Since its inception in 1977, NYC’s Studio 54 grew to become one of the most infamous nightclubs in history. To this day, the stories from behind those walls continue to excite and enthrall. Apart from being located in the Big Apple, the studio constantly housed a list of elite celebrities and global icons from that era. If there is a golden era of disco today, it exists because of Studio 54.
Nowadays, it might have boiled to a regular New York theater. Still, it is difficult to forget the incidents that transpired inside this notorious establishment. Prepare to discover a handful of the most surreal and wildest moments from Studio 54, a nightclub not meant for the “average.”
This article was originally published on avocadoposts.com and has been republished here with permission.
Opening Night Chaos
Despite Studio 54 being relatively empty when Nikki Haskell and Donald Trump entered it, the place’s vibe shifted drastically throughout the night. It started as a low-key, slow stream of people dancing in a dark bar to a full-of-life party as numerous celebrities graced the occasion.
Thousands of “commoners” found a place inside the club. In contrast, many of Hollywood’s brightest stars could not even cross the bar’s entrance gate. Brooke Shield and Cher made it inside while famous musician Frank Sinatra was left outside the bar, stuck inside his limo, which could not be opened on the crowded street.
Simon Says: Let’s Party
What does this fun kid’s game have anything to do with Studio 54? Interestingly enough, the launch party for this game was organized at the renowned bar in ’78. It is pretty worrying when we think of how a children’s game was introduced at a nightclub where so much R-rated activity goes on daily. Turns out, it worked.
The game’s makers thought that their choice of location was utterly appropriate as the colorful lights and loud music inside reminded them of a disco. They went a bit overboard and placed a big 4′ model of the game straight on top of the dancing customers.
Even though the nightclub was targeted at A-listers of the 1970s, the bar was disintegrating on opening night. Almost an hour before the doors were officially opened, employees were busy establishing back flooring to give the club the craving vibe.
When their first patrons entered through the gates, the interior lights were blinking, and the music was not working. The lights behind the bar turned off completely, pushing the workers to buy candles from neighboring shops to light the place up. When Donald Trump came in, no one could even hear him. All significant locations have their fair share of hiccups, it seems.
A Sea of Glitter
Nobody likes glitter as much as people did in the ’70s. Everything glitzy, glamorous, and gorgeous was the trend – the unspoken standard. Naturally, Studio 54 had to level up their game on one of the biggest nights in the country – New Year’s Eve. But for a place that was always partying, how would the officials ensure an extra special night? Ian Schrager says the answer lies in fine glitter.
On New Year’s Eve, the inside of Studio 54 shone brighter than ever when the owners ordered a whopping 4 tons of glitter to be spread across the floor. Schrager said it felt like dancing on stardust. We all know how stubborn glitter can be to clean. So, even after the wildest night of the year ended, the glitter hung around the place for a couple of months.
It was no secret that the club’s co-owner, Steve Rubell, was gay. As one would expect, he did not want the stereotypical look for his club where beautiful, voluptuous women would be serving the guests. Instead, young men served as bartenders. A younger Alec Baldwin worked as a busboy in the nightclub for a short period. The bartenders were dressed in nothing but a pair of super short shorts and were picked exclusively for their looks, not bartending skills.
Reportedly, a rebellious employee named “Lenny 54” voiced his objection against the skimpy clothing. He told Rubell he would not be working in those “ridiculous” shorts and would rather hang out with the guests and entertain them. It must have worked for them because Lenny 54 was employed there for a while.
We Can Send a Limo
While many people would be willing to pay an arm and a leg (or sell their grandma) to get inside Studio 54, many A-lister celebrities were personally invited and courted to the exclusive nightclub. How were they courted? We would love to explain.
The club owners would send limousines to pick up the celebrities they had invited. Entirely on brand, if one asks us, for a club that was (in)famous for dealing in all kinds of illegal substances. Rumors say those limos were filled with packets of white powder that did not resemble flour. We wonder what they were dealing with.
Grace’s Eccentric Looks
Although a distorted stock market and severe inflation made everyday life and the average joe miserable, Studio 54 was unaffected by the woes of the common folk. The club asked patrons to leave their day worries behind at the door. A group of successful, rich, and beautiful people show up to a party and can forget the world is going up in flames in the background.
Fully embracing the chance to live life to its fullest, Grace Jones was a regular on the Studio 54 dance floor. She often arrived in larger-than-life, eccentric costumes to stand out from the crowd. The fashion icon debuts many historical looks at the disco, making sure to live up to her fashionista reputation.
Studio 54 was always buzzing with fresh, young faces, dancing into the night like they did not know there was a tomorrow. Sally Lipman, however, did not allow the youthful crowd to fade her into the backdrop. After becoming a widow, Sally dropped by Studio 54, hoping to have a good time and find a new purpose in life. Despite her age, the woman immediately loved the club’s vibes and frequented it numerous times.
Her groovy moves earned her the title of “Disco Sally.” The famous patron was a favorite, even the manager granted her access to the club whenever she decided she wanted to put her dancing skills to the test.
It Ain’t Country Without Dolly
Bianca Jagger might have made the white horse stallion famous; Dolly Parton was the reason behind the animal’s first appearance at Studio 54. Owner Steve Rubell was ready to do anything to make the place comfortable for the Queen of Country herself. That is why he brought the magnificent white creature into the establishment.
Dolly loved her great white steed, but it was not the only animal roaming the disco. Mules and chickens walked through the exclusive bar, joining the celebs as they danced to the music on the dance floor. Alternatively, they could be seen relaxing in the wagon. The nightclub may have been at the heart of NYC, but it boasted a significant country touch.
An Endless Gala
There can be glorious nightclubs, but nothing can beat the parties of Studio 54. They were the epitome of NYC nightlife and stunning for the few years it lasted. It wasn’t because there was a new club in town when it closed officially. However, it would be incorrect to say that nobody was expecting it.
Owners Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell weren’t the kinds of people who are fans of the rulebook. On top of that, they always made it a point to rub that in people’s faces. In a 1978 interview on the Independent, Rubell said, “only the Mafia made more money (the past year).”
1978 Academy Awards
Studio 54 was anything but a run-of-the-mill bar/nightclub. One of its many “innovative” features was to become a temporary theater to hold the prestigious Academy Awards. In 1978, the Academy Awards were set to be held at the glamorous club. Patrons were waiting outside the closed doors for hours, hoping to go inside for what promised to be a night everyone would never forget.
As it turned out, the 50th Academy Awards was the last of its kind to be hosted by the renowned Bob Hope. That year’s award for Best Picture went to “Annie Hall” by Woody Allen.
As we have mentioned already, getting past the doors of Studio 54 could be counted as a miracle. But, there was so much more at play than simply notoriety. Steve Rubell, one of the owners, stated how he wanted a combination of guests in his establishment. This created a scenario for subjective choosing and picking of random patrons standing in a queue outside the door.
As long as the latter brought something new to the table, Rubell was fine with A-lister mingling with normal people. Ranging from a festive outfit to a certain energy, any random trait was enough to grant the (non)average person access to one of the most famous clubs in the world.
Most patrons were aware of how difficult it was getting inside, but still, some did not accept the rejection. Annoyed would-be patrons could get violent about getting rejected from entering the clubs. The tight security at the establishment mostly handled them. There were, however, some safety concerns from time to time.
Perhaps one of the terrifying instances was when a rejected customer gathered a group of friends and confronted the security chief Chuck Garelick at the crack of dawn. With their weapons yielding in the air, the men demanded an explanation for the “insult.” Fortunately, Chuck escaped with a bullet narrowly going over the top of his head and a lifetime of trauma.
While some potential customers got mad at the subjective choice made by the club, others resorted to sneaky and often dangerous means to get inside the nightclub. People were ready to risk it all to have one night inside Studio 54. People would climb down the building and barbed trespass fences, often leading to severe injuries.
One patron, in particular, made a horrible mistake. He chose the air vent as a plausible way to breach the security of Studio 54 and got stuck inside. His lifeless body was discovered wrapped in a shiny black suit that never saw the glamor of the dance floor.
Although Schrager and Rubell invested heavily in the club financially and mentally, they never imagined it would reach its heights. To add to the disco theme, they transformed the interior of what used to be a television studio. After the duo had sprinkled some Rubell-Schrager magic on the place, the result was a ballroom made for those who knew how to have a good time.
Amidst all the preparations, Rubell and Schrager almost forgot to process their liquor license. They had failed to apply in time; the club did not have booze even a few days before its grand opening.
Juice and Soda Only
After Rubell and Schrager were intercepted using illegal liquor licenses, Studio 54 was forced to shut down for an entire night. But that did not stop the owners from offering an excellent time to the patrons. The doors were opened the next evening with a sign hanging at the front door that read what had happened the previous day.
That night, patrons could only avail soda and juice at the club. One thing to note here is that given how many illegal activities were conducted inside the club on a daily basis, people might not even have noticed the absence of liquor.
Rags to Riches
The New York Magazine had a word with Scott Taylor, the nightclub’s former bartender. They came across the ex-employee while speaking to former workers of Studio 54. According to Taylor, he entered the bar on the opening night, offered his services, and began working behind the bar. Most of his colleagues took this chance on the opening night to party with the other patrons.
However, Taylor showed proper diligence when he swept and took out the trash, making him a popular employee. Over the months, Taylor’s popularity grew. He was so popular that his coworkers vehemently objected to the news of his sacking.
Basement Supper Club
Under the feet of hundreds of patrons dancing to the tunes pumped out by the DJ, the basement of Studio 54 saw the racier events take place in absolute secrecy. Currently, the walls that heard the sauciest of celebrity secrets house a restaurant/supper club by the name Feinstein’s/54 Below. Customers can order from a classic American menu containing a few exciting cocktail blends. Nightly cabaret shows are another attraction of the place.
Of course, there is the thrill of knowing we are sitting in the room that used to host parties for some of the world’s biggest celebrities. Patrons indirectly pay for a historic memory this way.
The Rubber Room
Apart from the talk-of-the-town basement, one room of Studio 54 was always in discussion: the rubber room. Wholly made of rubber, the room’s abnormal furnishings were easier to clean, as stated by some sources. With promiscuous people and dancers running around in sheer clothing, it can be expected that it might have stirred something inside the patrons of Studio 54.
If this room existed, we would leave it up to one’s imagination to conjure what may have been transpiring between those four walls. Interestingly, the owners tried to incorporate every single element while coming up with this nightclub.
To the average outsider, Studio 54 was nothing short of a dream. It was brimming with the rich and famous, and for many, getting inside was a distant dream comparable to wishing to step on the moon. However, the club had become a thorn in the government. It was a hotspot for criminals running illegal operations. Suffice to say, the owners drew the attention of local law enforcement.
The IRS confronted Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager in 1978. The club’s carefree demeanor and popularity were not enough to stop the government from shutting its doors forever.
One Last Time
The duo decided to go out in a blaze of glory before Rubell and Schrager had to serve time for their crimes. They organized a farewell party at their club and titled it “The End of Modern-Day Gomorrah.” More than 2,000 of the nightclub’s most loyal attendees were invited to the event to see the conclusion of what had become a haven for celebrities from all across the globe.
The owners were seen partying next to Richard Gere, Reggie Jackson, Liza Minnelli, and other A-listers. Not a soul that night did not lament the fall of the club. The following morning, Schrager and Rubell were escorted directly from the club to the authorities, leaving Studio 54 in the dust.
Disco to the End
A little while after the duo’s first clash with the law, Schrager, and Rubell were subjected to speculations from the IRS. The allegation was that they were hiding illicit narcotics and unreported money within their nightclub. When over 20 agents arrived to check the claims, the club’s vault was raided. They successfully found the illegal substances and cash.
The club owners had hidden $2.5 million, causing them to get caught in two prison sentences on accounts of fraud. Rubell and Schrager were imprisoned in 1980, and Studio 54 ended. Even though the owners were released at one point, disco hit rock bottom when Studio 54 was shut down.
No Lessons Taken
Rubell and Schrager faced legal charges for carrying illegal alcohol (without a liquor license). Still, their skilled legal representative was able to release them. To fix their situation, the owners hired Roy Cohn. Having worked with big names like Donald Trump and Senator McCarthy, Cohn had cultivated a reputation of a ruthless attorney with lots of pull. If there were someone who could alleviate Rubell-Schrager’s situation, it would be Cohn.
Cohn freed the two from prison, who immediately went back to their nightclub. Despite the run-in with the law, Schrager and Rubell did not learn. As a result, they found themselves in hot water with the IRS a few years later.
One by One They All Go Down
Once the party was nearing its end (illicit activities and avoiding the IRS can do that), Schrager and Rubell had to do a little jail time. They had to serve three and a half years in prison, which would eventually be cut in half. They reduced their sentence by outing similar establishments that struggled with keeping their monetary gains fully legal and could not keep the mouths of others shut.
Apparently, more harm was done to Schrager by snitching than prison. He described how his father was closely linked to Meyer Lansky, a mob boss who was not too fond of snitches.
Essentially, Studio 54 did not discriminate based on sexuality. No outside rules could be applied inside once someone was inside the club’s walls. While this set the scene for many wild intimate misadventures, the club was automatically turned into a safe zone for LGBTQ+ people. People refused to accept them as functional, sentient human beings back in the day.
They ran the risk of getting harmed every time they showed their face publicly. LGBTQ+ people found Studio 54 a place where they could bare it all. Couples kissed passionately on the dance floor, and LGBTQ+ people were allowed to explore their creative sides.
Trash Filled with Money
Notorious for the nightclub’s questionable business practices, owners Schrager and Rubell were known to be quite generous. Rubell gifted Andy Warhol an entire trash can filled with money and 5,000 free drink tickets. That makes sense, as Warhol was one of the club’s regulars.
The silver trash can was filled to the brim with crisp $1 bills, amounting to $1,000. Overjoyed patrons tipped the garbage can over Andy’s head to celebrate the joyous occasion, but he wished to keep the cash. The man was sent into an anxious flurry as he scrambled to collect the flying notes before they vanished into the crowds of people.
Dancing, Cocktails, and Nitrous Tanks
People of the ’70s knew how to party and took it rather seriously. And inside Studio 54, partying got a new meaning. During the Halloween party of ’78, partygoers treated themselves to a “puff” of laughing gas and had a blast as all of them burst into a roaring laugh. So, whoever says the ’70s or ’80s were backdated does not know the concept of bringing nitrous oxide on the dance floor!
Currently, it is illegal to possess nitrous oxides, and inhaling it is a no-no. After all it is a chemical that is ultimately bad for our health. But we cannot deny that their kind of party seems fun.
The Iconic ’60s Drag Queens
Studio 54 was always bubbling with lives, especially LGBTQ+ ones. LGBTQ+ partygoers were a common element of the club. Legendary drag queen Hibiscus and Angel Jack shone like diamonds in a dark field at any moment. For those who do not know who they are, Hibiscus was one of the founders of the revolutionary progressive, psychedelic theater group named The Cockettes.
Angel Jack was a famous member of “The Angels of Light,” another theater group under Hibiscus’ portfolio. They were insanely innovative and super popular in California in ’70. Angel Jack frequently shook the club with their spectacular dance performances. The elated drag queens made sure to show up in over-the-top sequined and feathered costumes to dazzle the crowd.
Studio 54 never seemed to run out of ways to wow its customers. And it did not limit itself to the costume, barnyard animals wandering across the dance floor, and the outrageous volume of alcohol. Surprises used to drop the sky – literally!
The famous nightclub’s ceiling features a unique net containing items that would randomly be dropped on the patrons during the night. Generally, it was party things such as glitter and balloons, but one time when the creative team cranked the gears in their head, they planted gift boxes in the net. And inside the gift boxes were clothes from some of the most elite fashion outlets.
Studio 54 was designed to offer an array of humans’ most basic desires, the critical factor to its success story. Schrager views it as unchanging human nature – we love to socialize, talk, and stay surrounded by other lives. Developing technology and science may have now brought us fancier phones and gadgets, new skyscrapers and roads, and online communication. Still, it does not eliminate a human’s need for a direct connection.
The entertainment and hospitality industry is ever-changing, but humans, not so much. People will keep pouring in as long as an establishment sees these and caters to them.