Film Review: Studio 54
By Belle McIntyre
Hard to believe that the phenomenon which was Studio 54 lasted less than three years and happened over 40 years ago. Why is it’s impact so outsized? Here is its story.
There were those that called it Studio and others simply 54. I cannot remember what distinguished one demographic from the other. But I do remember being there and the experience of walking into the lobby, hearing the music, and not giving a damn about checking your coat and being pulled by some irresistible force straight onto the dance floor like some crazed lemming. It was that alluring and magical. Once you had made it through the scrum at the front door, it was time to cut loose. It was the opposite of outside, completely democratic. The anthem of the times “You Make Me Feel” by Sylvester said it all. Everybody danced with everybody or nobody. It simply did not matter. For me the music and the dance floor was the magnet. For others it was the “VIP” room, the bar, tended by nearly naked cute buff boys, the freely flowing drugs, the glamorous high wattage crowd. There was something for everyone.
Part of the magic was the mix of high and low. High, in the broadest sense of the word, is how nearly everyone felt. The constant whirl of activity, pulsing music, brilliantly changing lighting, and unexpected spectacular special effects appearing in the cavernous space high above the dance floor created an intoxicating mood of unreality with or without additional substances. It was a show and you were part of it. It was heady. Everyone was there, in the extreme version.
High society and counterculture (Rollerena), the ultra fashionable (Halston) and outré drag queens, icons from the art and entertainment world (Warhol, Lisa Minelli), heterosexual and every version of gender fluidity, that we did not even have names for at that time. Inside, the whole place reeked of possibility and acceptance. It captured the zeitgeist.
Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films.
The origin story, as told by Ian Schrager, who partnered with Steve Rubell, who died of AIDS in 1989 reveals details of their striving middle class Brooklyn backgrounds, how they met at Syracuse University, where Schrager got a law degree and Steve attempted to start a chain of steak restaurants in his first shot as an entrepreneur. They had two out of town tryouts with night clubs. Then there was a convergence of elements which came together when they found the abandoned theatre on 54th Street, which they were able to obtain for a relative song. The sheer scale of the place must have inspired such a massive amount of creative energy that they were able to conceptualize and realize the interior space in six weeks and open with great fanfare.
Steve and Ian were perfectly suited opposites. Ian, an organized introvert with an obvious gift for interior concept and design, contrasted with Steve, a garrulous gay extrovert and glad-hander, who had a vision of who he wanted to frequent their club, and how to accomplish that. They had an accountant/manager and Steve’s mom was the bookkeeper. That they pulled the whole thing off amazed everyone except for them. They were that focused and confident.
Then it ballooned into something so huge it went to everyone’s heads and they all went slightly haywire. There was so much cash flowing in and drugs coming in and going out and success beyond imagining, that they began to do stupid things. The skimming was so blatant and on such a large scale that there was no way to hide it when finally the IRS raided the club. The partners hired the notorious lawyer Roy Cohn to defend them and continued on with business as usual, including a million plus dollar renovation. When the shoe finally dropped and they faced jail, they did what anybody else would do. They threw a huge farewell bash for themselves at the club. Not the wisest move.
They got off relatively mildly, with a three year sentence and a fine of $400,000 and no penalty for the vast quantities of confiscated drugs. They managed to reduce jail time by half by giving the IRS damning information on some of the rival discos of that time. Steve also made some sleazy accusations to appease authorities. Cohn, the king of smarm, served them well. When they were released, amazingly enough, they were able to raise enough money and start all over again. They revived and re-opened the derelict Palladium on 14th Street.
The film captures a time which was so hedonistic that it almost felt innocent. Sexual liberation enabled by the pill for women and penicillin for men, in the pre-AIDS 1970’s, allowed for unbridled licentiousness and the proliferation of discos both straight and gay provided the necessary playing fields for the release of all of the repressed sexual energy. And yet, in New York, where there were so many truly fantastic ones, Studio 54 somehow captured the popular imagination as “the one” above all the others. The ample archival footage graphically reveals the flavor of the scene. Talking heads like Carmen D’Alessio, party organizer, Bob Colacello of Interview, Steven Gaines, Sandy Lintner, make-up artist, Ron Galella, photographer, Norma Kamali, fashion designer and one-time girlfriend of Ian, and Mark Benecke, most famous door keeper ever, all reveal personal points of view. Oddly, some of the highest profile denizens do not appear in this film. However, it does not diminish the portrait of the place and the moment.
In an after-the madness coda, we follow Ian, without Steve and the story is no-longer a roller coaster ride. Ian shifted to the boutique hotel business, beginning with the Morgan. That was followed by the Royalton and the Paramount in New York City and the Delano in Miami. He has shown the same flair for innovative conceptual design and lawful business acumen. He now has a chain of 38 hotels to his credit and has left his imprint on that business as well. In his last term in office, President Obama issued a formal pardon. Ian Schrager is fully rehabilitated. It is quite a ride.