“STUDIO 54”— Home of 70s Hedonism

“Studio 54”

Home of 70s Hedonism

Amos Lassen

Studio 54 was the epicenter of 70s hedonism. It not only redefined the nightclub, but it came to symbolize an entire era. Its co-owners, Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell were two friends from Brooklyn who seemed to come out of nowhere to suddenly preside over a new kind of New York society. Now, some 39 years after it opened, we have a feature documentary tells the real story behind the greatest club of all time

Director Matt Tyrnauer shares the tales of hedonism on the dance floor at Manhattan’s legendary discotheque have already been told dozens of times in dozens of ways and the film finds life from the same-old clips showing crowds of beautiful and sweaty dancers inside and irate customers being refused entry at the door. Ian Schrader gives us the definitive look at Studio 54 and the people it attracted. For a dance club that lasted for a mere 33 months, “54” managed to help change the nature of pop music and the views of a countercultural society while mainstreaming underground black, gay, lesbian, transgendered communities by tying them to the allure of celebrity and the unapologetic abandon of a theatrical nightclub.

Tyrnauer takes us through behind the scenes footage, fabulous photographs, great songs and interviews not only with the patrons but also with the artisans who helped build the place. The story of Studio 54 is widened in ways that do justice to both its historical importance and the resonance it continues to have.

One thought on ““STUDIO 54”— Home of 70s Hedonism

  1. Christopher Duquette

    What caught my eye was this familiar photo of Diana Ross in her boots (boots worn OUTSIDE of pants, because boots, Frye, Tony Lama, …, ruled), lip synching to “Love Hangover”, which always paled in comparison to the studio engineered edition. I love her position, and have always reflected on this uncredited image on the cover of one of my better CD investments replacing my lost vinyl: ‘Disco Connection Volume 2).

    Although Studio 54 had two long years after I had started my night crawling at the Gallery, I never had the occasion to go there until Eduardo took me with some of his charmed flight attendant friends from Pan Am. Even though I considered myself an experienced night clubber, the press on Studio 54, its celebrities, paparazzi, and uptown swagger made me nervous about approaching the unmanageable crowd at the entrance begging to get in. I had no patience to be kept waiting outside of a club when I was already high on drugs and just wanted to dance, or the self-esteem to make the trip uptown to be rejected. But being gay had panache at Studio 54, as I found mattered in all my future networking in New York. Steve Rubell was not at the door the first night we went, but as soon as the four of us West Village styled gay men emerged from the cab in front of the club, the doorman on duty lead us by his influential authority beacon us to opening in the velvet rope, like Moses parting the seas, that took us into the sanctioned halls of the historical and now infamous theater on 54th street. I felt validated by the instant approval of the club’s doormen letting me in based on the assumption that I sucked dick, probably danced and dressed satisfactorily, took drugs, and would know how to behave around the celebrities.

    Studio 54 really was a working studio and theater. As I walked along the long elegant carpeted and mirrored hallway that lead from 54th Street to the vortex of the club deep in the center of this midtown city block, a stage with theatrical backdrops that images while multiple light systems like space ships suspended a few inches from the landscape of the dance floor and returned to the ceiling like scenery on a movie set. The lights from these extraterrestrial lanterns flashed across the faces of the most beautiful and famous people in the world, dancing with each other like it was the happiest day of their lives and everyone was the best of friends. It was Shangri La. It was all so staged. The authentic theater mezzanine overhanging the dance floor was, like in any theater, steep stairs and theater seats that you could sit down and watch the production of Studio 54 from above. Anybody and everybody on that dance floor could feel like a star on stage giving the performance of a lifetime.

    There was a large circular bar that kept the crowd that was afraid to dance alcoholically impaired. It was the first time I had ever been to a disco in New York City that had a cash bar. The downtown underground clubs I was familiar with had not legal alcohol license. I was too poor and timid to approach the bar to buy a drink at Studio 54 for the few years I was able to go there until it closed. I no longer had disposable income like when I was a working boy on Broadway, or a trophy boy for a successful car dealer. Now my life included the responsibilities of rent, student loans, bills, dry cleaning, parties at home, drugs, pets, and commuting to and from my domestic life in Brooklyn. Eduardo, my lover and partner for life and on the dance floor, would find a safe place to dance far from the lip of the danced stage at Studio 54, where celebrities and show offs would carry on in the VIP banquettes for the benefit of the photographers taking group celebrity photographs that circulated around the world the next day. Andy Warhol, Bianca Jagger, Halston, Brooke Shields, Cheryl Tiegs, Michael Jackson, and Elizabeth Taylor all wanted press shots to let the public know that they were having a grand old time at Studio 54. Eduardo and I found dancing around this publicly stunt was like being an extra on a movie set; moving in and out of camera range for a fleeting second while trying to look like we normal active partygoers and not spectators.

    Eduardo and I would celebrity hunt at Studio 54 while we got our hard cored dancing. Studio ran on an earlier schedule than most clubs; midnight to 4:30pm closing hour. We saw more celebrity faux pas that the cameras of the paparazzi never caught. We were fixtures to fill space safely and with grace, as we dressed and danced and behaved in a non-threatening manner to the real stars of the club. We were backup dancers, extras, who never planned or aspired to be a star on this dance floor. We were just happy to be there, watching Calvin Klein sulk around the corners, chasing after hot boys. Halston on his hands and knees searching for spilled pills. Bianca in the bathroom mirror frowning at her messy reflection. It seemed like nobody was in a monogamous relationship like Eduardo and I. There was outright hedonism everywhere. People got sexually busy in the mezzanine. We danced next to them, but we never met any of the stars of Studio 54. They were there, but they were also elusive in their private VIP lounge in the basement, doing bumps of cocaine like the iconic man on a the sliver of a golden moon prop that would drop down from the ceiling every night, shoveling a spoon under his nostrils until his nose, then his eyes, then his whole face would light up bright red. Eduardo and I could not afford cocaine. We were sharing cheap mescaline bought in Bed Sty to keep alive through the night until we took a subway home to Brooklyn at dawn.

    Eduardo and I had a penchant for drag queens the way gay men had for other desirable men; we were obsessed with them, spying and projecting their mysterious story lines. Most of the regular transvestites at Studio54 were expensively dressed, styled and cosmetically altered. We would admire the way they released their female selves on the dance floor, with eyes that told you that they had paid a high price to look so good. They all seemed to have enough to pay for the designer clothes, the surgery, the hormones, and the drugs they took from their expensive shoulder purses bought on Fifth Avenue. We never met any, but Eduardo and I talked about them like they were characters in a serial drama that we were only watching from a safe noncommittal distance.
    Pootasa was a larger than life star of Studio 54, a Brazilian transvestite of Amazonian heights who had a wig of hair as big as three heads of Chaka Khan’s. Pootsa would announce her arrival in Studio by raising her arms above her oversized head, making her bigger and more visible to the crowd, like she was La Dolce Vita. She would twirl her big self around as a crowd of miniature men, gay and straight, would circle the edges of her helicopter skirt like she was about to take off. She was Salvatore Dali’s personal secretary, her only secretarial skill being that she was Pootasa. Rollerina floated around in a cast off wedding dress like Miss Havisham wore in Charles Dickens’s “Great Expectations”, pointing her fairy wand at anyone she wanted to get the attention of.
    Sophisticated production numbers were performed live by notorious stars taking a ride on the disco ball of the Billboard top 100, like Eartha Kitt meowing “Where Is My Man”:

    Don’t wanna be alone
    Where is my man?
    Spend hours by the phone
    Where is my baby?

    Seeing performances by old-school entertainers helped me get over the hump of calling home. I was still not understood for my lifestyle, so I could relay my cultural experiences of seeing one of the familiar crooners to my appreciative parents. They respected Eartha Kitt as an artist. Seeing her perform at Studio 54 at 2am while on drugs gave us something to talk about. Eduardo and I thought of our long trips from Fort Greene, Brooklyn to Midtown Studio 54 as a cultural event more than a real club experience. It provided something of substance to share with family, friends and coworkers rather than bore them with what the DJ played. “Oh, and I saw so and so, and he/she was doing XYZ”. Everyone in America likes to hear second hand stories about their stars.

    I personally saw to it that my younger sister, Sheryl, would stand out from the crowd at her High School Senior Prom by purchasing a golden lame leather bustier and matching white crinoline knee length skirt with gold detail from an East Village store that carried the new London Look. It was a look that I admired on Gia the tragic supermodel who wore a similar dress by Fabrice, a designer I would kick up my heels and dance wildly on ecstasy with at a future Fire Island party that caused quite a stir; poor Eduardo had to watch while I made the fabulous Fabrice lose his otherwise lHalston-like posture to a drug fueled dance performance for all of the Fire Island queens to ogle over. The 1980’s supermodel Gia Carangi wore Fabrice’s dress on the cover of Cosmopolitan Magazine just before she died of AIDS. It was her last chance to shine. She was the predecessor to Cindy Crawford; the non-blonde supermodel. Eduardo bought my sister a metallic gold clutch and gold lame leather sling back heels to wear with the dress. He was very generous with my sister. He was very generous with my whole family. The entire look that Sheryl modeled at her upstate prom was very Barbie doll circa 1964. Most girls upstate wore common floor length gowns from the local bridal/prom franchise ‘Dress Barn’. My sister was going to stand out at her prom. Not knowing women’s sizing, I bought the bustier that I thought would fit my post-scoliosis and budding sister, only to find that unlike a fabric dress that could be altered, the leather bustier could not be stretched to fit her cherubic body. Sheryl started to diet, found the Toll-house chocolate chip cookies that my mother made regularly hard to resist, so she resorted to purging the cookies, as well as any other food she ingested. She recovered from this food disorder, but not before my mother placed the blame on me and my city prom styling for her precious daughter’s syndrome.

    Sheryl traveled to Brooklyn to stay with Eduardo and me in our spacious parlor floor apartment to get a taste of the sophisticated life she was already eager to acquire herself. She was like me; she was anxious to grow up and enjoy the privileges of independent adulthood. I would allow her to take the same drugs as Eduardo and me under the condition that she never gave up her virginity while still in high school. I had witnessed too many young ladies pinning their hopes and dreams on young men who had pinned them with their penis while still in high school. A young lady sticking around town after graduation in the hopes that the penis will marry her, or at least knock her up, will never get her own career and the chance to find and establish herself. I had the same hopes and dreams for my sister as I had for myself: get the hell out of our parents’ house, go to college to experiment socially and sexually as well as get a college degree, and start living the sophisticated life of a cosmopolitan adult upon graduation.
    My mother also liked to come down to Brooklyn to stay with Eduardo and me so she too could drink, go to Broadway plays, and dine with two gay gentlemen doting on her. She practically adopted Puerto Rican Eduardo into our New England family with invitations to all family events, even hospitalizations during my father’s demise. My mother was acting out with the liberty she felt from my nonconformist way of life, so different from the confines of the home she made and raised me in. She had dictated the morals and rules for Sheryl and me as we lived at home. Once she came to my Shangri La in Brooklyn, all bets were off. Everybody wanted to lose themselves in New York City. It was the original sin city before the Las Vegas campaign of “Whatever happens in Las Vegas, stays in Las Vegas”.

    Sheryl got to wear her Barbie-like prom outfit to Studio 54 the summer after her prom, after a day at the beach, where we had taken magic mushrooms to enjoy the waves. We were sun kissed. That night I was wearing a flamingo pink Zoot suit from the same clothiers as Sheryl’s dress. Eduardo wore high waist pleaded pants, a silky blouse, and sport coat all, from Tokyo, the latest new desirable flight acquisition of Pan Am and hot place for Eduardo to shop for unique superior hip retro clothes for the both of us to stand out in fashion conscious New York City. The benefits of living with an international flight attendant extended to my unique and intercontinental wardrobe. Eduardo looked very much like Ricky Ricardo. I looked very much like the Warren Beatty’s “Dick Tracy”; handsome, cartoonish colored, and proportioned. With the addition of a Japanese cultured pearl chocker bought on discount in Tokyo from the ever generous Eduardo, Sheryl looked like Princess Diane out for a night at Studio 54. We were trying to impress. People commented on our looks, which was flattering considering who we were and where we came from. I found it difficult to cut loose and dance free-style in my pink Zoot suit, so I stood on the lip of the dance floor chatting with friends while keeping an eye on my seventeen year old sister who could not get enough of the music the DJ was playing. It was Christie Brinkley’s eighteenth birthday. The supermodel was dancing with two presumably gay men a few feet from my sister, bringing more attention to our stylish trio as the guest of honor gave cover girl poses and smiles for the photographers and general audience. She was celebrating her entry to legal adulthood at Studio 54 for the world to see: the girl next door Sports Illustrated bathing suit model legally drinking and dancing at Studio 54. My sister was rocking to Tear for Fear’s “Tainted Love”:

    Sometimes I feel I’ve got to run away
    I’ve got to get away
    From the pain that you drive into the heart of me
    The love we share
    Seems to go nowhere
    And I’ve lost my light
    For I toss and turn I can’t sleep at night

    Once Iran to you
    Now I’ll run from you
    This tainted love you’ve given
    I give you all a boy could give you
    Take my tears and that’s not nearly all
    Oh…tainted love.

    To my horror, Sheryl had removed her Barbie sling back gold mules. They looked good on a Barbie doll that did nothing but stand and look pretty, but were a bitch to dance in. Her feet hurt. She had never been in Studio 54 before. Girls took their shoes off when they hurt at clubs upstate. Not at Studio 54. Her shoes were on the floor, beginning to build what I called the ‘girl’s bonfire’, wherein a gaggle of ‘girls’ night out’ divas form a circle when they dance and toss their purses, coats, shoes, anything they are tired of carrying into the center of the dance circle until it looks like a drop-off for Goodwill. Sheryl still had her gold metallic clutch pinned under her armpit, but the bare feet of my upstate seventeen year old sister doing her white girl dance at Studio 54 with the guest of honor Christie Brinkley in the limelight only a few feet away was enough to give a stage mom the vapors, like her daughter was exposing a nipple to the judges. I had to interrupt a conversation I was having with one of Eduardo’s flight attendant friends to reproach Sheryl to put her shoes back on. She obeyed me as if we were at risk of being ejected from the club. To this day, I believe I was pressing my ideal of what a sophisticated lady at Studio 54 should look and behave like on my still very young and impressionable sister, like she was one of the mysteriously stylish trannies who Eduardo and I studied and admired. My role models for how to behave in society were not my parents who had successfully raised three children in upper middle class comfort but the dregs of New York City nightlife. I was seriously slanted in my judgment. I lived in New York City and I did drugs. I didn’t know better.
    I had a book published by DonnaInk DP 2 years ago about my exploits after the disco bug bit me from 1976 – 2004 Homo GoGo Man: a fairytale about a boy who grew up in discoland. By Christopher Duquette.
    Contact me for consultation on this and other iconic clubs, not for sales promotion, but as a veteran of an historic period in the hedonistic clubs of NYC that no longer exist. Book reading/events complete with accompanying DJ and disco staging.
    Christopher Duquette
    845 337 7048
    YouTube ‘Homo GoGo Man’ or ‘Christ


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