"People were tired of being serious," one regular to Studio 54 reflects in a landmark new documentary of the same name about the infamous NYC disco nightclub. The epicentre of ’70s hedonism in the post-Watergate era, it was a magnet for beautiful stars, casual sex, and mounds of cocaine. A den of excess that defined its own rules and enshrined the ostracised, queer, and fabulous.
Studio 54 was a place where the broke and marginalised could rub shoulders (and probably more) with the rich and famous, the club's ethos being that money didn't matter but personality, outlook, style and - above all - enthusiasm for life did. Andy Warhol, Liza Minnelli, Elizabeth Taylor, Debbie Harry, Grace Jones, Michael Jackson, Calvin Klein, Elton John, Rick James, Truman Capote, Freddie Mercury, Ric Flair, Lou Reed, Al Pacino, Cher, David Bowie, Salvador Dalí, Robin Williams and Jackie Kennedy Onassis were all regulars, and that doesn't even put a dent in the list.
Utilising rare footage, a parade of colourful patrons and former staff, and brutally honest interviews with co-founder Ian Schrager (his more flamboyant business partner, Steve Rubell, died in 1989) for the documentary, filmmaker Matt Tyrnauer chronicles the club's meteoric rise, unbridled opulence, debauchery, and, ultimately, swift fall, as jealousy over its success coalesced with the owners' carefree naiveté, greed and shady business practices.
You can catch the excellent STUDIO 54 in cinemas from 15 June. Here are some interesting things we learned from it:
1. The notoriously exclusive guest list had four categories...
PAY (should be obvious)
COMP ('complimentary', they get it in for free)
NFU ('no fuck ups', for VIPs who must not be embarrassed)
NG ('no goods', for those who should never be let in, perhaps due to bad behaviour, which apparently included some celebrities)
2. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were routinely comp'd, but the rest of the Rolling Stones had to pay.
3. Competition to get in was so fierce that some people queueing for the club offered the doorman sex.
"Did you ever take them up on it?" Marc Benecke was asked. "...Sometimes," he answered.
4. Sex was also rife inside the club. The balconies were the province of the blowjob, while the basement was full of mattresses where people after more than foreplay would go.
5. The dress code was pretty strict - one man filmed being turned away for wearing a hat ("Don't ever come here with a hat!" co-owner Steve Rubell shouted to the crowd outside) - but not if you're Truman Capote, who once arrived in a bathrobe and slippers.
6. Studio 54 was viewed as a safe haven by trans people. At a time when members of the LGBT community risked being beaten up or killed on the streets of Hell's Kitchen, the atmosphere inside the club was one free of judgment or prejudice. Many people saw their first gay kiss on the dance floor at Studio 54.
7. Gregarious co-founder Steve Rubell was a big fan of Qualuudes and would apparently always be offering them to friends in the club. He also had an infamous floor length padded coat (below) that allowed him to conceal and carry large amounts of cocaine.
8. Standard waiter uniform was gym shorts and nothing else.
9. A horse was seen on the dance floor once (pictured below), along with a snake, while a cheetah once sat at the bar.
10. One regular to the club was a 75-year-old lawyer known as 'Disco Sally' (below). Some staff expressed concerns that her presence was gimmicky, but the owners insisted that "no, she's great".
11. Art installations created by the club's decor team were vast and expensive. They included a giant crescent moon being fed with a spoon.
12. When the IRS raided Studio 54 over suspected tax evasion in 1978 (after Rubell foolishly told a newspaper "only the Mafia made more money" than them), former Donald Trump attorney Roy Cohn allegedly told Rubell and Schrader to flip the club's tables in order to make it look like the raid was destructive.
13. When businesses make false income declarations, their records are often suspiciously scant. Studio 54's, however, were self-incriminatingly detailed. Staggeringly, its ledger included a daily record of the amount they were skimming and listed expenses like 'party favours' (grams of cocaine sold to celebrity guests).
While more cautious fraudsters might attempt to skim 1 or 2% of their profits, Studio 54 was siphoning an estimated 80% - $2.5 - 3 million.
14. While under indictment for tax evasion and obstruction of justice, Rubell and Schrager defiantly gave Studio 54 a refurbishment, including building a bridge that could oscillate over the dance floor and fitting the balconies with wipe-clean rubber.
"Were you building a sex pit?" one of the builders was asked in the doc. ".....Yes," he replied.
15. The owners were ultimately found guilty, and the night before they went to prison for three-and-a-half years they threw one last blow-out party at the club. Diana Ross and Liza Minelli performed.
Studio 54 opens in UK cinemas 15 June.
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