Sex, drugs and disco: The life and death of Studio 54, the legendary celebrity nightclub
For 33 months, from 1978 to 1980, Studio 54 was the place to be, it provided a space for hedonism, tolerance, glamour, subversion and freedom unlike any other before or since
“When you walked through those blacked-out doors, you were in another world,” recalls a clubgoer who frequented Studio 54 — a New York nightclub in the 1970s that forever changed what “going out” meant and created a space where, for the first time, people could be totally free. If they could first get in, of course.
On April 26, 1977, a huge mob formed on the West 54th Street in Manhattan in front of an old TV studio. It was the opening night of Studio 54 and it was quite literally a blockbuster. The police were called in to control the crowd and make way for the block-long line of limousines as a bevy of celebrities descended on the venue. Andy Warhol, Cher, Liza Minnelli, Elizabeth Taylor, Truman Capote set the bar for entry into the newest nightclub in town.
The crowd was heavily vetted. The people outside, according to one observer, resembled “the Damned looking into Paradise”. It was clear that “cool” was the criteria for entry, and everybody wanted in. Couple were split up because one partner didn’t fit the bill, people were turned away for their shirts, hats or gold chains. Some were even offering sex to security guards at the gate in exchange for entry.
The success of the opening night was by no means an accident. The owners, Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell — close friends in their early 30s — were pioneers when it came to creating hype. They had prepared a formidable guest list and sent invitations to the biggest celebrities, and they personally vetted the crowd on the first day. They made sure the media was there to capture all the fun and madness, and Studio 54 was on the cover of several newspapers the next day.
After the Vietnam War and Watergate, people grew weary of the seriousness that marked the last few years and just wanted to go out, be wild, and have fun. Starting off in small black clubs, disco was becoming the sound of the era. It was now being played at gay clubs around New York. The gay designers who frequented these clubs came there with glamorous models in tow. Straight men who wanted to mingle with the girls thronged the clubs. This created a heady, vibrant mix that was yet unheard of.
The stage was set for Studio 54. A place where all sorts of people — African-Americans, homosexuals, straight people, transgenders, artists, dancers, designers — blended together and swayed to the four-on-the-floor beat that defined disco music. “It felt like, for the first time, people were non-judgemental. Everybody was fine with everybody’s culture,” a clubgoer claimed.
Studio 54 grew in popularity and soon started attracting artists and celebrities from across the world. While Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were given free entry, the other members of the Rolling Stones had to pay. This was where Michael Jackson hung out and people could join him on the dance floor.
Alcohol, cocaine, quaaludes, and poppers only added fuel to the highly combustible mixture of characters. People were making out or having sex all over the place and the furniture had to be covered in latex so it was easier to clean it for the next night.
The dream, however, was short-lived. The onset of the AIDS epidemic was the first blow as the unbridled freedom suddenly turned deadly. The second blow came when the IRS raided the club on December 14, 1978, a day after owner Steve Rubell told a reporter who asked him about the club’s finances that, “Only the mafia does better.” Along with a huge stash of drugs, the IRS found documents that showed that the owners were skimming 80% of the money.
Things went from bad to worse when the owners were indicted and sentenced for three and a half years on January 18, 1980. Still defiant, the owners organized a send-off party that reportedly was as grand as the opening night, if not bigger.
For 33 months, from 1978 to 1980, Studio 54 was the place to be. It provided a space for hedonism, tolerance, glamour, subversion and freedom unlike any other before or since. Four decades later, A&E revisits this disco-era phenomenon in its special ‘Studio 54’ featuring a treasure-trove of rare footage and punctuated with groovy disco numbers.
‘Studio 54’ is out on Monday, January 28 on A&E.