Ralph Gardner Jr: Recalling Studio 54
Let’s be clear: New York City in the 1970’s wasn’t quite the hell hole it’s made out to be in popular culture -- a crime and graffiti-riddled battlefield whose denizens also had lousy fashion sense.
I know. I lived there. And yes, crime and graffiti were rampant and the city did flirt with bankruptcy. But there was also a sense of opportunity, of ambition and industry, of acceptance of others.
What prompts this defense of my hometown is a new documentary. It’s called Studio 54 and it’s about the legendary nightclub that exploded across the social firmament on April 26th, 1977. The movie, directed by Matt Tyrnauer, was one of the entries at FilmColumbia, the annual, enthusiastically attended Chatham, NY film festival.
Mr. Tyrnauer makes the argument that in many ways our current celebrity culture, presided over by a reality TV commander-in-chief, began on the dance floor at Studio 54, or just off it, where regulars such as Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, Bianca Jagger, Liza Minnelli and occasionally Donald Trump populated the club’s plush banquettes, their comings and goings dutifully reported in the next morning’s tabloids.
But there was also a distinct difference between then and now. What lent Studio 54 its magic was its overwhelming, anything goes sense of freedom and abandon. And almost anything did go. Not just in the balcony but on the dance floor below.
The club closed in February, 1980 and arguably an era did along with it. An era that had started with the Sixties, perhaps as far back as the election of John F. Kennedy and the enlightenment his brief administration symbolized, through the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and the drug culture of the Sixties, the predations of the Nixon administration, and the imperfect efforts to heal the country, symbolized by the presidency of Jimmy Carter.
Indeed, among the nightclub’s guests was Hamilton Jordan, Jimmy Carter’s chief of staff who faced unsubstantiated rumors of sex and cocaine use at “Studio,” as the club was known among the cognoscenti.
The party also suffered a debilitating blow with the arrest of owners Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager on charges of tax evasion. They were convicted and spent 13 months in prison. Rubell died of AIDS in 1989. Schrager went on to an impressive career as a creator of boutique hotels. While Rubell was the flamboyant front man, Schrager, whose affecting recollections and regrets help animate the documentary, was the behind the scenes genius with a knack for creating fantastical environments from scratch, starting with Studio 54.
He was pardoned by President Barack Obama in 2017.
But that libertine, all-embracing, small “d” democratic era truly ended with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 when freakiness was replaced by shoulder-padded conservatism and fashionistas by investment bankers as the icons of the age.
But let’s not dwell on what’s been lost. Above all else Matt Tynauer’s documentary serves as a time capsule and one that’s almost as celebratory as Studio 54 was in its heyday, if you managed to make your way past the velvet ropes.
For all the focus on celebrity and glamor what distinguished the club above all was it’s non-judgmental embrace of difference. Drag queens danced next to socialites, next to publishing interns, next to, well, me.
At the time I was employed by the New York City Department of Correction in its public affairs office but they didn’t hold that against me. On at least one occasion I remember gaining entry by flashing my shield.
Another time I got in on Andy Warhol’s coattails, quite literally. The velvet rope parted to make way the artist and his entourage, with me picking up the rear. The fact I was wearing a fur coat probably didn’t hurt.
I also recall using the restroom one evening, the only other occupants attorney Roy Cohn, who defended Rubell and Schrager when the IRS came calling, and a half naked bathroom attendant, as much of Studio’s bartenders and staff were.
I watched as the notorious Cohn gave the attendant a hundred dollar bill. It seemed an extremely generous tip just for handing him a towel.
The documentary celebrates the era’s disco culture. But I distinctly remember dancing to the Rolling Stones during my first visit. The next time I made it inside the soundtrack – it’s hard to exaggerate the seismic decibel level; it sent shock waves not just through your eardrums but your very skeleton – had been replaced by the boring, repetitive beat of disco.
As far as I was concerned much was lost.
But not all, certainly. What elevated the club way above the ordinary is that it was as much stage as dance floor – everybody on it a celebrity, the star of his or her own movie, as well it should me.
The effect was enhanced by props and special effects – falling snow, black lights, streamers – and lots of drugs, symbolized by a crescent man in the moon that descended from the rafters supping from a coke spoon.
I don’t recall participating in that aspect of the experience, except on one occasion when I was dancing alongside a stranger who stuck a vial under my nose.
I have no idea what the contents was except that the effect was immediate, powerful and pleasurable and undoubtedly killed more than a few brain cells.
There are those who would condemn my benfactor’s behavior. And mine. But I prefer to think of it as an act of generosity and part of the ethos of an era that sowed connection and unity over division.
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com
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