For a period of 33 months in the late 1970s, Studio 54 reigned as the wildest and most successful disco - or nightclub - in New York City. Founded by Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, two Brooklyn natives who had met while attending Syracuse University, the nightclub opened on April 26, 1977. The opening was chaotic, with traffic grinding to a halt on 54th Street and a drug-fueled street party breaking out among some of the clubgoers unable to get into the venue. That night set the tone for the "anything - no matter how 'shocking' - goes" vibe, and Studio 54 quickly became the hottest night spot in the city, a place where celebrities and "regular people" mingled - if one was lucky enough to get past the strict door policy.
Several factors led to the abrupt end to Studio 54's reign as New York City's most infamous party scene: greed, drugs, the end of the carefree '70s, and the looming spectre of the AIDS crisis. On February 2, 1980, Rubell and Schrager threw themselves a huge farewell party. Two days later, they began jail sentences on tax evasion charges. They sold the club to Marc Fleischman, but although he attempted to keep the party going, Studio 54's glory days were over. After being sold to another owner, the club closed in 1986.
Below are some of the firsthand stories from Studio 54's heyday.
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There Were A Lot Of Hidden Rooms, And Every Room Was ‘A Party Room’
Studio 54 had a capacity of 2,000, but because of its design, it never felt overcrowded. The long entrance led to a big round bar. Behind the bar was the huge dance floor with an 85-foot ceiling. A stairway off the entrance hall led to a lounge, another bar, and a curved balcony with rows of velvet seats. And every space in the club was put to use.
Richie Notar was a teenager when he worked as a busboy at Studio 54. He 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.
There were many hidden rooms inside Studio 54. One of the most popular was the basement; it might have been dingy, but it had secluded corners furnished with mattresses. Only a select few were invited down to the room, which was discretely patrolled by security men with walkie-talkies who would get rid of any unwanted onlookers. As actress Grace Jones recalled 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.
Upstairs was a balcony space dubbed "the rubber room." This area was reportedly a favorite of Saturday Night Live cast members, who would climb up the fire escape to the fifth floor of the club after their show. This area was allegedly where many would go for explicit activities. As Jones remembered it:
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 in the grip of what seemed like an unlimited embrace.
But while Jones remembered the club as a hotbed of sexual activity, Benecke insisted to the BBC that stories about the scandalous goings-on at the club had been exaggerated:
They had a place called the Rubber Room upstairs. You would go up there and sure there might be couples having sex - but only one or two.
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Famous People Were Everywhere
Among the celebrities who frequented Studio 54 were Elizabeth Taylor, Liza Minnelli, Cher, Bianca Jagger, Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Brooke Shields, and Andy Warhol. Classical pianist Vladimir Horowitz also would turn up regularly with his wife, though doorman Marc Benecke said that the music wasn't the draw for Horowitz:
He always wore earplugs. He hated the music but he loved watching the people.
And he wasn't the only one. As Anthony Haden-Guest reminisced in his book The Last Party: Studio 54, Disco, and the Culture of the Night:
Studio was a place where stars would go and look at ordinary people without being molested.
Another regular was Donald Trump. In 2016 he told The Washington Post:
I’d go there a lot with dates and with friends, and with lots of people.
According to socialite Nikki Haskell:
[Trump] understood it was an opportunity to be grabbed. He was not there for the drug-fueled disco deliria. He was there to be seen with the famous people, to network, to cut the deal; whilst everyone else cut the coke.
It wasn't unusual to see famous people who seemingly had nothing in common mingling at the club. Former Details columnist Beauregard Houston-Montgomery told Vanity Fair about seeing one unusual pairing:
All of a sudden the three of us stopped gabbing and stared straight ahead, because there was General Moshe Dayan, with his eye patch, talking to Gina Lollobrigida... 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.
Myra Scheer, assistant to owners Schrager and Rubell in the Studio 54 days, told Another Man magazine:
Once you were in, all people were created equal inside Studio 54. Rollerina could sail through the doors and dance with Liza Minnelli. 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.
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You Might Arrive Alone, But You Didn’t Have To Leave Alone
While some chose to get intimate inside the walls of Studio 54, the club also had a reputation as a spot where one could end up going home with someone they met there.
As photographer David Seidner told Vanity Fair in 1996:
[Studio 54] existed in a time when it was hip to be glamorous. You could go in jeans or in black-tie, and if you were in black-tie you could still pick up cute boys in jeans. It wasn’t only a gay place. But it was definitely a pickup place. More often than not, you’d leave 54 accompanied.
Fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg added:
I had more fun at Studio 54 than in any other nightclub in the world. I would have dinner with my children, put on my cowboy boots, take my Mercedes, park in the garage next door, go in for a couple of hours, find someone, and leave.
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Drug Use Was Rampant
Drug use was very much a part of the Studio 54 atmosphere. And no one really tried to hide it - in fact, hanging above the dance floor was a a giant crescent moon with a face, a cocaine spoon moving to and from its nose. People on the dance floor would openly take poppers, while some would retreat to the darker corners of the club to do heroin.
And often it was the people running or working in the club who were the ones providing the illicit substances. Owner Steve Rubell, for one, was known to hand out Quaaludes to his friends.
Mark Fleischman, who took over the club in 1980 after Schrager and Rubell were sent to jail, wrote in his book Inside Studio 54 about how he would greet the celebrities who came to his office "with a gold straw or a crisp rolled-up hundred-dollar bill" and invite them to partake in the rails of coke that were on his desk.
To model-turned-Hollywood decorator Kevin Haley, Studio 54 was like a nonstop party. He told Vanity Fair:
There didn’t seem to be any guilt in those days. Decadence was a positive thing. Cocaine was a positive thing. It had no side effects. Or so we thought.
But Haden-Guest argued that there wasn't as much substance use going on at Studio 54 as some of the stories made it appear:
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.
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The Club's Opening Night Was Chaotic
Steve Rubell and business partner Ira Schrager already owned a successful nightclub in Queens (The Enchanted Garden) when Uva Harden approached them to finance a new club in a former CBS building on West 54th Street in Manhattan. Instead, Rubell and Schrager paid Harden a finder's fee and teamed with Jack Dushey to lease the building themselves.
Future US President Donald Trump and his wife Ivana were among the first to arrive at the club on opening night. When the Trumps and their friends got inside, they found the club was nearly empty, with workers frantically trying to finish the dance floor and fix the music and lights. In a 2017 BBC Radio documentary, former Studio 54 busboy Richie Notar talked about Trump being at the club's opening:
No one remembered him being there the first night. He was a non-entity. He was never on the dance floor.
As the night progressed, thousands descended on the club, causing street traffic to come to a halt. Frank Sinatra's limo got stuck in the traffic and he never made it inside. Nor did other celebrities like Warren Beatty, Henry Winkler, or Kate Jackson. Eleven-year-old Brooke Shields (escorted by Robin Leach, who was a CNN reporter at the time) and Cher, however, were among those who did get in.
In an interview for Anthony Haden-Guest's book The Last Party, Leach recalled:
All of us knew that night that we weren’t at the opening of a discotheque but the opening of something historical, that was going to change the shape of the way people lived or played... There were no rules. Sodom and Gomorrah met the High Street that night.
Claudia Jordan, then a "Page 6" reporter for the New York Post, had her doubts about the club's success, as the venue had looked like a construction site just days before its scheduled opening. But Rubell's confidence convinced her to show up:
It was like The Day of the Locust. But I got in, and it was done in time, and it was fabulous... Carmen d'Alessio [who organized the opening] had to be catapulted over the crowd. My mother, who came from Lima, had to be thrown in. Lester Persky told me that he came with Jack Nicholson and they couldn’t get in. It was mass, mass confusion.
With no room left in the club, the party spilled outside to 54th Street. In 2018, Schrager spoke to The New York Times about the utter chaos of opening night:
We were actually scared. We had to bring all the security inside out onto the street.
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Several Stars Had Memorable Birthday Parties At The Club
In May 1977, fashion designer Halston called to book Studio 54 for Bianca Jagger's birthday party. As club employee Renny Reynolds explained in Anthony Haden-Guest's book:
When Steve [Rubell] got off the phone we flipped into action to make it happen. I called everybody I knew in New York to come and blow up masses of white balloons... and I went to the Claremont Stables to arrange for a horse.
As Studio 54 co-owner Ira Schrager told Vanity Fair, the horse played a starring role at the party:
Around midnight, from behind a curtain at the rear of the dance floor, Sterling St. Jacques emerged, his body glistening with silver glitter. He was leading a white pony bearing a silvered Lady Godiva. Flashes went off as Bianca took Godiva’s place on the pony. Her picture put Studio 54 on front pages all over the world.
The following year, Jagger's birthday was a "baby party," complete with bowls of Cracker Jacks and diaper-wearing busboys.
Elizabeth Taylor's birthday party in 1978 featured the movie star sitting on a float made out of gardenias as she watched the Rockettes perform. As a gift, she got a life-sized portrait of herself made out of cake.
As David Bret wrote in his biography of Taylor (The Lady, The Lover, The Legend):
A dozen well-endowed hunks, naked but for sequined posing-pouches, and some with joints dangling from the corners of their mouths, scattered gardenia petals in the couple’s [Taylor and husband John Warner] path as they entered. The dancing and fun continued until the early hours, the atmosphere heavy with the stench of poppers and Elizabeth bebopping with a bevy of gay porn stars, until Warner put his foot down and said that they were leaving.
For fashion designer Valentino's birthday, his business partner Giancarlo Giammetti arranged a circus-themed party. He told Vanity Fair:
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.