Saturday 15 December 2018

Sex, drugs and disco

A new film charts the rise and fall of Studio 54, the nightclub which, despite being open just 33 months, defined an entire era

Disco inferno: Revellers at Studio 54 in 1978
Disco inferno: Revellers at Studio 54 in 1978
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

It's hard, if not downright disturbing, to imagine the 45th President of the United States disco dancing, but Donald Trump was once a regular at the legendary New York nightclub Studio 54. Open for just 33 months, it was the place to be in New York in the late 1970s, and getting into Fort Knox was easier.

Within weeks of opening in April 1977, long and sometimes angry queues formed along West 54th Street, as wannabes and minor celebrities made desperate bids to get past the frowning bouncers. They usually failed, all of which was part of Studio 54's mystique: if everyone could have got in, nobody would have cared.

This air of chic exclusivity was masterminded by Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell, two charming Brooklyn wide boys who brilliantly ramped up the club's reputation. Rubell was a regular on the door, choosing who was worthy and who wasn't with all the disdainful arrogance of a Roman emperor. Celebrity regulars and the bacchanalian atmosphere within made Studio 54 a kind of nirvana of the disco era, and the story ended as spectacularly as it had begun, with Schrager and Rubell being sent to jail for tax evasion.

Rubell died of an Aids-related condition in 1989, but his partner is still with us, and in Matt Tyrnauer's entertaining new documentary Studio 54, which opens here next week, Ian Schrager talks in depth for the first time about the rise and fall of his extraordinary club.

After dabbling unsuccessfully in the restaurant business, Rubell joined forces with Schrager to break into the booming nightclub scene that had been kick-started by the discotheque craze of the mid-1970s.

Gay clubs were among the first to play disco music, but disco was black. And when models began going to gay clubs to dance to the music, the straight men who wanted to sleep with them followed. Up until that point, gay venues had been hidden, illicit, but now everything began to blend, and Schrager took notice. They wanted to open a club that would "run with all that free-dancing fun, and take it up a notch".

After learning the ropes by opening a disco club called Enchanted Garden in Queens, Schrager and Rubell set their sights on Manhattan, and found a venue at 254 West 54th Street, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue. The building had originally been an opera house, then a TV studio, and an ornate coved ceiling soared a hundred feet above the dance floor. Rubell and Schrager realised their club would have to be different to survive in a viciously competitive market. They spent $700,000 giving the place a lavish theatrical makeover, and hired Tony-award winning lighting designers to do the lights.

The surrounding neighbourhood was good and salty at that time, and friends thought the pair were crazy to open a club there.

"If you wanted to get mugged," one Studio 54 veteran recalls in the documentary, "that was the place to go." But Schrager and Rubell reckoned no one would care if they got their product and marketing right, and events soon proved them right.

The future President Trump was among the local celebrities who turned up for the opening night, which started slow before becoming a success. But the night that really launched the Studio 54 craze was Bianca Jagger's birthday party. Her then-husband Mick, never the shy and retiring type, organised an extravagant do at the club. At one point a white horse appeared, and Bianca rode it across the dance floor: the ensuing press photos were reprinted globally, alongside the name of Studio 54.

Word spread like wildfire around Manhattan. "The message went out," as music legend Nile Rodgers puts it, "this was the spot". Celebrities started showing up there every single night, from Elton John and Paul Newman to Bianca, the Stones, Dolly Parton, Liz Taylor, Truman Capote, Cher, Grace Jones, David Bowie, Lou Reed, Farrah Fawcett, Andy Warhol, Rod Stewart, Christopher Reeve and Liza Minnelli. Going there guaranteed them publicity, and Rubell and Schrager paid agents to make sure their photos got in the papers.

In the documentary, a young Michael Jackson appears, sporting a huge afro, to sit at Steve Rubell's knee and gush about the club.

"I like the atmosphere," Jackson says, "it's just exciting," and we then see him dancing happily and anonymously among the punters.

Drugs were plentiful inside Studio 54, and sex was omnipresent. Guests got it on in the toilets, on the balcony: there were mattresses in the basement. In the late 1970s, as a club regular recalls, there was "a window of opportunity between the invention of the pill and the onset of Aids," and nowhere was that opportunity seized more enthusiastically than at Studio 54. Hetero and homosexuals felt free to do as they pleased there, and one veteran remembers seeing "gay men kissing for the first time".

Transgender people, drag queens, all were welcome at Studio 54, and this at a time when such people took their lives in their hands by simply walking down a New York street. At Studio 54, they felt accepted. So did such colourful eccentrics as 'Disco Sally', a 78-year-old lawyer who regularly danced the night away at a club that must have felt like something out of Weimar Berlin.

Which was all very well if you could get in, but most people couldn't. In Studio 54, we see archive footage of Rubell standing on the club steps dismissing those insufficiently famous or "hot".

"Chewing gum," he tells one doomed queuer, another is too unshaven: "that hat," he yells at another, "don't ever come here with a hat". The "bridge and tunnel crowd", that is those not resident on the island of Manhattan, were also granted leper status. It was partly theatre, of course, but New Yorkers began to resent the club's snooty and elitist attitude. Staff were paid to remove bottles and other potential missiles from nearby bins to minimise damage in the event of a peasant revolt, and one night shots were fired at the door from a passing car.

It was all great fun, but Studio 54 was a house of cards, and in December 1978 it came crashing down. Authorities had previously raided and briefly closed the club after discovering the Rubell and Schrager had been operating without a liquor licence and were using daily catering permits instead.

Their high-powered lawyer got them out of that predicament sharpish, but he was Roy Cohn, a known Mafia lawyer. And his connection to the club raised nasty rumours it was mixed up with the Mob, a suspicion (false, so far as we know) not helped by the fact that Schrager's father, 'Max the Jew', had been an associate of the gangster Meyer Lansky.

When IRS agents raided the club on December 14, 1978, they were probably acting on a tip-off from a disgruntled ex-employee. They found some drugs and money, but more incriminatingly an alternate set of financial records that proved the owners had skimmed upwards of $3m off the takings without paying any tax on it. This was a fix even Roy Cohn couldn't extricate Rubell and Schrager from, and they were eventually sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison. Their sentences were reduced when they provided details of similar financial irregularities in rival Manhattan clubs.

Before they went to jail though, the boys, with questionable wisdom, threw a leaving party at Studio 54: the regulars partied harder than ever, and Liza Minnelli and Diana Ross sang a duet in their honour.

"When we got out of prison in 1981," Schrager recalls, "it was a whole different world." Ronald Reagan was in the White House, the disco era was over, and yuppies were on the rise.

Somehow, the friends resurrected their fortunes, opening another nightclub, and by moving into boutique hotels.

Rubell had never been open about his homosexuality, and only close friends knew that he had contracted Aids, a ­disease that would claim the lives of many former Studio 54 employees and regulars.

When Rubell died on July 25, 1989, his devastated friend Schrager busied himself doing something he knew would have mattered dearly to Steve: he took to the phones to make sure all the old Studio 54 celebrities turned up at the funeral.

Studio 54 opens in cinemas on June 15

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