Studio 54

These days when we think about the 1970s, we’re assaulted with memories of the energy crisis, the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon’s resignation as President of the United States after the Watergate scandal, and, of course, disco. Many of us equate disco with the 1970s, a genre of dance music that emerged from nightlife scenes and subcultures in the United States.  Disco was a kind of reaction to the dominance of rock music in the 1960s, when dance music was stigmatized.  And thus, band names like Earth Wind & Fire, the Bee Gees, ABBA, KC and the Sunshine Band - just to name a few - are groups we often associate with disco anthems that defined an era, the age of disco, when life was best remembered on the dance floor becoming high with the hustle, or the disco finger, away from news stories of napalm bombs annihilating innocent lives on the valleys and mountains of Southeast Asia. 

After the Vietnam War ended in 1975, it’s fair to say that the popularity of disco gained momentum and peaked, when the idea of having lost the war became irreversible.  Indeed, it was time for Americans to decompress, itching to shake their troubles away in a disco club.  Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager probably led the culture to the highest point of disco when they established Studio 54 in 1976, a disco club at the edge of New York City’s theater district. The long-time friends and business partners had an ambitious idea to create a concept disco club that injected elements of elaborate theater in its shows before a crowd handpicked by Rubell himself.  Studio 54’s founders wanted the club to be inclusive, but were wary of those who might disrupt the very idea of inclusivity itself.  And so, the dictatorship at the door paved the way to a democracy inside the club, that is once you’ve made it through the door.  Rubell’s criteria for admission was often applied to non-celebrity patrons, from any economic status, who might disrupt the delicate equilibrium of diversity, fun, and freedom in the club; for example, straight men with unbuttoned polyester shirts and gold-chains were not allowed, because in Rubell’s assessment, they fit the profile of those who simply want to pick up girls, and harass them.  On the other hand, admission to gay patrons was often guaranteed by virtue of their penchant to dance, not to mention famous personalities whose cultural capital is indelible to the club’s sense of identity as a hub for celebrities hanging out with ordinary people, every night.  The drunk and happy faces of these luminaries grace the pages of Ian Schrager’s massive, 394-page coffee table book/photo album, Studio 54, which measures 23” x 14” when opened, and 1.55” thick  when closed.

Schrager invites the cultural archaeologist in the reader to experience Studio 54 again, through black & white and color photographs, interspersed with snapshots of articles from major east coast dailies that covered parties at 54.  The photos compiled here were taken by a host of photographers, properly acknowledged in the book. In many ways, this is Schrager’s private scrapbook gone public. There’s Bianca Jagger (Mick Jagger’s first wife) riding a white horse at her birthday bash, led by a naked man, just two weeks after opening night in 1977. This was the kind of extravagant party that snowballed into other parties hosted by 54, including the premiere party of the film New York, New York, directed by Martin Scorcece.  Then there’s Elizabeth Taylor’s 46th birthday in 1978, which Rubell called “an impromptu party,” according to The Washington Post, because, “Elizabeth needed an uplift. She’s been depressed lately. But she had a wonderful time tonight. She told [Rubell] it was the best thing that’s happened to her in two years”; and one of the guests in that party was the celebrated writer Truman Capote, who arrived in a horse-drawn carriage, and told the paper in his usual sardonic wit and humor that “[...Elizabeth’s] a little overweight. But if she lost 20 pounds she’d look great. [...] She’s the only girl I know who married every guy she ever slept with. So that’s not really bad, considering that if most girls did that, they’d have been married 50 times before the age of 30.” It’s not hard to imagine how Capote drank away his nights at 54 with ease and abandon, whose presence, along with Bianca Jagger and fashion designer Halston, was as ubiquitous as the shirtless male waiters who delivered alcohol to their famous guests. 

In his introductory essay “New York in the 1970s,” cultural critic Paul Goldberger directly aligns Studio 54 to New York City’s “extraordinary hotbed of creativity [in the 1970s], the kind of creative energy that exists for its own sake, not to respond to the demands of a market,” despite its crime-infested streets that inspired movies like Taxi Driver and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. To Goldberger, out of the grit and danger that is New York City in the seventies, Studio 54 blazed like a comet, fearless and confident to express a concept in the name of creativity, no matter how costly its ambitions were. But Goldberger’s interview with Schrager is particularly illuminating, especially Schrager’s lamentations on the club’s downfall, which he blames on the elusive guidelines for admission employed at the door; high-volume rejection created a kind of elitist perception about 54, that, over time, accrued into institutional resentment.  Soon, 54’s owners got into legal trouble for failing to procure a number of licenses, including liquor and cabaret licenses. 

Some of my favorite images in this album includes 11-year-old Anderson Cooper and his brother Carter looking posh in suits, with their mother, Gloria Vanderbilt; President Carter’s mother, Lillian, hanging out with Andy Warhol during a UNICEF ball; and a quote on page 281 from Alec Baldwin assessing the glories of 54; Baldwin was a student at NYU when the club opened, and, for a few months, he used to be a favorite busboy for classy, gay men who patronized the club.  Indeed, the photos in this book/photo album will make you long for a time and place where disco claimed its hottest inferno of freedom, uninhibitedness, and inclusivity. Please enjoy its pages like it's your personal scrapbook. Remember the photos can be scanned at any of LAPL's libraries for free. Let this book/photo album take your weekend apart with fantasies that you’re at one of the parties at 54, back in 1976 or 1977, dancing with Diana Ross; an unknown gay bodybuilder; the designer Valentino, or Liza Minnelli--all of them melting to a brand new start, every night, in a city that doesn’t sleep.