The late 1970s saw a huge Disco boom across the world, fuelled by the success of the 1977 movie Saturday Night Fever. As the records and the attire of those dancing became more luxurious, so did the venues that housed them. And Studio 54 took downtown uptown. Opened on 26 April 1977, it became the model for future clubs.
Run by restaurateur Steve Rubell and his lawyer Ian Schrager and based in the old television studios on New York’s 54th Street, the club had 5,400 square feet of dance floor.
Entrance was gained through a long, mirrored foyer with an arched, gold ceiling bathed in soft red light. The multi-tiered main room was expansive – half lounge, half dance floor.
The lounge area featured glittery black carpet, a shrinelike chrome-plated bar, sprawling couches and huge urns filled with blooming calla lilies. The upstairs lounge was a secluded drawing room with carved wood moldings and plush, velveteen sofas.
The stage door on West 53rd Street served as a VIP entrance, obviating indignities at the ropes on 54th. Inside, the VIPs had an exclusive area in which to let their hair down, flirt fearlessly and consume controlled substances freely.
If their wealth or fabulousness truly merited access to the inner sanctum, celebrities could descend a staircase behind the bar that led to the club’s basement where, amid cheesy decorative touches and an AstroTurf floor, they could find greater privacy.
Nicky Siano was DJ for the first four months, and the strict door policy of Marc Beneke became known as ‘tossing the salad’ – providing a mix of high and low life to delight the club’s megastar clientele; the likes of Dustin Hoffman, Sylvester Stallone, Liza Minnelli, Elizabeth Taylor, Ginger Rogers, Grace Jones and John Travolta.
From the beginning Studio 54 drew members of the Andy Warhol ‘Factory’, and soon the boss himself was there every night.
Photographs of the partying clubbers spread around the world and pretty soon every major city (and a few minor ones) had their own Studio 54.
From modest $10,000 parties to the $100,000 bash thrown by Fabergé to kick off its Farrah Fawcett hair products campaign, the parties included white horses (for Bianca Jagger), white roses (for Elizabeth Taylor), white ducks (for Dolly Parton), and black panthers and grey elephants (for Liza Minnelli).
Studio 54 not only mingled gays with straights, celebs with the hoi polloi, it was also probably the first club that had integrated bathrooms. The toilets were still nominally ‘men’s’ and ‘women’s’ but few paid any attention to that distinction. Mixed couples disappeared into stalls to share pharmaceuticals and/or intimacies, and some people entering the facilities were not readily identifiable as any particular gender.
On 4 February 1980, owners Rubell and Schrager enjoyed a big farewell bash at the club before surrendering to authorities to begin a 3½-year prison sentence for tax evasion. Studio 54 was sold in November of that year for $4.75 million.
On 30 January 1981, Rubell and Schrager were released from prison. Schrager went on to become one of the most successful hoteliers in the world, and in January 2017, he received a full and unconditional pardon from President Barack Obama.