Ian Schrager, co–founder of legendary Studio 54, looks back.
—Over 35 years after its starry, starry nights, Studio 54 remains, in the minds of many, a night owls’ pantheon–cum–Dionysian cult. Opened on 26th April 1977 by a couple of enterprising friends in Brooklyn, Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, the 54th Street nightclub is one of those urban legends people who knew it still talk about with incredulous grins. For 33 months, the former CBS television studio converted into a decibel–pounding factory made the headlines of the morning dailies. The New York elite thronging at its door heralded in an age of moneyed chic. Which star was it who made off with one of the busboys wearing only skimpy gym shorts for a private post–club party in his Fleetwood limo? Who was it that left a Halston purse full of Quaaludes on the sofa in the women’s toilets? Every night added an episode to a reality–TV series before its time, starring the likes of Mick Jagger, Cher, Andy Warhol, Jackie O, Valentino, Farrah Fawcett, Calvin Klein, Ryan O’Neal, Liza Minnelli, and Michael Jackson, the only teenager allowed to play with the DJ’s sound and light effects.
Simply being in the same room as these stars was sufficient to turn the heads of New Jersey’s well–heeled young elite, carefully picked out from the crowd of wanabees by Steve Rubell perched on his stool outside in the street. The voices of Gloria Gaynor, Stevie Wonder and Grace Jones booming out from two huge speakers made the floor vibrate. Frenzied laser beams swept over the dance floor and the darker corners converted into alcoves for flirting, and more. The idea, as Ian Schrager explains today, was to bombard all the senses, permanently. It was like a theme park for adults. Depending on the evening, the venue could be invaded by an army of Hells Angels on screaming Harleys, made to look like Beijing with guests on palanquins (,Mr Chow’s birthday in 1977,), transformed into a giant rose garden (,St Valentine’s Day 1978,), drowned in four inches of glitter (,New Year’s Eve 1977,) or under a trailer of pop corn (,1978 Oscars,). Watching General Moshe Dayan, the Six–Day–War hero, with his patch over his eye, chatting up Gina Lollobrigida, was enough to create a buzz. Interviewed one evening by The New York Times, live from the mezzanine balcony, Truman Capote dressed in leather from head to toe, explained what was so exceptional about the dance floor below: “This is the nightclub of the future. It’s very democratic. Boys with boys, girls with girls, girls with boys, blacks and whites, capitalists and Marxists, Chinese and everything else — all one big mix!”
The party was explosive, phenomenal and,… short–lived! What was it that pushed it over the edge? The décor in the shape of a moon snorting a spoonful of white powder? Or Steve Rubell’s public statement that “only the Mafia makes more money than we do”?
On 14th December 1978, 30 Feds carried out a surprise raid, grabbing rubbish bags full of banknotes, and account ledgers allegedly hidden in a false ceiling. Two years later, both men received a three–and–a–half–year prison sentence for tax evasion, ultimately reduced to 13 months. Just after the opening of a third–floor addition to the venue — the home of every excess under the sun. On 4th February 1980 Liza Minnelli belted out her torch song, “New York, New York”, at the two Icarian founders’ farewell bash.
Steve Rubell died in 1989. Ian Schrager, meanwhile, went into the luxury–hotel business and joined forces with the Marriott group. He now plans to open over 100 hotels all over the world under the Edition brand name. At the same time, he has launched his own chain of hotels, Public. His watchword: no compromise. And because he continues to think that a good trance is the secret of a successful night out, most of these hotels will have their own dance–floor. Tailor–made for the really serious partygoers.
You are working on a book about Studio 54, to be published VOGUE HOMMES by Rizzoli in 2015. What is your main motivation? There are already so many documents, books, films, websites on the subject.
That’s true. And I’m so not a nostalgic perIAN SCHRAGER son! But Berry Gordy, [!founder of!] the Motown label, once said that “If the hunter doesn’t tell the story, the lion will.” I want to set the record straight. We are doing two books, actually. A beautiful–images book, to attempt to convey the energy, the vibes and the feeling of this very special place. Only photos with a few captions and descriptions to explain the context. And also a memoir. I am interested in putting into perspective what happened.
The definitive book on the discomania age? VH
Well, actually, Studio 54 was not so much about disco.
IS It was the 70s. A crossroads of all the currents that were happening at the same time. The social context created Studio 54. There were tremendous changes going on. The birth–control pill had fully made its way into the everyday life. Europe — and the rest of the US — were tilting over, and everybody was rolling into New York. It was the emergence of the gay scene, which was starting to set the cultural standard, taking the baton up from the Black people, who had set it before them. Studio 54 was in the middle. A social corner. Things don’t happen in a vacuum.
It explains why observers always mention the perfect mix in the crowd VH to explain its success. Your casting–like selection at the entrance is part of the legend. Yes, but Studio 54 was not an elitist club.
IS You really think so? Lookist, at least. VH
Steve exercised the same discretion you exercise for
IS a dinner party at your home. You sit someone outgoing near someone who is not, to ensure you have a pleasant dinner with good conversation. So yes, it’s not politically correct to do that in a public form. But it was not about the looks. It was about the vibes, about the spirits you can pick up from someone. We wanted to create a space where women were not bothered by men, a perfect set for festivities, for lightness and excitement. Something alchemic between all kind of different people. Making good evenings while making good business. Clearly, today, I will let in all the bankers (&laughs&). But today would require another sort of place. I’ll let someone else do it. But you are in the process of setting up nightclubs again. You started
VH with your Edition London hotel, with a lounge that you wanted to call Crazy Box. Your partner, Marriott Group, chose to call it The Basement. Which already shows a divergent sense of fun, no? Let’s say that I have to figure out an appropriate way to
IS deliver serious dancing to these serious people! For me a night– club means “letting your hair down”. Serious, serious, sweaty dancing! We were very much after that at Studio 54. Steve and I put the whole focus on the dance floor. Not the bar. Not the lounge area. The dance floor. Everything was kind of flowing from there. When we made Palladium [!their nightclub after Studio 54!], I remember Steve wondering: “Do people still want to dance?” Night clubs should be night clubs again. Electrical. Roll the carpet, and let the exuberance happen! No huge space. No bottle service. No international superstar DJs. No Jay Z. The nightclubs we are doing are strictly in the context of our hotels, but I hope to keep them spontaneous and innocent. Not mindless, but make it raw! At least in the Public hotels that I’m doing on my own. In New York, it will be on Chrystie Street in 2015 (!another nightclub, obviously different, will be set up in the Edition hotel opening on Times Square in 2017!). At Public Christie, I don’t want to target the Millennials, or the boomers, or any group. My main memory of Studio 54 is the tuxedo people dancing with the people in jeans, the lady in a fancy ball gown with the kid with no shirt on. That’s what makes a place energised. Mayhem! I want the rock musician and the geologist! Sensibility connects the people. Not the age. You actually recreated Studio 54 for one night, last year. How did it go?
VH Great. It’s what actually made me think that a real
IS night club would work again, if in a different format. It was a special event for a friend of mine who owns Studio 54 radio channel. We rented the original location — on 254 West 54th St, now a theatre — and we did the same light effects. Well, a reasonable version of the original effects. I took my kids, 19, 17, 16 and 15 years old. They loved it! Do you get why Bianca Jagger said she’d rather be dead than talk about
VH Studio 54?
I can’t really speak for her. But I guess because
IS she was so closely identified with that place during the era. Maybe she thinks that it distracts from the serious kind of reputation she would like to have now. Maybe it is because there were a lot of drugs associated with Studio 54. Which there were not, in reality.
Well, you used to leave the scene early, maybe you didn’t get to see VH everything? Ha, they used to say that our main mistake was that I left IS too early, and Steve too late! It’s true that I was there until the evening turned the corner, then, around 1 or 1.30 am, I would go home. But I mean it. When the Feds raided us, they could only find five ounces of cocaine in the whole club. I really don’t know why we were the only ones associated with the idea of drugs, at a time where Grand Master Flash’s “White Lines” was playing all over the radio!
And who invented all the crazy birthday party themes? Bianca Jagger VH as Lady Godiva on a white horse, the Dolly Parton in a farm set with real pigs, sheep and cows? I did. Getting the concepts and producing all these IS events, that was my job. One of the biggest nights I had to do in three days was Valentino’s birthday. Giancarlo Giammetti came up with this circus theme. I put up a ring with sand and mermaids on a trapeze. Giammetti got Fellini to lend us the costumes from his film, The Clowns. Valentino was the ringmaster in that red jacket, and Marina Schiano came as a palm reader with a parrot on her shoulder. For us, these nights were marketing tools to promote the club.
And you had no qualms about going to great lengths to impress, even VH using midgets as sets? Our Halloween parties were always the craziest ones. IS For that one, I was inspired by the painter Hieronymous Bosch. Usually, I worked with Mark Ravitz on my sets. He’s the historic set designer for David Bowie. Karin Bacon, the famous event planner, helped us find the talents. Mark had designed different doors, and behind each of them, there were different “vignettes” inspired by the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch. I remember the scene of a family of midgets eating cockerels instead of turkeys to keep the proportions. There was a plastic glass floor, with purple light and white mice scurrying under it.
Studio 54’s best asset was your incredible celebrity line up. How did VH you get all these people involved? Steve was friends with many of them, I knew some. IS We had an in–house photographer, and as we also wanted the photos to circulate in Europe, we worked with AP Images. Every morning, we would send photos to the magazines all over the world. Before us, it was only gossip about rich people, the socialite scene. We invented the celebrity culture at the same time as the gossip magazines were emerging. That culture for me ended with Paris Hilton, by the way. These Kardashians&… What does it mean? At least our celebrities had accomplished something. Now you become a celeb, and then you have to figure out something to do. How about fashion? You opened with the famous store, Fiorucci, as
VH a sort of sponsor. Do you think that fashion has taken over the celeb culture?
Not really. We were in the golden age of fashIS ion back then. Calvin Klein, Halston, Yves Saint Laurent, Lagerfeld, Versace, Armani were all stalwarts at Studio 54. Fashion was a mainstay. Now it’s more about fast fashion, no? Zara, the big corporations, and J.Lo. I’m not into that. Actually, I strive to build the contrary. I want to go back to simplicity. Timeless quality. I am all for Hermès now. Which comes down to the complete opposite of your Philippe Starck
VH years. You invented the “boutique hotel” concept, which seems to have spread all over the world, for all eternity. I know! I created that monster! ($laughs$). I’m moving
IS away from that over–design, today. No more designers. I want good taste, good quality. We are selling our apartments on Christy Street with that baseline from Leonard da Vinci: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”. Don’t worry about how it looks, but about how it makes you feel. Which doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t bring some quirkiness, some edginess, specially at Public. Like implanting a gourmet, healthy fast food in that Christy Street sophisticated residence–hotel condo. Or a night club. You once bid against SI Newhouse to buy “Details”. Do you regret
VH that you didn’t get into the entertainment industry? No. In jail, Steve and I decided that we should try the
IS hotels because we wanted a day job. Something civilised. We did consider fashion, first. We almost went into business with Stephen Sprouse. But it was too big an investment, and there was no certainty that it would pay off. Regrets are not something I have. My only one is what happened at Studio 54. It will always bring bittersweet memories. But if I had done something else than the hotels after it, I would have been an architect. One who reinvents himself all the time. I love to put things together, to manipulate the people, to watch these waves dancing, and whooping, and having fun. But I don’t go on stage, it’s not in my nature.
One of the reasons for Studio 54’s success was its perfectly assorted clientele and the galaxy of stars who went there to party the night away, including Andy Warhol and Bianca Jagger ( above ). The most unlikely encounters took place at Studio 54. To wit, Woody Allen and
Michael Jackson sitting together ( left ).
The club’s regulars included fashion designers, from Calvin Klein to Yves Saint Laurent, and Halston, pictured
here with Liza Minnelli ( below ).
Grace Jones performed a number of times at Studio 54,
adding another jewel to her disco queen crown ( with Olivia Newton&–&John&, opposite ). Steve Rubell, Ian Schrager’s partner in the venture died of Aids in 1989
(with Halston and Liza Minnelli, below & ).