FUCKING ON THE BALCONY: THE FABULOUS BUT CORROSIVE LEGACY OF STUDIO 54


The club’s penchant for hedonism overshadowed the music played on its dancefloor.

If disco was born in the underground gay clubs of late 60s New York, its coming out party was April 26, 1977 in an old Broadway theatre at 254 West 54th Street. If it wasn’t disco’s greatest club, it was certainly the most dramatic. Studio 54 was conceived as grand theatre as much as a club and it showed in the ambition poured into it by its owners Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, as well as the woman who conceptualised it, Carmen D’Alessio. Whereas most of the New York underground club scene had been about equality and fellowship, Studio 54 was the most public expression of the veneration of celebrity, glamour and glitz, epitomised by “The Man In The Moon” on stage, inhaling coke from a glittery spoon.


Having gestated in the underground parties of the Loft and the Gallery during the early part of the decade, by 1977 disco had already become a commercial force with New York’s triumvirate of record labels – Prelude, Salsoul and West End – already established alongside the arrival of the disco-conceived 12” single two years earlier.


If disco was born in the underground gay clubs of late 60s New York, its coming out party was April 26, 1977 in an old Broadway theatre at 254 West 54th Street. If it wasn’t disco’s greatest club, it was certainly the most dramatic. Studio 54 was conceived as grand theatre as much as a club and it showed in the ambition poured into it by its owners Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, as well as the woman who conceptualised it, Carmen D’Alessio. Whereas most of the New York underground club scene had been about equality and fellowship, Studio 54 was the most public expression of the veneration of celebrity, glamour and glitz, epitomised by “The Man In The Moon” on stage, inhaling coke from a glittery spoon.
Having gestated in the underground parties of the Loft and the Gallery during the early part of the decade, by 1977 disco had already become a commercial force with New York’s triumvirate of record labels – Prelude, Salsoul and West End – already established alongside the arrival of the disco-conceived 12” single two years earlier. 
On the opening night, an array of celebs duly showed up, with Bianca Jagger, Brooke Shields, Cher and Donald Trump smiling for the cameras. In the chaos of the opening, there were almost as many left standing the wrong side of the velvet rope, among them Mick Jagger and Frank Sinatra. A party for Bianca Jagger’s birthday a few weeks later, thanks to D’Alessio’s brainwave of getting Bianca to arrive atop a white horse, was the publicity coup that helped establish Studio 54 as the go-to disco club of the moment. 
The resident DJ, the much-loved Richie Kaczor, had been plucked from midtown gay club Hollywood before arriving on West 54th Street and, although a more commercial sound was required in a space so large, Kaczor managed it with grace and elegance. It was here, on the floor at Studio 54, that Kaczor broke Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive’. It had originally been the B-side to ‘Substitute’ but it was Richie who flipped the 12” and turned it into an anthem and worldwide hit. “Richie had a lot of respect from all the underground DJs, claims Danny Krivit. “When he did Studio 54, instead of thinking of him as, ‘Oh you’re just playing that commercial stuff’, we thought of him as someone who does this, but is playing the commercial stuff there. The whole time I knew him he was so down to earth.”
But the music was frequently overshadowed by Studio’s antics: the fucking on the balcony, the industrial quantities of drugs consumed, the celebrity whirlwind. It was more of a show, less of a club. Appropriate given its location. “Studio 54 was like going to see a movie,” says Danny Tenaglia. “It wasn’t about the music, it was a secondary factor. When you went there, it was gimmicky. It was the first club where you had people painting their whole body silver. ‘Oh there was somebody in there on a horse!’ People would talk about that instead of the music. So it was all about who was there: Liza Minelli, Diana Ross. The whole drama at the door of who could get in and who couldn’t.” 


Prior to its opening, Rubell and Schrager, who had been running a club out in Queens, were New York unknowns. But Rubell, in particular, revelled in his new-found fame; loved the drugs, the showing off, the power. Kenny Carpenter, another resident DJ there remembers an incident that epitomised his approach. “Rubell brings Calvin Klein, Bianca Jagger and Andy Warhol to the booth. And he says, ‘Can you play ‘Your Love’ by Lime?’ ‘I’m sorry but I don’t have it and it’s not my kind of record.’ He says, ‘Well, listen, I own this club and I’ve got Bianca and Calvin and Andy and they wanna hear that record.’ I said, ‘Listen Steve. Sorry I don’t have that record, but even if I did have it, I wouldn’t play it because it’s not my style.’ He got mad. Stormed out of the booth. The following weekend, he hired Lime to perform live. And he stands looking at the booth, like, now I got Lime.” 


As befitted a club of such glorious excess, its stellar years were relatively short. A year after its opening Steve Rubell bragged to the press that, “only the Mafia made more money,” a fact that alerted the tax authorities. The club was raided by the IRS in December 1978, who found $2.5m stashed in garbage bags in the building. The pair were convicted of tax evasion and spent 13 months in jail.


Many people saw Studio 54 as a corrosive presence in disco. “There’s a scene at the end of the Last Days Of Disco where one of the characters has this very idealistic speech where he says disco was a whole movement,” remembers disco writer Vince Aletti. “It was funny, but it was really true and people felt that. They felt disappointed that the idealistic quality of it was being trampled over, in favour of money and celebrity. As much as disco was glitzy and certainly loved celebrity culture when people came to clubs, there was never a sense of it being driven by that. It was much more driven by an underground idea of unity.”


Studio 54 became the template for a certain kind of club, someway from what we’d now regard as the underground. It’s frequently cited as an influence in almost every sleek new entry onto the market, without any of the real glamour and excess achieved by Rubell and Schrager, never mind the heroic levels of drug-taking. When they were released from prison, Schrager opened the Palladium nightclub and went on to build a portfolio of influential boutique hotels. Steve Rubell died of an AIDS-related illness in 1989. In January of this year, Schrager received a full and unconditional pardon from President Obama. He is now entitled to vote.

WORDS: BILL BREWSTER | IMAGE: RICHARD P MANNING and others 26 APRIL 2017 http://po.st/xZrAmI

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s