Film and Documentary

Studio 54: The Documentary

The legendary Studio 54 in New York City was more than just a nightclub in the late 70s. It was a cultural phenomenon that only happens once in a lifetime. Brooklynites Ian Schrager & Steve Rubell created a totally fantasy venue that drew people from every walk of life. In its relatively short 33-month span, the hallowed walls of “54” drew celebrities from every corner of the globe. It was the place to see and be seen.

Schrager and Rubell met while in college at Syracuse University through their fraternity. The two were total opposites personality-wise. Schrager was a studious self-proclaimed introvert, and the very outgoing Rubell was definitely an extrovert. What started off as a friendship and then a lawyer-client relationship after graduation, quickly turned into a business partnership when they decided to do a nightclub together.

Schrager got the bug first, sensing that there was a big opportunity for a successful nightclub if done right. Rubell didn’t need much coercion, and a partnership was forged. But they wanted to do it right, and Rubell especially wanted it to be big. They went to many various nightclubs — gay clubs, black clubs, trying to figure out exactly what kind of club they wanted to create. They did a trial run with Enchanted Garden in Queens, but their sights were set on Manhattan.

Their search included old churches, old firehouses, and even a few hotel ballrooms. Ultimately, they found an old theater at 54th and 8th, and both fell in love with the venue. After signing a lease, they only took 6 weeks to create the ultimate venue that Studio 54 became. Partnering with millionaire Jack Duskey, corners were cut, palms were greased, and a lot of “creative outside-the-box thinking” was employed to achieve their goal. When they couldn’t obtain a liquor license in such a short period of time, they even circumvented the law by creating a catering company and obtaining a series of one-day catering permits.

Rubell was the creative genius with his fog machines, wind machines, backdrops, tornadoes, and themed parties designed for a one-of-a-kind experience. Schrager was content to stay in the background, handing the behind-the-scenes tasks that kept the party flowing. They even utilized the balcony, where those who really didn’t want to be part of the show could still hang out and observe from above.

Invitations to opening night were sent out to every type of celebrity imaginable, hoping that at least some of them might show up. But no one could have imagined the mob scene that ensued for their grand opening. It was so terrifying, that they had to pull all their security from the rest of the venue just to handle the front door mob scene. Mark Benecke was initially hired for security, but due to his model-perfect good looks, quickly became the “head of the velvet ropes” on day 1, in charge of who got to enter and who did not. Dress code was strictly observed, especially for men. If you weren’t shaved, or wearing a hat, you were refused entry. “Bridge and Tunnel” people were refused, especially polyester clad men. There was a certain snobbery about how people looked, and it became very well known that only the pretty people, the fabulous and well-dressed would be allowed entry.

What ensued inside was the pure and utter freedom to just be – a true escape from the mundane. Celebrities like Michael Jackson, Ringo, Mick Jagger, Diana Ross, Cher, Elton John, Halston, Liza Minelli and countless others showed up to see and be seen. Politicians, sports heroes, dancers, models – you name it, they wanted entry to what had become the most exclusive party in the world almost overnight. Photographers were only allowed in if they were on the list. And “on the list” meant those the promoters could control. No exceptions.

Every night was a party, and new faces showed up with great regularity. It was an event. A happening. Love was in the air, sex was in the air, and everyone was free to be whoever they were – gay, straight, trans – didn’t matter. Every aspect was designed to assault your senses. The envelope was pushed to the limit on a daily basis. To many, it became perhaps the greatest addiction of the 70s.

But the club also had a dark side. Hedonism and drugs ran the gamut. Rubell was big on quaaludes and would hand them out like party favors. Coke flowed freely, and the party never stopped. Until it finally did. And when it did, the crash was heard around the world.

The first sign of trouble was when the catering permits scheme finally hit a snag, and it was discovered that this massive club had no liquor license. Mob attorney Roy Cohn quickly fixed that issue, but other problems were looming large on the horizon. What goes up must come down.

Finally, Rubell was quoted in December 1978 in the city’s newspapers as saying that Studio 54 had made $7 million in its first year and “only the Mafia made more money”. This got the attention of the IRS. Shortly after that, the nightclub was raided and Rubell and Schrager were arrested for skimming $2.5 million. The IRS entered the club with search warrants, and the problems escalated from there. Drugs were seized, cocaine and quaaludes were present, and Schader was arrested. The downward spiral continued when the owners trashed their own club to make it look like the agents did it, but the agents had been very careful to leave everything as they found it, minus the drugs, and it backfired.

They quickly employed additional high powered law firms to represent them, but even with all that power behind them, their fight was an uphill battle. A second set of books was discovered when a former disgruntled employee cooperated with the investigation, pointing out the dropped ceiling hiding place. More drugs, cash, and those uncooked books were present. Dushey was also arrested and cooperated with the investigation. Indictments were brought against Schrager, Rubell and Dushey. Schrager and Rubell pleaded guilty to tax evasion and were sentenced to 3 years in prison, of which they did 13 months.

Rubell threw a huge party the night before reporting to prison. The party was indeed over. Disco also died, when they blew up a huge stash of disco records at Comiskey Park in July 1979. The death knell had sounded, and to many, it felt like it was directed at Studio 54, and their excesses.

After prison, Rubell and Schrager retained their partnership, and eventually founded one of the first boutique hotels in Manhattan. The battle was rough, but ultimately, they did prevail, survive, and even thrive.

Sadly, in 1985, Rubell, who was closeted for most of his life, discovered he had contracted HIV, which later progressed to AIDS. He began taking AZT, but his illness was furthered by his continued drug use and drinking, which affected his compromised immune system. A few weeks before his death, Rubell checked into a hospital in New York City under an assumed name, to seek treatment for severe peptic ulcers, kidney failure, and hepatitis. He died there on July 25, 1989. Rubell’s official cause of death is listed as hepatitis and septic shock complicated by AIDS.

When interviewed for the documentary, Schrager denied the existence of the second books and his involvement. He did hint that perhaps the now deceased Rubell was the guilty party, without naming names, and with no one to corroborate. He maintains his total embarrassment about the circumstances that brought about his downfall. He also maintains that Rubell was his best friend and mourns his loss. He has continued in the boutique hotel industry, creating over 40 boutique hotels and helping revolutionize the industry. He was pardoned by President Obama, who stated that Schrager had paid his debt to society. His pardon was also sanctioned by the prosecutor who put him in prison.

For 33 months, Utopia existed in the form of Studio 54. Schrager and Rubell scaled the wall and sat at the pinnacle of success until they crashed hard. Their story is etched in history, and I’m quite certain that someone, somewhere, is still brushing glitter off their clothing.

Tami Danielson is the main in-house blogger and Director of Operations for Pop-Daze. She was raised in California and Florida and currently resides in Oregon. Tami has written for a variety of periodicals and has provided digital marketing services for a number of artists. She can be reached at [email protected].