Studio 54 – Where Celebrities Came to Indulge Their Wildest Fantasies

Nikola Budanovic
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Bianca Jagger at Studio 54. Getty Images

When the tidal wave of the Summer of Love came crashing down, it swept the hippie subculture away with it.

The seventies took the United States by storm, and the age of disco was on. All of a sudden this craze brought shiny glitter jumpsuits, polyester, bell-bottoms, open collars, platform boots and a whole new level of prestige.

Contrary to the anti-materialist hippie counter-culture, disco introduced a new lifestyle ― one that valued money, excess and fame above all.

Of all the nightclubs that sprang up in New York City during this period, there is one that attracted worldwide attention for its wild hedonistic nights. Playing the hottest music on the party scene, Studio 54 in Manhattan is remembered almost mythically for its exclusive celebrity guest list, crazy exuberance — and a reputation for open drug taking and scandalous orgies.

Studio 54, New York. Photo by UoGsjohns22 CC BY SA 3.0

The building located in 254 West 54th Street, today home to the Roundabout Theatre Company, has a vibrant history. It first opened its doors in 1927 as the Gallo Opera House. Finally it became CBS’s Studio 52 from 1942 to 1976.

When CBS put the building up for sale, its location and charm caught the eye of several investors who saw great potential in the property.

Studio 54 (New York City) from the inside. Photo by Marian Baston CC BY-SA 3.0

It was snapped up by entrepreneurs Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, who spent six weeks and a reported $400,000 on the refurbishment, which they named Studio 54. (However silent partner Jack Dushey recalls it as being twice that amount)

The grand opening held on April 26, 1977 marked the very peak of an era. A then-unknown Donald Trump and his first wife, Ivana, made it onto the guest list of high-profile celebrity attendees who witnessed what Rolling Stone magazine described as “a Quaalude-fueled orgy” that spilled outside onto the street. It was the ultimate party place to see and be seen.

Celebrities during New Year’s Eve party at Studio 54: (l-r) Halston, Bianca Jagger, Jack Haley, Jr. (bkgrd), Liza Minnelli (bkgrd), Andy Warhol. (Photo by Robin Platzer/Twin Images/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

Very soon, the club became a popular place among the NYC jet set ― actors, musicians, socialites, and businessmen all came together in the club that never slept.

Of course, with them came an entire entourage of paparazzi and journalists, all participating in the growing hype that launched Studio 54 into the stratosphere.

Crowd standing in front of Studio 54.

The club quickly gained the notorious reputation of being a safe haven for the rich and famous, where the use drugs such as marijuana and cocaine was openly accepted, as well as being a popular spot for the debauchery of all kinds.

Fueled by scandals, the club featured regularly in tabloid headlines and broadsheet newspapers alike.

Among the highlights of the club were definitely events such as the club’s gift to Bianca Jagger of a white stallion to celebrate her 23rd birthday on May 2, 1977. The animal rights campaigner has since stated that she regrets climbing astride the animal and posing for a now infamous photograph.

Performer Grace Jones at the disco club Studio 54 in New York City in 1978. (Photo by Waring Abbott/Getty Images)

Another cringe-worthy crazy event was the welcoming party held for Dolly Parton in 1978 for which the entire interior was transformed into a rural farm, with livestock and haystacks included.

For the common folk, it was simply impossible to enter. One party crasher tried to sneak through the ventilation system and died the attempt. This was the extent to which people were prepared to go in order to get in, while the endless line outside shamelessly filtered guests according to their high-society profile. The message was clear ― you couldn’t be just anybody and walk into the club.

For some, however, even that wasn’t enough. Even for the VIPs there was a sense of doubt regarding whether or not would they be allowed to enter. Henry Winkler, the actor who portrayed  Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli in the popular sitcom Happy Days was denied access, as were Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of the funk-disco outfit Chic (despite a personal invite from Grace Jones), who went on to write their hit Le Freak in response.

“Just come on down, to fifty four. … Freak out!”

Jerry Hall, Andy Warhol, Debbie Harry, Truman Capote and Paloma Picasso at Studio 54 in New York City, c. 1970s. Photo by Images Press/IMAGES/Getty Images

The basement, with its “secluded corners furnished with mattresses” according to Rolling Stone, was another level of exclusivity. And the balcony? Nicknamed “the rubber room,” it was a place of obscurity where the only rule seems to have been that anything goes.

Andy Warhol, Debbie Harry, Cher, Michael Jackson, Sylvester Stallone, Warren Beatty, John Travolta ― to name a few ― were regular attendees.

Andy Warhol at Studio 54.

However, such a rise to fame had its consequences. Steve Rubell, who assumed the role of the “face” of the club, made a habit of using cocaine on regular basis, as well as socializing with his guests a little too often. This left little time for him to actually manage the place, and maybe it was his constant hangover that led him to not always treat his employees with due respect.

One disgruntled waiter who felt the wrath of the King of Studio 54 decided to report the club to the IRS, which concluded that the owners paid only $8,000 worth of taxes, while their takings exceeded $75,000 a night.

‘Caberet’ at Studio 54. Photo by Studio 54 CC-BY 2.0

To make matters worse, Rubell tried to negotiate his position by attempting to blackmail President Carter’s Chief of Staff, Hamilton Jordan, claiming that the politician visited his club, had a great time and snorted some cocaine along the way.

Even though this sparked an FBI investigation, no solid evidence of such claims was found against Jordan.

Rubell and Schrager both served three years in prison for tax evasion. The club was closed but it wasn’t without a bang. The party that was hosted on the evening of December 14, 1978, became a legendary event in the history of New York City nightlife.

Read another story from us: Famed party palace Studio 54 was shuttered after its owner taunted the government and bragged, “Only the mafia makes more money”

After serving their sentence, the pair rebounded as respectable hotel owners. Rubell fell victim to AIDS and died in 1989.