. I think this is the architecture of voyeurism, actually. You could loom over and spy on dancing, and I think that was part of the thrill of Studio for a lot of people. Andy Warhol wasn’t on the dance floor once, but it suited him beautifully. It was a space that provided something for every proclivity.
Mick Jagger loved hitting the dance floor
One of the most fascinating aspects of Studio 54 is the way that it allowed “normal people” to rub elbows with famous people. Celebrities like Mick Jagger were routinely in the building and cutting a rug on the dance floor, so if you wanted to dance with a Rolling Stone you could dance with a Rolling Stone. Co-owner Ian Schrager explained:
Every celebrity or big shot came to Studio 54. But nobody pestered anyone for an autograph, so they could be themselves. Andy Warhol was shy and just liked to watch. Mick Jagger was the same as he was on stage and Diana Ross was an amazing dancer.
A key piece of the club was the "Man in the Moon"
Known as the “man in the moon,” one of the key pieces of design in Studio 54 was the large moon hanging over the dance floor that was had a spoon up to its nose that lit up when it snorted cocaine. While some critics have said that this was a nod to their love of taking uppers and dancing all night, co-owner Ian Schrager says that’s not so. He explained the decision to hang a giant coke snorting moon over the dance floor to The Guardian:
We were always trying to wow our customers. We dumped four tons of glitter on the dance floor. When Bianca Jagger jumped on a white horse, the photo went all over the world, but those moments only ever lasted a few minutes because we didn’t want to stop the party. There was a huge ‘man in the moon’ hanging over the dance floor, who lit up whenever a giant spoon rose up to his nose. But this was more about being arrogant and subversive than celebrating drugs. Studio 54 was no more hedonistic than any other place.
Bianca Jagger’s birthday made the club into a success
While the club had been a major success after its first night, it still wasn’t the wild success that the owners wanted it to be. That all changed when Bianca Jagger - Mick Jagger’s wife at the time - decided to have her birthday party at the club on May 2, 1977. While that was a Monday night, the club’s one evening off, they made an exception for the actress and rock star wife.
Author and party attendee Anthony Haden-Guest told Rolling Stone that there were only about 150 people at the party initially, but it grew into a wild event. The entire night went off around midnight Bianca Jagger made her way through the club on the back of a white stallion. When photos of the night appeared in the paper the next day everyone had to be at the club.
Schrager and Rubell complimented one another
Even though these two co-owners couldn’t be any more different - Schrager was a straight lawyer and Rubell was an out homosexual restaurant owner - they were the perfect pair to run Studio 54. They both wanted the club to be the most exciting place in the world and while Schrager handled the behind the scenes work Rubell was happy to wine and dine celebrities. Schrager explained:
We each filled a void in the other. He was an outgoing guy, and I’m not. He was a very people-oriented person, and I’m not. There was a genuine trust between us. When he was getting all the credit for a lot of the work that I was doing, I didn’t care. He wasn’t taking anything from me. We complemented each other. I’m not a networker. Somebody once said if we weren’t partners, we both would have been successful, but we were more successful together.
Celebrities became cooler by hanging outside the club
Even stars who people don’t think of as party people – like Barbara Streisand – had to show their faces at least a couple of nights out of the month at Studio 54. It wasn’t just a place to get your rocks off and dance, it was free publicity. All one had to do to make sure they wound up in the gossip pages or the New York Post was to simply show up and bypass the line.
Simply by virtue of being outside the club someone like Streisand could paint themselves as a cool celebrity rather than a stodgy A-lister who sat in their penthouse reading Russian literature all not. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Rubell often wore a coat filled with money and drugs
As the main party starter at Studio 54 it was up to Steve Rubell to keep everyone happy. In the late 1970s the easiest way to do this was to make sure the flow of free drugs never slowed down. But where does someone keep piles of quaaludes and drink tickets? In an oversized down coat, obviously. According to the 2019 documentary about Studio 54, the co-owners singular fashion sense was less informed by the club scene and more so by function.
Not only was he keen on wearing loose fitting Hawaiian shirts, but his down coat was packed to the gills with money and drugs. Regardless of how hot and sweaty it got in the club he wore the coat around in case he needed to hand out a “party favor.”
Rubell and Schrager renovated their club in the midst of the investigation
Even when the club’s co-owners were under a federal investigation they didn’t let anything get in the way of the club’s success. After seeing Sweeney Todd on Broadway the owners decided to place a large automated bridge in the balcony of the club so dancers on the second floor could travel to the other side of the building without having to cross the dance floor. Rather than show how scared they were, the $1.5 million renovation showed that the co-owners were putting on a brave face. Schrager said:
In order to keep people excited and continue to always keep them guessing what would be coming next, we kept updating the visuals and the set, perhaps made it more sophisticated and refined to keep it fresh and relevant.
Studio 54 invented the velvet rope
The scene outside of the club could get nasty. Not only were people consistently agitated with Rubell telling them that they couldn’t come in because of the way they were dressed or looked, but there were so many people that it increasingly became hard to keep the unruly crowds in line. But then Rubell came up with something brilliant - the velvet rope.
In the 2018 documentary about Studio 54, footage of Rubell shows the co-owner discussing how one night he simply thought to place velvet ropes outside the club that revelers instinctively got in line. Clubs have been using this idea for years.
Studio 54’s books literally had a column labeled “skim”
In December of 1978, dozens of federal agents descended on the club after receiving a tip about their sneaky money practices. They ransacked the place, went through the offices, and the club’s safe. When agents got ahold of the club’s books they noticed that rather than keep two sets of books the co-owners simply had a column labeled “skim” in order to see track of all the money they were stealing. The two had funneled nearly $3 million in less than two years.
One agent told CBS that the book had a skim column “so that you had a daily record of everything that they took in and what they took out as skim and didn't report.” Co-owner Schrager explained his dalliance as a “part of the ridiculous intoxication, I suppose, we were suffering from, like, what were we thinking?"
Before getting on the dance floor, club goers had to pass through the “cooridoor of joy”
It could be intoxicating to get into Studio 54 after standing outside for days, or maybe even weeks. However even if you were a regular before walking onto the dance floor proper you had to pass through the coat check area where all of the sound funneled through. This foyer amped up the anticipation, and according to Myra Scheer, Ian and Steve’s assistant who went onto work in a “perch” in the lobby said it was a special part of the night:
Once someone got inside – whether they were a regular, it was their first time, or they were a celebrity – they had to pass through me and into what I called ‘The Corridor of Joy’ because you could hear the audible screams of the first timers that got in for that night. [The sound] would literally be bouncing off the walls.
The corridor was filled with crystal chandeliers, carpet, and mirrors.
Once you walked through, you were drawn to the dance floor like you couldn’t stop – and once you got on the dance floor, you were a star cast in the performance of a lifetime. You could feel the love and the energy, it was palpable and everybody had it. People would roar with the freedom and liberation of it all.
Everyone was a VIP
Even though it sounds like a line, once you were in Studio 54 it was a sign that you had a special energy that appreciated by the club owners. The best way to keep being invited inside was to act as if you belonged. Myra Scheer, an employee and frequent visitor to the club explained:
It was a true democracy like Andy Warhol said. It was men, women, crossdressers, gay, straight. Once you were in, all people were created equal inside Studio 54. Rollerina could sail through he doors and dance with Liza Minelli. We weren’t a celebrity-obsessed culture. Not one time did I ever see anyone at Studio 54 ask for an autograph or to be in a picture.
The first time I went there, I remember my mouth was dropping. Then I looked around and realized, ‘No one else’s mouth is dropping. Act like you’re cool.’ I had just moved to New York and thought, ‘Wow this is the glamour!’ I didn’t realize it was one singular sensation.
One photographer was banned twice
When you’re hanging out in a place that famous for being one of the most debauched rooms in New York City it’s crazy to think that someone could get banned from a club, let alone twice, but that’s exactly what happened to Ron Galella is known as the the Godfather of the Paparazzi. First he was banned when one of his photos of Ali McGraw was published in Playboy, but after McGraw herself smoothed the whole thing over Galella was allowed back into the club. The second time he was banned it was much more dramatic. He told Another Mag:
A Baltimore TV studio did a piece on me so we went to the Copacabana where Robin Williams opened and they filmed me photographing him. Then Steve Rubell invited us to the Studio. He told the TV crew that Robin Williams doesn’t want any TV shot, so they tried to get away with me shooting Robin on the dancefloor with his wife. Steve got involved and yelled, ‘Stop!’
He demanded the film but they didn’t surrender it, so Steve called over a big bodyguard. I knew there was going to be trouble, so I took the picture and started to leave. Then Steve said, ‘You did it again! You’re barred.’
The bodyguards broke the camera and destroyed the film. The police came and took a few people including Steve to the police station. They released everyone except Steve, who they kept in jail for 33 hours because he had outstanding violations. It had nothing to do with what happened that night. Steve held this against me and barred me for the duration of Studio 54.
Liz Taylor had a very smelly birthday at Studio 54
One of the regulars at the club was Liz Taylor, the star of films like Cleopatra and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and when she decided that she wanted to have her birthday party at Studio 54 she had one very specific request - she wanted the whole place filled with flowers. According to Dustin Pittman, a photographer who was there, the sickening smell of the flowers couldn’t cover the scent of all the nefarious activity that happened there throughout the years:
I remember one night I was invited to Liz Taylor’s birthday party and Renny, the florist, decorated the entire studio with live gardenias for her because that was her favorite flower. When you walked in the front door not only did you get the sound of the disco music, the smell of sex, and taste of sweat, but you got the smell of all those gardenias too.
People would try anything to get into the club
With Studio 54 being the hottest ticket in town for 33 months there was an overwhelming amount of people who wanted to get in. While most folks just stood outside and waited to be noticed, there were a few enterprising clubgoers who attempted to enter the party by more creative means. Doorman Marc Benecke told the BBC:
At one point you could buy maps which claimed to show how to get in through tunnels up from the subway system. It was crazy… Naturally people tried good old-fashioned bribery but that didn't work. Then I'd say to them they should go and buy the exact same jacket I was wearing - forgive me but I was only a teen at the time. And they'd go to Bloomingdale's and buy it and still they wouldn't get in. But if you were just dressing up in costume to get through the door, it showed you probably weren't the right person. We were looking for people with high energy.
The amount of drugs people took was overstated
According to people who were there, one of the biggest misnomers about the scene inside Studio 54 is that everyone was on drugs all the time. From all the stories about the club it sounds like everything was dusted in a fresh layer of cocaine. Supposedly while there were drugs floating around, people were mostly just getting amped on dancing and less so on piles of uppers. It’s likely that the truth is somewhere between to the two claims. Author Anthony Haden-Guest told the BBC:
I had a wonderful time in disco culture but drugs played an extremely minor part. I think most people were just there to dance and have a good time.
The club rarely had a liquor license
The thing that separates a bar or club from a speakeasy is the fact that they have a liquor license from the city that allows them to sell drinks to their patrons. Well the co-owners of Studio 54 didn’t really get around to getting a liquor license for close to a year, instead they put together a plan that allowed them to legally sell drinks even if it was a little iffy.
According to a 2018 documentary about Studio 54 Rubell and Scrager skipped out on getting their liquor license by applying for multiple one day licenses that were used by catering companies. This way they avoided the extreme fees that came with a liquor license while still being kind of legal.
A countess was handcuffed in the basement
One of the craziest and at least quasi-illegal things that happened in Saudi 54 came from their basement policy. Even if someone made it into the club that doesn’t mean they were allowed to go to the basement because that’s were celebrities and the super wealthy went to have sex. Supposedly one evening a countess showed up to the club and took a liking to one of the bartenders.
The two went into the basement where she had the bartender handcuff her to a pipe for some extra naughty fun. Unfortunately, the bartender was so out of his gourd on goofballs that he forgot to unlock the cuffs when the two were finished and left her in the basement before going back to work.
The club was turned into a farm for Dolly Parton
When Dolly shows up to your club you’ve got to do whatever it takes to make her feel at home, so when the queen of country dropped into Studio 54 the club was transformed into a farm complete with horses and hay. According to Rolling Stone there were “horses and donkeys and mules running through the club.” Attendee Kevin Haley told Vanity Fair:
[The co-owners] changed it all the time for the parties. Remember the Dolly Parton party? It was like a little farm with bales of hay and live farm animals—pigs and goats and sheep.
Supposedly Parton wasn’t as into it as the owners thought she should be and she just sat quietly for most of the night.
Things got weird on Halloween
Halloween in New York City has always been one of the craziest times of the year. The streets are filled with revelers on the hunt for candy (among other things), and in the late ‘70s the club scene loved any excuse to get weird. According to Kevin Haley, a constant at Studio 54, the club took weird to the next level at one Halloween party:
As you came up the ramp in the foyer, you looked through little windows into little booths with midgets doing things. The one that sticks out in my head had a midget family eating a formal dinner. It was like a nonstop party. There didn’t seem to be any guilt in those days. Decadence was a positive thing.
Jamie Lee Curtis and her mom, Janet Leigh, go out for a night of dancing at Studio 54
How cool would it be to head into Studio 54 and see Jamie Lee Curtis dancing with her mom, Janet Leigh, under the house lights? Of course, playing it cool was a necessity when inside the club. As long as you acted like you were supposed to be there you’d probably get back in the next night to party with even more celebrities. One club goer told Vanity Fair:
It was so exciting I sometimes had to take a tranquilizer. You saw so many celebrities. The code was: You didn’t speak to them, but very often they spoke to you. I don’t think any stalkers got into 54. Steve Rubell was the stalker.
The club’s opening made the cover of the New York Post
The opening night of the club was so crazy that it made national headlines. The streets were so packed with people that wanted to get into the Studio that attendees were literally being thrown inside. However, it’s likely that the club wouldn’t have made the front page of the post if it weren’t for Cher. Co-owner Ian Schrager said:
I remember Steve calling me that next morning, and we couldn’t believe it: there was a picture of Cher at the opening on the front page of the New York Post. I remember it like it was today. Cher was wearing a T-shirt with suspenders, a pair of jeans, and a straw hat. The front page. The whole page. No nightclub up to then had done that.
You never knew what you’d find when it was time to clean up
When working at a place that’s known for excess, it’s not out of the ordinary for the low people on the totem pole to end up in the same situations as the A-listers who they’re serving. However, even after the club had closed its doors the clean up crew would find party favors from the night before. Busboy Richard Notar told Vanity Fair:
Every nook and cranny was turned into a party room. Even the room where the guys who cleaned up kept their brooms had a sofa in it. You wouldn’t believe the things those guys used to find: jewels, pills, money, cashmere scarves, a camera with an ounce of coke in it.
Andy Warhol loved the club
One of the mainstays of Studio 54 was pop artist Andy Warhol. He saw the club as a place where people became objects rather than something flesh and blood. The club was his concept of “15 minutes of fame” to the extreme. One of Warhol’s former workers discussed the artist’s love of the club, saying:
I’d just walk in, and it felt so good—all those people staring and waving and taking pictures of everyone who got in, thinking if you got in you must be somebody. The place did have a feeling of family. It was like going to another Factory, because you’d see everyone from the office—Fred Hughes, Catherine Guinness, Chris Makos—every night, all night. Andy would be ensconced on a couch with Bianca and Halston. If you missed a night, Andy would say, ‘You missed the best night.’ And if he hadn’t been there, he’d be on the phone the first thing in the morning, wanting to know who was there.
The people behind the club’s interior were new to nightclubs
When it came time to actually build the nightclub, the co-owners went outside the normal means of construction and enlisted people who wouldn’t just give them the same ol’ same ol’. Instead, they used architects who designed popular restaurants, lighting people who worked on Broadway shows, and for sound they used people who were used to more underground clubs. Schrager explained the concept to Vanity Fair:
The sound was by Richard Long, who did most of the gay discos in town. We had huge bass speakers on the floor so you could actually feel the music, and tweeter arrays hanging from the ceiling. The idea was to constantly assault the senses. For our logo, we went to the graphic designer of Time magazine, Gil Lesser, who had done the award-winning poster for Equus.
The club had a lot of theme nights
In order to keep things fresh inside the club, the co-owners often put together a series of theme nights. Usually these special nights happened when someone wanted something specific for their birthday. No matter how wild the request the co-owners would make it happen. Giancarlo Giammetti told Vanity Fair that it only took a few days for the crew to get everything ready for a circus themed party:
Ian put it together in three days. We had a circus ring with sand, and mermaids on trapezes. Fellini gave us costumes from his film The Clowns. Valentino was the ringmaster, and Marina Schiano came as a palm reader with a parrot on her shoulder.
Busboys carrying trashcans pic
The scantily clad busboys were as much a part of the show as glitter, lights, and balloons. Often they were in costume and were considered “visceral entertainment.” The busboys were a part of the show and they were tasked with doing whatever it took to make the guests happy. One busboy explained:
It was so much fun. I’d jump in a limousine in my shorts and a leather jacket and go to P. J. Clarke’s and get 30 or 40 hamburgers to go—whatever it took to make the party. I played pinball with Chip Carter, the president’s son. We had these pinball machines from the Elton John party that we’d put in the basement. Once, Margaret Trudeau called me at my parents’ house at four in the morning. The prime minister’s wife! Vitas Gerulaitis, who had a beautiful banana-colored Rolls-Royce, drove me home to Queens a couple of times. Catherine Guinness went as me, in shorts and no shirt, when Halston had that drag party.
Studio 54 was “a theme park for adults”
When Studio 54 first opened it was a way for the people of Manhattan to cut loose and do whatever they wanted. Maybe they worked at banks or law firms, but in the middle of the night in Manhattan - at the clubs - they could be whoever they wanted to be.
You felt like it was a safe place to drop your guard. I could kiss a guy, I could kiss a girl—it’s O.K. by everybody in here, by guys in suits and guys in dresses, girls in shorts and ladies in gowns. It was about the fantasies of everyone in there. Studio 54 really was a theme park for adults.
The club was still under construction days before it opened
Even though it was a well planned business venture, Studio 54 was being constructed right up until the opening day. Even when Claudia Cohen, a reporter from the New York Post, stopped by to check in on their progress she was shocked at how broken down everything was. Cohen told Vanity Fair:
It was a total construction site. It did not look like a place that was going to open in 8 to 10 days. All of a sudden this life force—Steve Rubell—burst into the room. ‘Hiya, hiya, how ya doin’? Let me show you the place.’ I thought it was the craziest thing I’d ever heard, opening a nightclub in that location. But I was so impressed by his confidence that I left my doubts about its success out of what I wrote. Steve gave me a ride back to the newspaper. He told me his entire life story all the way down to South Street. So I went to the opening. It was like The Day of the Locust. But I got in, and it was done in time, and it was fabulous.
Truman Capote nearly started a brawl in the club
Truman Capote, the author behind In Cold Blood, was certainly irascible, but he wasn’t a tough guy by any means. Apparently Studio 54 had a way of changing people. Park Avenue hostess Nan Kempner said that Capote punched her in the face one night, nearly starting a brawl. She told Vanity Fair:
I did have that unpleasant Truman Capote night there. He was all set to go bam, bam, bam in my face. This vile little man. A few nights later, Halston had a party in the Olympic Tower, and Truman came up to me and said, ‘I’m so sorry, but when I get smashed, I look at you and see Jerry Zipkin.’ I said, ‘That’s the most unflattering thing anybody’s ever said to me.’ That was the closest thing to a barroom brawl at Studio 54.
The crew was serious about their work
While everyone else in the club was getting blasted and dancing the night away, the people worked the lights, the DJ, and the sound people were very serious about making sure everyone had a good time. Michael Overinton, the General Manager of the club made sure that the trains ran on time from the moment he worked his way up to the GM spot from his job as a janitor. He told NY Mag:
Maybe a few busboys like Lenny [Miestorm] partied, but the doormen, the people who dealt with money, the technical people handling sets in the back, they didn’t party. We were all there to work really long hours. And we all made really good money. It’s almost like asking the cast of a major show like A Chorus Line, ‘Well, did you guys really go out and party all the time?’ No. We were all really serious about creating a great show.
New Years Even in New York City is a sacred night of partying that can take dancers on a journey, and one New Years Eve party at Studio 54 was the ultimate way to begin a new year. On that special evening the party goers were treated to snowdrifts made of glitter that nearly suffocated the dancers with its sparkling lusciousness. Co-owner Ian Schrager said it was like “standing on stardust,” and one club goer said:
It sort of pooled on the balcony, and got into everybody's eyes. But I was so concentrated on what I was creating that I had a sort of force field that resisted the glitter.
The club used a publicist to get celebs through the door
Joanne Horowitz was the club’s publicist and she played a major part at getting celebrities through the door. Rather than just put her on the payroll, Horowitz worked on a sliding scale that rated celebrities. She said that she spent a large part of her day arguing over the cost of certain A-listers. She explained:
For [Sylvester] Stallone and Michael Jackson, I was paid the most; $250 each if they got the covers of The Post or the Daily News, $150 for inside. For People magazine, I got $250. Same for Time or Newsweek. I got items in Liz Smith[’s column]. I hustled my ass off. Stallone and Michael became personal friends [of mine].
Fashion fell from the ceiling
There was always something crazy happening at Studio 54, whether it was snowing, or there was a bridge for dancers to use so they could groove in the air, it was. Important for the co-owners to make the evening special. One night when the club didn’t have anything specific planned they used some free pieces of clothing that they were given from one of the local brands.
Rather than hand out the clothing at the door of raffling them off, the club owners just tossed the clothing items off the balcony which allowed for anyone who wanted one of the expensive pieces to simply reach out and grab it.
Disco Sally was a constant at the club
A-list celebrities were just one of the appeals of Studio 54, there were also cult celebrities who were the lifeblood of the underground party scene. One of those celebs was “Disco Sally” an older woman who showed up to get down and she was so fun that she became a fixture at the club.
Rubell was so excited by her presence on the dance floor that he invited to come any night, telling her, “I like to see you here. Come anytime you like, and you’ll get in.” After the invitation she became an institution and showed up whenever she was free. She once said, “I didn’t dance for 50 years because my husband didn’t like it,” she said.
There were a lot of bartenders but one of them did most of the work
According to bartender Scott Taylor, there were only a few bartenders doing the work of an army. He told NY Mag that Steve Rubell wanted to have a bunch of hot, gay bartenders working the club, and because of that most of them spent their time working and not doing their jobs - which is how Taylor managed to keep his. He explained:
At the end of the night when all the other guys went out dancing, I took out the garbage and mopped the floor. Steve was still like, ‘I don’t want him working here.’ But the other bartenders were like, ‘No, no, no. He’s staying!’ Steve said, ‘You’re okay. You blend in with the gray walls.’
Grace Jones partied with a purpose
In her book, I’ll Never Write My Memoirs, Grace Jones explained how the coked out decadence of Studio 54 was a microcosm of the rest of the country. She explained that they were shoving their party in everyone’s face because America needed to have their own excesses reflected back at them. She wrote:
Before Studio 54 became notorious, it was the epitome of a certain kind of divergent identity shape-shifting, so there were the beautiful people, the poseurs, the fantasists, but there were also those with more cerebral urges. It was about the mix of people, all in one place. But the club's logo, after all, was the moon snorting coke off a spoon. Nothing was hidden. It was right out there in the open. You can't imagine America without drugs of one form or another, without its drugstores, rock stars, dealers, bored housewives, or bankers, and Studio 54 blew that notion up your nose so that you couldn't miss it. Made it so obvious that the country was on drugs, or it wouldn't make it through the day, that it became a problem.
The DJ and lights were integral to the party
Studio 54 wasn’t just the most banging party in Manhattan because someone unlocked the doors and tossed on a mixtape. A lot of people had to work together to make the night a success, from DJs to lightning technicians to the people who designed the sound system. Grace Jones wrote about it in her book, saying:
The music was magical and the DJs were crowd-grabbing showmen. All the best DJs wanted to work there; the sound system was the very best, and they had their own special horseshoe-shaped booth to control things from. It all contributed to creating this special atmosphere, and at its best democratized pleasure: The anonymous drag queen could dance next to the international superstar and there was no difference. The lights were integral, so that as the music became more animated so did the lights. These were rave parties years before there was such a thing. Everyone got on famously.
Rick James almost partied himself into the grave
Rick James of “Super Freak” fame was a legendary party monster throughout the ‘70s and ’80. According to the guy who took over Studio 54 after the original co-owners went to prison, James nearly killed himself while at the club. He said:
Rick James parties the hardest. It was unbelievable. I don’t know how he did it. But he killed himself partying… He did an enormous amount of cocaine and alcohol. He stayed up all night, every night, sometimes for days at a time… Mick Jagger took care of himself. Rick James did not… He and I were both born on February 1st, so we would have joint birthday parties together.