Studio 54: The disco playground where sex and glamour reigned

Updated 5th June 2018
Studio 54: The disco playground where sex and glamour reigned
Written by Steve Dool, CNN
As Studio 54 co-founder Ian Schrager sees it, there have been exactly two seminal cultural events in the 71 years he's been alive: "Woodstock and Studio," he says. "Not to be presumptuous."
While Schrager's list is perhaps a tad reductive, the notorious New York City nightclub he launched in 1977 with his business partner Steve Rubell has undoubtedly earned its place in pop history. Studio 54 remains a topic of fascination some four decades after the club's opening night party summoned a crowd that included Cher, Tennessee Williams, Andy Warhol and Grace Jones to a former opera house and CBS television studio in Midtown Manhattan.
At Studio 54, sex, celebrity and, infamously, open drug-use worked in tandem to create a hedonistic nightlife playground that hasn't been replicated since. Schrager describes the setting as mayhem, where ordinary people could party unreservedly alongside the biggest names of the time. It wouldn't be surprising to see Arnold Schwarzenegger or O.J. Simpson dancing in the throng, or Diana Ross and Liza Minelli performing onstage. Brooke Shields and Paloma Picasso preened for newspaper cameras, while unexpected attendees like Coretta Scott King passed through the club's burgundy lobby. Alec Baldwin briefly worked as a waiter. The club's legacy has attained a near-mythical status.
"40 years later, people have not continued to talk about Woodstock and are still talking about Studio," Schrager says. "People who weren't even born are talking about it."
Model Jerry Hall, Blondie frontwoman Debbie Harry and Paloma Picasso were part of a long list of celebrities who frequented Studio 54.
Model Jerry Hall, Blondie frontwoman Debbie Harry and Paloma Picasso were part of a long list of celebrities who frequented Studio 54. Credit: Ullstein Bild via Getty Images
Of those people talking, the loudest is Schrager himself, who has collated photographs, memories and excerpts from his personal scrapbook into a nearly 400-page coffee table book for publishing house Rizzoli. It's a stark turn for Schrager, who spent years refusing interviews about his Studio 54 days, largely due to the shame he felt about his 1980 conviction and jail time, alongside Rubell, for tax evasion.
"It was a long time before I could talk about it, because they are bittersweet memories for me and I was embarrassed by the way it turned out," Schrager said. "I thought that doing the book was a way for me of encapsulating what happened there for my kids. It kind of brought closure to it."
Closure is also why he sought and was granted a pardon by President Obama in January of 2017. "That's all part of the same thing," he adds.
"Studio 54" the book shines a light on the club's happier -- and wilder -- days. Early in the hefty tome, billionaire businessman David Geffen notes that Studio 54 "came after birth control and before AIDS," allowing space for the freewheeling sexual experimentation that has become synonymous with 1970s decadence.
Designer Norma Kamali, a friend of Schrager's, remembers those days well.
"It began Page Six and every celebrity-based platform after that," she says of the club's culture. "The tension in the city was so high that New York needed a place to let off steam, and a place for gays and women to come out."
Kamali was part of a group of creative types who were treated with particular reverence while letting their hair down. Roy Frowick -- better known as Halston -- reigned supreme over a rotating cast of fashion industry regulars that included Calvin Klein, Diane von Furstenberg, Donna Karan, Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent.
"At that time, the movie stars in New York were the fashion designers," Schrager remembers. "The waters parted when they came."
Designers Karl Lagerfeld and Valentino at Studio 54.
Designers Karl Lagerfeld and Valentino at Studio 54. Credit: Courtesy Anton Perich
But the rich, famous and talented weren't guaranteed a spot inside. Warren Beatty and Robert Duvall reportedly didn't make it past the doormen on opening night, and the disco band Chic famously wrote their No. 1 hit "Le Freak" after getting rejected on New Year's Eve 1977.
"The selection process had absolutely nothing to do with wealth, race, creed, color," Schrager says, likening who got in to curating the guest list for a memorable dinner party. "There was a feel or a vibe that they're here to party. They're going to do something to make the evening great. They're not going to be dead weight."
Of the two owners, Rubell, who died in 1989, often literally walked away in the morning. "People used to say I left too early, Steve left too late," Schrager recalls. Still, Schrager did witness some of the club's most iconic moments -- and maintains they haven't largely been exaggerated.
Bianca Jagger riding through the club on a white horse in 1977, Schrager says, actually happened as people retell it.
"It wasn't planned for Bianca to get on the horse," he says, adding they had intended for it to be ridden solely by a nude model posing as Lady Godiva, led by another nude model in painted-on clothes. Press photographers invited to capture celebrity guests sent the image far and wide. "That was the mother of all photo ops," Schrager adds.
It also began what would be a series of live animals brought in for special occasions, including doves for Jagger's birthday, livestock at a party for Dolly Parton, an elephant that posed for photos with Linda Blair, and, in December of 1977, a leopard and a panther. Included in the book is a letter from New York City Department of Health reminding Schrager and Rubell that wild animals in bars violated two different health codes.
Bianca Jagger rides in on a white horse at during her birthday celebrations at Studio 54.
Bianca Jagger rides in on a white horse at during her birthday celebrations at Studio 54. Credit: Rose Hartman/Archive Photos/Getty Images
Even without animals, Schrager and Rubell had no shortage of attention-grabbing stunts to drum up hype. Guests arrived one New Year's Eve to find the floor covered in three tons of silver glitter; one Halloween, a cast of dwarfs dined on Cornish hens inside a Hieronymus Bosch-inspired vignette.
Invitations were elaborate: Cupid's arrows, inflatable hearts, jars of confetti. ("Black confetti," Schrager specifies. "Chic. Good signal to cool people.")
Schrager is still signaling to cool people, although now, sitting atop a successful boutique hotel business, he is doing so in less hedonistic ways. He names several reasons why he doesn't think he could replicate Studio 54, even if he wanted to -- a greater societal reticence toward both casual sex and open drug use among them. Ironically, the changing nature of celebrity also plays a role.
"You were a celebrity because you did something," he says. "Now, you're a celebrity, then you've got to figure out something to do."
Not even fashion designers pull the same weight: "Alexander Wang is very cool and very creative and throws great parties, but it doesn't have the same gravitas," he adds.
Still, Schrager doesn't think the club's legend will ever truly fade. "There's a kind of human ideal, seeking absolute freedom," he says. "People say, 'You will never be able to recreate Studio.' Well, right, but that doesn't mean you can't create the ethos that was happening then. We're still part of the human species. We still like that."
"Studio 54" by Ian Schrager, published by Rizzoli, is out now.