Other than the gas shortage and a (relatively) poor economy, the second half of the 1970s was a great time to be alive. Vietnam was over, Watergate was forgotten, cocaine had not yet turned into crack, and free-love had not yet turned into AIDS.
The dour realism in films of the first half of the decade (M*A*S*H*, The Godfather) were giving way to a hopeful fantasy (Star Wars, Rocky). Sad folk music and complex prog-rock were being abandoned in favor of the pulsing, simplistic kickdrum of disco. And all the magic of this ignorant bliss reached its transcendent zenith inside the doors of dance club Studio 54.
Opened thirty years ago today by Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell, Studio 54 set up camp in a former Opera House on West 54th Street, a building previously owned by CBS Studios for the purpose of filming shows like Captain Kangaroo and The $64,000 Question.
After an expense of $400K (or $700K depending on who you talk to) and four weeks of intense creative construction, Studio 54 was ready for its debut. Despite a snub review in The Daily News titled "Studio 54, Where Are You?" that dismissed the club as just one more of the many discos in the city, the club's opening night was filled with stars like Cher, Brooke Shields, Margot Hemingway, and Donald and Ivanna Trump.
During its short run, celebrities would be the hallmark of Studio 54 -- the stamp of approval that surpassed the media, the church and the police (though, as they would find out, not the IRS). The invitation list was heavily scrutinized, largely decided by New York elite like Andy Warhol or elders of the gay Atlantis, Fire Island.
It was possible to get in without an invitation if you chose to stand out in the cold and wait for Steve Rubell or one of the doormen to select you based on ever-shifting criteria. More casting directors than bouncers, the doormen of Studio 54 would choose who they let in based on what the club needed in that particular moment. "If you came there and they wanted two of a kind and you were the third, you did not get in," remembers Gloria Gaynor.
If the club already had a dozen girls with midriff dresses on, then sorry sweetie, go home and change or come back tomorrow. Yes you, in the McDonalds uniform. No, sorry, we're all full of blondes tonight. No hats. No facial hair. Fashion had to be either intriguingly strange - though not strange strange, a fine line -- or of the highest sophistication.
In the E! True Hollywood Story documentary Studio 54: Sex, Drugs & Disco, Village Voice columnist Michael Musto remembers that by the time Studio opened, "disco was already quite prevalent, but Studio was the ultimate disco. It wasn't just another new club opening, it was a place where you really felt like you had walked into some kind of magical kingdom."
An unprecedented team of designers, theatrical lighting experts, florists and architects had come together to transform the interior of the once Opera House into a disco Olympus. From the long tunnel entrance, with its mirrored walls and laser reflecting chandelier, to the interior with spinning poles of light descending from the ceiling almost to eye level, to the dance troupe/fashion show/circus routine, Studio 54, from its opening night, had forever cemented itself into the minds of New York club-goers.
Having both come from New York Jewish circles -- where competitions for the largest Bat Mitzvah celebration remained tense between families -- both Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell had long since known how to throw a party. After meeting at Syracuse University, the pair had opened the club Enchanted Gardens in Queens in 1976 -- which many snubbed for its location. Only one year later, they had one of the highest grossing clubs in New York on their hands. "Steve had the kind of vision and big picture of it all," remembers film producer and Studio guest, Howard Rosenman, "and then Ian followed through, because Ian had the knowledge and the financial muscle."
With Rubell as the charismatic face of the operation and Schrager the calculating business brain in the shadow, Studio 54 was literally stuffed to the roof with money. With a $20 cover and enough booze sold to keep the coked-out disco queens from flying through the ceiling, the operation was making more money than Rubell and Schrader knew what to do with. And instead of reporting their earnings to the IRS, the team began hiding garbage bags of cash in the ceiling tiles, behind fake walls and inside safety deposit boxes.
Meanwhile, the infamy of Studio 54 seemed to know no bounds. Bianca Jagger rode a white horse through the club during her private birthday party. The cast of Grease held their release party at Studio with mustangs scattered throughout. Truman Capote would DJ, Andy Warhol would take Polaroids. Michael Jackson (most likely the most sober person in the club) would to dance all night next to drag queens and gay waiters/prostitutes, especially to the song "I Will Survive" which was an unknown B-side until Studio 54 DJ Richie Kaczor began putting it into the rotation. All this in a club located in an unpopular section of town surrounded by pornography theaters.
The success of Studio 54 had gone beyond even the meteoric imagination of Steve Rubell, who, drunk on the power of being king of the discos, he began bragging to anyone who would listen about the stashes of cash and the two, differing sets of books the club would keep. "Steve was very high on 'ludes one night, and he was being [filmed for television]," says author of The Club, Steven Gaines, "and he said on the air, 'What the IRS doesn't know wont hurt them.'"
On the morning of December 14, 1978, Rubell's loose lips sunk the disco ship. IRS agents raided the club, finding the garbage bags full of cash, along with Studio 54's real accounting books and a significant amount of cocaine. Rubell and Schrager were charged with withholding $2.5 million from the IRS -- one of the biggest busts in IRS history. A year later, Studio 54 held a going away party for Rubell and Schrager. They were going away to jail for two years, but there was still plenty to celebrate.
Studio 54 would lose their liquor license once the pair left, forcing the club to close for eighteen months (it would later reopen, but with significantly less popularity), making the night a going away party for Studio as well as Rubell and Schrager. "I Will Survive" was played repeatedly, along with "My Way," with Rubell giving a going away speech wearing a Frank Sinatra style fedora.
After the two were released from prison, they found their friends were no longer available. In order to reduce their prison sentence from three and a half to two years, the pair had rolled over on many celebrities, turning over books that documented gifts of drugs and cash -- including a confession that White House Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan was seen using cocaine and engaging in anonymous sex on the balcony of the night club.
Disco was dead. Rap was coming up. Polyester and the Hustle were traded in for track suits and breakdancing. But Studio 54's legacy would remain in tact, becoming known as the springboard for the New York party planning business, as well as the drugs and sensory explosion of the rave scene. It would be immortalized in films, photography books, documentaries and stories of aging celebrities, forever known as the place where, for a short while, art was infused with glamor, celebrities danced with the unknown, and everyone refused to come down.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Westword's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Denver's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
Follow Backbeat on Twitter: @westword_music