The night before the founders of Studio 54 were sent to prison, they had a 'going away' party that was even more ostentatious than the opening night. Diana Ross performed.
Remembered as the ultimate nightclub, where everyone who was anyone went to see and be seen, or just to have fun, Studio 54 was the height of New York City cool. A new documentary, released this weekend, charts the club’s meteoric rise and fall from 1977 to 1981 and shines light on its two Brooklyn-born founders, best friends Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager. The archive footage includes a starry-eyed, afro-haired Michael Jackson talking to camera about the thing that makes Studio 54 better than any other discotheque: "The feeling," he says, "it’s where you come when you want to escape." If you’ve ever enjoyed clubbing, listened to disco, or taken an interest in tax evasion cases, it’s a must-see.
Like Berlin’s Berghain today, Studio 54 was very famous for its door policy, which was: fun-loving. "We didn’t want people with polyester shirts," Schrager (now 71) says, admitting the doormen would often split up couples in the queue if one was better dressed than the other. Rubell, the much more extroverted of the pair, is filmed at the entrance having fun saying no to people: "That hat, don’t ever come in with a hat." Full of Warholian one-liners, Rubell famously once said that "the key to a good party is filling a room with guests more interesting than you" and with similar humility admitted: "If I wasn't the owner, I wouldn't be allowed in." Warhol himself (a good friend of Rubell’s) regarded the door policy as the secret to the club’s success: "It's a dictatorship at the door and a democracy on the dance floor."
There were several lists on the door, with some A-list celebrities allowed in no matter what (referred to as 'NFUs' or 'No F***Ups'), other A-list celebrities who had to pay the entry fee, and more still who got no special treatment. "Mick Jagger and Keith Richards could get in, but other Rolling Stones members had to pay," remembers the club’s publicist. King of Disco, Chic frontman Nile Rogers was denied entry because Grace Jones forgot to leave his name on the door, and apparently Frank Sinatra couldn’t get anywhere near the entrance on the opening night because it was too crowded. That night, everybody lost their coats because the cloakroom was so busy and people were so eager to get inside that they just started throwing their coats on the floor.
If you didn’t happen to be Cher or the most famous person in the Rolling Stones, you had to look and be very interesting to get in. Like Disco Sally, a 77-year-old lawyer who, according to New York magazine, "happened upon the disco scene" when she was mourning the death of her husband. Pictured below, Disco Sally had the freshest moves and style, dancing with Dustin Hoffman and Bill Murray.
According to The Guardian, Rubell briefed the doormen (who were all, it must be said, exceptionally good looking) that at least 20% of the crowd on any given night should be gay men, and 10% lesbians and trans people. Once you were in the most exclusive club in the world, it was actually very inclusive. "People didn’t judge, you can be who you are when you’re there," says one commentator in the doc. "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." Everyone from Michael Jackson to Nile Rogers talks about the remarkable freedom of Studio 54 and looking back with tears in his eyes, Schrager assesses: "There aren’t that many times in life where you’re absolutely free."
The demise came down to drugs and money. A magazine article reported the club had made $3.8 million profit by the end of 1978. "The profits are astronomical," Rubell told the journalist, "only the mafia does better." It was rumoured to be this comment (plus a tip-off from a disgruntled employee) that attracted the attention of the IRS who raided the club, finding cocaine, cash stashed in a secret loft, and very dodgy accounts. One of the prosecutors interviewed for the doc reveals Rubell and Schrager 'skimmed' (didn’t pay tax on) nearly $3 million.
It also came to light that the reason everyone looked like they were having the best time ever at Studio 54 was because most people were on drugs. The books revealed a lot of unknown expenses, which turned out to be Rubell buying drugs for celebrities – his 'NFUs'. "The amount of drugs was profound," Rubell's brother, Don, says on camera, "and they were all uppers, no one was on a downer." Nicknamed the 'disco biscuit' in the US in the '70s and parodied by Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street, Rubell handed out quaaludes, which were used at the time (and misused by people like Bill Cosby) to 'relax' people before sex. In a recent interview, Grace Jones talked about a secret room at Studio 54: "A place of secrets and secretions, the in-crowd and inhalations, sucking and snorting." But people didn’t need to have sex in secret; sex in the bathrooms, on the balconies, in the 'rubber room' and on mattresses laid out for this purpose in the basement was fair game. Sexual freedom was all part of the appeal.
The first cases of HIV and AIDS were reported the same year Studio 54 closed, and tragically, many of the club’s regular guests passed away. Steve Rubell also contracted the disease, and died from complications related to AIDS in 1989 at just 45. By then, Rubell and Schrager (pictured below) had spent three and a half years in prison together and were rebuilding their lives with a new joint business venture. The parts of the documentary where Schrager talks about his relationship with Rubell are particularly touching; he says that prison can tear a relationship apart, but it made theirs stronger.
It’s taken Schrager (who now runs the enormously successful Edition hotel chain) this long to find the words to describe Studio 54 and the documentary really benefits from his narrative – the most 'extra' story of club culture and glamour, told by an introvert. He and Rubell created something that people who have no connection to or real-time memory of today, look back on as if they were there.
Studio 54 is released in cinemas tomorrow.