Back in the late-70s, Studio 54 club was the premier spot on the planet for the decade’s disco nightlife scene. The nightclub, which opened it’s doors in 1977 and attended frequently by stars such as Jackie O, Cher, Andy Warhol, Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, and Elton John. Because of this, it took on this iconic status and became a cultural sensation.
Launched at the peak of the disco era, Club 54 became famous not only for it’s star-studded guest list but also for it’s ridiculously restrictive entry policies. Panned by it’s more conservative critics for being a haven of debauched hedonism. Club 54 was infamous for being a place where you could score just about every party drug around. Guests would also frequently engage in open sexual activities in the club’s basement VIP rooms and balcony.
These days Studio 54 is but a shadow of what it once was. Disco has been dead for quite some time now. And there really isn’t that big of a market for clubs catering to the genre’s aesthetic anymore. The club shut down in 1980 after the founders convicted of tax evasion. It later re-opened under new ownership but was never quite able to achieve the same level of cultural significance as it once did.
After changing hands a couple of times, Club 54 eventually converted into a Broadway venue in 1998. For disco fans, it’s still a great spot to visit if you find yourself touring the Big Apple. But if you’re hoping to get the authentic 70s Club 54 experience, unfortunately, you’re out of luck. The only thing that comes close to capturing what that age of excess and extravagance was like is looking at photos that immortalized some of it’s most memorable moments.
Join Facts Verse as we take a look at several vintage pictures that reveal some of Studio 54’s biggest secrets. To put things into perspective, let’s first take a trip back in time to the club’s earliest days.
Club 54 Used To Be An Opera House
The venue that later became Club 54 developed originally to be the Gallo Opera House. The building was designed by the famous architect Eugene De Rosa who first publicized his plans for a 16-story office building in 1926. The opera house would sit on the building’s lower three floors. Below the primary floors would also be a lounge and an opera museum.
The Gallo Opera House opened on November 8, 1927, with a production of La Boheme. For the next two years, numerous attempts made to draw in an audience, but unfortunately that proved to be a difficult task. Eventually, the theater lost to foreclosure.
It would later reopen under new management as The New Yorker, but once again, it failed to draw sufficiently large enough crowds. For the next several years, the theater changed hands frequently. At one point it was New York City’s Federal Music Theater before becoming The New Yorker Theater in 1939. It featuring an all-black adaptation of the musical Swing Mikado.
In 1940, the New Yorker Theatre shut down. The theater remained vacant for 3 years before CBS purchased it in 1943. Renaming it Studio 52 – a reference to the street where it was located – CBS used the theater as a radio and television stage until the mid-70s. During those years, shows such as What’s My Line, The Jack Benny Show, Captain Kangaroo, and The $64,000 Question filmed there.
In 1976, CBS sold the theater after they moved a majority of their broadcast operations to the CBS Broadcast Center and the Ed Sulivan Theater.
The Studio 54 Glory Years
When CBS sold the theater, various parties from the worlds of fashion and art began to express interest in seeing it transformed into a nightclub. In 1977, Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell began work converting the theater into the Studio 54 nightclub.
It took just six weeks to transform the theater into a nightclub at a cost of $400,000. Famed lighting designers, Paul Marantz and Jules Fisher, called into create the club’s dance floor environment. They made movable theatrical sets and lights utilizing the existing theater fly systems. And TV lighting circuits to create a flashy vibe that was unparalleled. These unique elements created an environment that was dynamic and constantly in a state of flux while illuminating the crowd brightly.
Studio 54 opened for business on April 26, 1977. A month after opening, the club raided by the New York State Liquor Authority for selling booze without a license. The club closed for a night but reopened the following evening, serving soft drinks and fruit juice instead of alcohol. Eventually, however, the club was able to secure the required permits and began serving liquor again.
With that little setback out of the way, Studio 54 began to explode in popularity. Suddenly it had become the premier New York City hangout for Hollywood celebrities, trendy artists, flamboyant musicians; And even a few politicians who were looking to let loose. Notable stars that made frequently patronized the establishment included Woody Allen, Calvin Klein, Timothy Leary, David Bowie, Truman Capote, Salvador Dali, and Mick Jagger.
The nightclubs guests list was essentially a who’s-who of everyone that was making waves in the entertainment industry at the time.
In 1978, the band Chic penned a song called ‘Le Freak’ after being refused entry to Studio 54s New Year’s Eve party in 1977. For that party, event planner Robert Isabel brought in four tons of glitter that dump on the dance floor. Attendees reportedly were still finding glitter in their clothes and homes even months later.
Tax Evasion And Presidential Pardons
In a newspaper article published in late 1978, Rubell saying that his club had made $7 million in it’s first year of operation. He even bragged that ‘only the mafia’ had made more money than that.
After hearing this, the IRS decided to look into Rubell’s finances a bit more closely. After that, the club raided and Schranger and Rubell arrested. Several months later, in June 1979, the two club owners indicted on charges of skimming a considerable chunk of Studio 54’s receipts.
Tax evasion is a very serious crime. And Rubell and Schrager were unable to keep the doors open of their iconic club after being caught up in all of that legal trouble. Studio 54 closed after one last farewell party on the evening of February 2, 1980.
Those in attendance at that final party included Liza Minnellli, Diana Ross, Farrah Fawcett, Jack Nicholson, Richard Gere, and Sylvester Stallone, among others.
Rubell and Schrager ended up pleading guilty to tax evasion and both sentence to three and a half years in prison. Although they paroled after a little over a year. Decades later, in 2017, President Barack Obama would issue Schrager a presidential pardon.
Studio 54’s Second Act
While in prison, Rubell and Schrager sold the building to a man named Phillip Pilevsky for $1.15 million. Less than a year later, the building sold once again to Mark Fleischman. Under new ownership, Studio 54 reopened in September of 1981.
The club continued to operate until 1986, when Fleischman shut it down and sold the building. In 1989 The Ritz nightclub moved into the building under the name The New Ritz. Although they would eventually revert back to simply The Ritz.
For the next three years the venue would be primarily use for new wave, punk, heavy metal, and Eurodisco shows. In 1993, The Ritz shut down after acquiring by a company called CAT Entertainment. CAT renovated the club extensively and brought back the Studio 54 name since no one had properly registered it in the past. The remodeled club open in January 1994 as ‘Cabaret Royale at Studio 54’.
The club ceased operation in early 1995 after Cat Entertainment lost their lease on the property. It soon reopened as a live concert venue, but shut down once again in 1996.
The Roundabout Theatre
In 1998, The Roundabout Theatre Company moved the performance of the Broadway musical Cabaret to studio 54 after a collapsed construction hoist blocked the doors to the Henry Miller Theatre on 43rd Street.
Cabaret went on to run at the former Studio 54 location until 2003. Roundabout then bought the building for $22.5 million later that year. Since Cabaret’s run ended, Roundabout has used the theater for Broadway productions that couldn’t fit at The American Airlines Theatre.
In the last two decades, productions of plays like Pacific Overtures, Assassins; and A Streetcar Named Desire have been featured at the theater. Of course, much like everything else, they were forced to cease operations at the start of the pandemic in 2020, but they reopened in October 2021.
Looking back at Studio 54’s history, it’s fairly clear that nothing was quite like the years of 1977 and 1978. For that brief window, Studio 54 was like the center of the universe. Everybody that was anybody back then made it a point to get through those doors. And those that weren’t able to get in were left feeling scorned and cheated.
In the late 70s, Studio 54 was one of the best-known nightclubs on the planet. Because of that, it played a pivotal role in the growth the nightclub scene and also that of disco music. While the nightclub itself is long gone, the name Studio 54 has gone on to have a life of it’s own. In 2011, Sirius XM launched Studio 54 Radio, and several years later, Studio 54 Records was founded in 2020.
In 1997, a replica of the original club opened at the MGM Grand in Vegas, although it has since closed down. While open, this new Studio 54 was one of the most popular dance clubs in sin city.
Given the fact that Studio 54 was such a cultural sensation, it remains very likely that we will continue to see the Studio 54 name used for marketing purposes for the foreseeable future.
Anyway, now it’s your turn to let your voice be heard. Were you lucky enough to have visited Studio 54 back in it’s heydey? If not, what are your thoughts on the club’s lavishness and extravagance? Let us know in the comments.
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