Inside the wild party life of Studio 54
You are the dancing queen! The kids from the 70s will surely remember what the whirlwind decade had to offer. Nowhere was it more evident than at Studio 54. For one night, dancers could forget about the troubles brewing in America and celebrate life. Flashing lights, strange costumes, and even a barnyard animal or two — these are the photos that captured the rapture of the late Seventies. Bust out those bell bottoms and point that disco finger, we’re about to take you into the scene that even A-listers couldn’t make it onto (sorry, Henry Winkler).
Studio 54 was ‘the Seventies’ in a nightclub
The ’70s were a crazy time. Economic inflation, the Vietnam War, and women’s rights were taking the country by the horns and pulling it to and fro. But it was also a time of wild parties, hyper-self-expression, and experimentation. And nowhere was this better epitomized than at New York’s Studio 54.
The club’s doors opened in 1977 and stayed opened until 1980. Within those three short years, Studio 54 would go down in history as being the quintessential exclusive nightclub, featuring a guest list that was a real who’s who in the biz. Hittin’ the club often meant rubbing elbows with the biggest stars in the game. Sorry, you’re not on the list…but you might recognize some people that were.
Cher was a frequent patron
Though the infamous club was only open for three short years, it garnered much attention from A-list celebrities. Nestled in New York City’s 8th and Broadway, Studio 54 was a place of anonymity and strived for a “care-free” environment which made it a haven for celebrities such as the Goddess of Pop herself. It was a place where she could visit without the screaming fans and flashing lights of the paparazzi.
Above Cher is all smiles as she holds her pup in the chaos of people, music, and drinks. On her lower right is what looks like a bill and checkbook. Could she be wrapping up the night? With the kind of excitement brimming in her eyes, it’s pretty clear that this diva isn’t going anywhere until sunrise.
Liza Minnelli made fun of someone’s shoes
Rumors spread fast about the hedonistic theater turned the club, and it soon earned itself a seedy reputation. Whispers spread about the club and its owners (Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager). One of them suggested they were hosting nightly orgies and laced the ventilation system with ‘snow’ throughout the club. There were even rumors that there were underground tunnels connecting the club through New York’s subway system.
Whichever the case, everyone was having a good time. Liza Minnelli is a perfect example as she’s seen on the dance floor in a jump-suit styled ensemble. In this particular photo, Minnelli is dancing with ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov. The perfect dance partner all things considering. But she’s dressed pretty casually compared to our next frequent club patron.
Grace Jones showed up in elaborate costumes
The ’70s were a ‘feel good’ time. When times were rough, Studio 54 was a place to forget about the outside world. With inflation at it’s worst, many people were unemployed, the stock market was a mess, and people were just miserable. But, a ray of light breaks through the dark clouds and it shines down on the dancing harem of the eclectic, strange, or wealthy.
Grace Jones refers to herself as a “warrior,” and for good reason? A model, singer, songwriter, and producer? She’s a triple threat. Jones often frequented in Studio 54 and would peruse the floor with her eccentric garbs. With her fishnet purple top and gilded sunglasses, she glitters as vibrantly as a disco ball. A fashion icon, Jones was well known for her forward-thinking trends, fashion, and fiery tenacity in her art.
Because it wouldn’t be a party without Michael Jackson
Before you say “that is not Michael Jackson,” guess again. That my friend is Michael Jackson in his full 1978 glory, complete with afro and disco garb. The photo suggests Jackson in movement, as does the rest of the people behind him with the lights in a continuous blur in the background.
A lot has changed before the singer becomes a legendary pop singer and superstar. Little does he know that his presence will change how many views and listen to music, inspiring future artists and forever immortalizing the moonwalk. The 1970s was a decade of transition, change, and liberation, and nowhere was that better represented than Studio 54.
Bianca Jagger riding with the “Wild, Wild Horse(s)”
So if the celebrities and the hype don’t impress you, then maybe try this on for size: every night at Studio 54 was wild (as you already know). It was there that we see the iconic bouncer with a clipboard in his hands and gives each patron the thumbs up or down based on your attitude and your wardrobe.
They were also famous for having a live horse rage behind its doors and letting Bianca Jagger ride it bareback like Lady-freaking-Godiva (without the birthday suit). The then-wife and muse of Mick Jagger, Bianca is seen casually ridding her magnificent white steed, led by a naked man covered in body paint and glitter. Yeah (or should we say neigh?), it was that wild.
Mick and Bianca Jagger make a royal appearance
Besides being the former wife of rock and roll icon Mick Jagger, Bianca Jagger has her own impressive repertoire as a human rights activist and former actress. But here’s the million-dollar question: where do you throw a birthday bash for a badass feminist? Why throw it at the most happenin’ club in New York.
Bianca Jagger was by no means shy in front of a camera, and she looks comfortable in this particular photograph where she’s seen celebrating her 32nd birthday at Studio 54 in 1977. On her left is dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, and on her right is—hello!— Mr.Get-No-Satisfaction himself, Mick Jagger. Bianca is the true dancing queen.
Brooke Shields and Mariel Hemingway sharing laughs
We think Brooke Shields and we think about the beautiful model who graced the front cover of Vogue and her unforgettable role in “Blue Lagoon.” But, once upon a time, before Brooke Shields was worshiped for her voluminous brows and pouty lips, she was blooming into adolescence in one of the most exciting decades in history.
Only twelve years old in this photo (someone fire that doorman) being a young model gets her access to the most exclusive events in the city. And who would she choose to be her partner-in-crime? None other than the grand-daughters of the most famous writers in American history? Yes, that Hemingway. Mariel (seen right) grows up to be a famous actress and beauty icon. In case you’re wondering, that’s a soda in her hand, not an underage adult drinking a gin and tonic (no seriously).
And can we get a warm welcome for First Lady Betty Ford
The last person you would expect to walk into a place like Studio 54 would be a priest, let alone the First Lady, however, miracles do happen. Three generations of women from different backgrounds are present here in one photo. Left is “Cabaret” singer, Liza Minnelli, Queen of Macedonia, Elizabeth Taylor, and First Lady (and the nation’s best tap-dancer) Betty Ford.
Though their professions may differ in slight alteration, all three women have a similar past sharing the spotlight, and it’s good to see that nothing’s changed. Garbed in glittering sequins, their dresses speak for their hosts. They’re there for a good time, plain and simple. It looks like Liza may be making her point as she is in deep conversation with the First Lady.
That’s Ms. Dolly Parton to you
So, this explains the horse Bianca Jagger was ridding earlier in the previous pages. When it was clear that Dolly Parton was going to grace her magnificence at the notorious club, club owner Steve Rubell wanted the Queen of Country to feel at home. So, he calls up a local stable and brings in the famous white horse which Dolly obviously adored.
Don’t think this precious ‘stang was the only animal in Studio 54. Other animals came to join the action such as other horses, chickens, and mules. All of which was running around the club becoming their own celebrities for the night. They even had a wagon filled with hay and a wine barrel filled with corn decorating the club as well. A lil’ sumthin’ for everyone.
The Supreme Diana Ross knows how to cut loose
When asked “Where Did Our Love Go?” look no further! It’s embodied in the fiery steps of Diana Ross. Her face screams a good time (the guy behind her doesn’t seem to be screaming, let alone having a good time). A frequent patron at the club, Diana was seen in the DJ booth singing her heart out or dancing.
Everyone came together for one last hurrah before the doors closed for good. Diana Ross serenaded the club owners, while Liza Minnelli sang a show-stopping “New York, New York.” Though the doors were closed, people will never forget the flashing lights, the scandalous attire, and the energetic beat of the music.
The basement was basically a proverbial champagne room
We bet you’re wondering when we’ll talk about the salacious events that took place behind the proverbial closed doors of Studio 54. So far, all we’re seeing is everyone having a good time. Well, that depends on what you call a good time. There are three levels to the infamous Studio 54. There’s the dance floor (respectfully) and then…there’s the basement.
According to Rolling Stone, a lot of lewd things happened in the basement. Amongst the stored props and rolled up rugs, there were security guards circling the area like sharks keeping pervy eyes away from what went on down there. All you have to know is that there were a lot of sweaty people both coming in and out of a secluded corner.
Liz Taylor’s birthday bash
Let’s talk about what we’re looking at. Sure, we can say this is none other than the goddess of the silver screen, the violet-eyed dame who’s charmed every male in Hollywood from George Hamilton, John Warner, and even David Bowie. It’s no surprise that a superstar icon like Liz couldn’t stay too far away from the spotlight, and she graces her presence at none other than Studio 54.
Celebrating her 46th birthday, she’s seen with a line of women circling a silk-clad sofa with a sheet cake with her face in the center. What a way to celebrate! But what’s this? Look closer and you’ll see a knife lodged dead center of her chest, right above her heart. Is it a coincidence that she died of heart failure in 2011? Talk about foreshadowing.
Richard Gere wore his sunglasses at night before it was cool
Here’s the thing, Richard Gere is a fox, pre and post “Pretty Woman.” Can we expect anything less from the man who had made many swoons as Julian in “The American Gigolo?” Should we expect anything less than him making his stud appearance in one of the city’s best clubs? We didn’t think so.
Above you can see Richard Gere clad in a tweed suit and sporting some croc boots. Who’s the pretty lady he’s dancing with? Judy Licht, an entertainment journalist. If there’s a party going on in NYC, she’s going to be there. And you best believe she’ll be there with a little arm candy to boot. Looks like an epic night.
A perfect duet
As we all know, Liza Minnelli is born for the spotlight. You combine that with a duet with Bianca Jagger and you can expect a forecast of sunshine and 100% chance of awesomeness. It’s a thrill to see such a sexy time such as the seventies showcased in color, and my, what color.
Above, Minnelli looks dashing in a red gown, microphone in hand while sitting next to classy and fab, Bianca who fashions a purple fur frock and an iris. She’s anticipating her cue as she holds the microphone in her hand. Of course, Andy Warhol has to be there. Sources say Warhol would make weekly visits to the club, capturing every moment with his camera.
Jerry Hall lookin’ fabulous
Jerry Hall knows how to draw in a crowd, let alone the camera. Need we say how? This is not a photo-opt, this is all Hall and all her glory. Poised on an ottoman like she’s modeling for Dolce and Gabbana, tossing her long, silky hair back, Jerry lived a life of glamour despite her struggled upbringing, which you can see here.
Here, she’s surrounded by men (because, hello) wearing a full lace bodysuit leaves little for the imagination. Still, Hall seems to pull it off with class and appears to be having a genuinely good time…which is always a good look.
Bianca Jagger makin’ doves cry
Look, Bianca Jagger is a goddess. Club owner Steve Rubell made sure only the best of the best could come into his club. At one point he stood outside and objectively ruled who could and could not enter. The reason as to why people dressed so outlandishly to Studio 54 was for the sole purpose of grabbing the club owner’s attention.
Needless to say, Bianca Jagger needs no eccentric or crafty costume to get into the club…she just needs a couple of doves and a gold crown. Pretty obvious, you know? Can we take a moment to appreciate how well mannered and tamed those doves are? It’s like they know they’re in the presence of unearthly beauty.
Robin Williams knows how to show his wife a good time
Who can’t get enough of Robin Williams? Before we have pensive Williams, now we have one more to his normal likeliness. Dressed in a tie shirt and holding his beloved’s hand, they both look like they’re just arriving fresh and ready to get their groove on. More so Robin, who looks like he’s already making a couple of moves.
Thankfully these two will be together well after the club closes and both have their first child, Zachary Pym Williams in 1983. By then, Robin Williams will star in movies like “Popeye” and “The World According to Garp.” May he rest in peace.
Elton John’s sideburn game
Everyone take a deep breath and exhale. Yes, the man on the left is Elton John wearing a baseball cap and…sideburns. Dead center wearing a very “of the decade” leopard print dress, is Alana Hamilton and her future hubby, Rod Stewart. Walking into Studio 54 arm to arm, you can tell Alana is ready for what awaits at the dance floor.
But what’s strange is seeing Sir Elton John without his colored eyewear and flamboyant garments. It’s in this photo that the trio arrives at Studio 54 in celebration for John signing a contact label with RCA records. Thereafter he’ll push albums such as “A Single Man” (1978) and “Victim of Love” (1979).
Not just celebrities
Aside from the celebrities and the *coughs* secret basement, the club had other features that had people flocking to its doors. One of which was its entertainment. From the opening party celebrating the premiere of “Grease” to scantily clad men riding motorcycles, Studio 54 knows how to host a party and entertain their guests.
In this charming black and white photo of lithe women, spectators watch in awe as dancers from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre take control of the New York Club. The company performed one of its works “Suite Otis” on a Monday night on November 20, 1979. It just goes to show that the club owners spared no expense to meet its expectations.
There was always something wild happening
If the dancers weren’t enough, try acrobats, and live bands. colored balloons fell from ceiling nets and women danced topless or in see-through garments in the heat of the music. Somewhere in the balcony is a rapture of laughter, along with much lewder acts. Not only did Studio 54 have a secluded basement, but they also had a rubber room.
Try not to think too hard, it’s pretty much what you’re imagining. Somewhere in the balconies is a specific area that is covered with rubber because it was supposedly “easier to clean.” Easier to clean what exactly? We rather not know, but it just goes to show that maybe all those rumors people kept whispering about may just be…well, true.
Sylvester Stallone, the ladies’ man
We saw him strolling with John Travolta, now he’s close and cozy with Joyce Ingalls, the actress known for her roles such as “Paradise Alley” (whom she and Stallone co-starred) and “The Man Who Would Not Die.” It seems anyone who frequents Studio 54 is either there already knowing somebody, or there to get to know somebody.
It was during this time that the Stallone was praised for his brilliant performance in “Rocky” and is loving the limelight. It was also during this time that the actor was married to bombshell beauty Sasha Czack. Stallone would later go on to produce films such as “Rocky II” and in 1982, “First Blood.”
“Disco Sally” wasn’t afraid to live her best life
Who says partying is only meant for the young and sprite? They obviously never heard of Sally Lippman, also known as ‘Disco Sally.’ Sure, the faces of Studio 54 are often fresh and dewy, dripping with vitality, and gyrating hips, but really, the real hero at the nightclub is hands down the famous old biddy who, after becoming a widow, decided to live her best life.
When her husband died, Sally was beside herself. Not knowing what to do with her free time, a girlfriend recommended that she visit Studio 54 “just to see what it’s all about.” Sally took her advice along with a friend. They manage to get in, and the manager loved her presence and granted her access whenever she wanted. “I didn’t dance for 50 years because my husband didn’t like it.” Her husband gone, she tossed caution and age to the wind and danced to make up for all those lost years.
All was grand inside Studio 54…or was it?
Sure, Studio 54 was the most happening place to dance and let loose. Heck, even Michael Jackson stated that Studio 54 was a place where anyone can dance and “be free.” To many celebrities, Studio 54 was a safe-haven, where they can be themselves and away from the spotlight, away from paparazzi and crazed fans.
However, as soon as the discotheque nightclub opened in 1977, it would soon close its doors. In December of 1978, the IRS descended over the elite club and they were coming for club owners Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager. In a CBS interview, quoted that the events that took place in 1978 were “…probably the worst, one of the worst days of my life.”
It wasn’t the first time Rubell and Schrager got in trouble with the law
When Rubell and Schrager opened their club doors in 1977, the duo didn’t think their disco-themed club would be an instant success. The two bought a former CBS television studio and turned it into a musical light show. They painted the ceiling black, used the studio’s old lighting as dancing features, and created a fantasy, multi-colored wonderland.
However, there was one thing missing from the club. Booze. Liquor licenses are not like applying for a driver’s license, it was darn near impossible and Rubell and Schrager nearly forgot about it. With opening night just a few nights away, they had to act fast.
Rubell and Schrager used “one-day catering permits”
To get around not having their liquor licenses, club owners Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager decided to buy catering permits to fill their club with booze. After all, it’s not a party without alcohol. They called their company the “Broadway Catering Corp” and soon, Rubell and Schrager were receiving alcohol by the crates.
However, the Liquor State Authorities were suspicious of Rubell and Schrager’s tactics, asking themselves why a disco club wanted so many catering permits. The music stopped playing and the police swarmed the night club. This was the beginning of the end for Studio 54, and Rubell and Schrager were beginning to feel it all unravel.
The IRS was nipping at their heels
Rubell and Schrager were arrested for selling alcohol without a license and Studio 54 shut down indefinitely. However, it was thanks to their ruthless lawyer, Roy Cohn, that got them out of prison and back into the club (with a liquor license). It should be noted that Roy Cohn wasn’t just any well-to-do lawyer.
Cohn was Senator McCarthy’s lawyer, and (for those wondering) was at one point Donald Trump’s lawyer. Once Rubell and Schrager were freed, they suddenly felt invincible. The feeling wouldn’t last long. Though they would have three more years of unyielding success, there was one force the club owners could not fight. The IRS.
Disco died when Studio 54 closed its doors
Two dozen IRS agents seized the club and took possession of any paperwork relating to the club’s finances. An allegation was made that the club owners were skimming money from the club and holed copious amounts of illegal substances. Turns out, it was true. Inside the club’s vault were drugs and unreported cash.
In total, there was $2.5 million dollars undocumented. Both Rubell and Schrager served prison sentences for fraud and the club was closed permanently in 1980. Thus, was the end of, not just studio 54, but Disco. But not all was lost. Schrager and Rubell served their time and eventually got back on their feet. It was just one wild party that came to a close.
Even the employees were famous
With so many big names and a famous address, Studio 54 drew from a variable who’s-who of A-listers as guests. Unsurprisingly amidst that climate, the nightclub also attracted young up-and-coming stars to fill various jobs on the staff. One such talent was film and TV star Alec Baldwin. Working as a waiter and busboy, Baldwin got to rub elbows with showbiz industry elites and other luminaries at the famed New York scene.
Years later, after staring in dozens of feature films and television programs – including “The Hunt for Red October” and “30 Rock” – the notable Long Islander could likely make it past the doorman from the other side of the line. Was his first taste of stardom the push that got him into Hollywood, or just a stepping stone along the way? We may never know.
New York wasn’t the same city
High crime, social upheaval, collapsing infrastructure… New York was a very different place in the 70’s. It was against this backdrop that Studio 54 provided an idealized respite, an escape from the gritty realities of city life. Weary clubgoers were greeted by a fantasy world of celebrities and disco. At a time when merely riding the subway was an adventure sport, the scene was set – people wanted to let loose and escape their daily lives.
Either in spite of or fueled by the unrest and political climate of the previous decade, Studio 54 could truly flourish. Offering an atmosphere of judgment-free partying, the nightclub represented an early version of a safe space. Disco safe, anyway.
It was basically the definition of “Fashion Foward”
Dressed to the nines or clad only in bodypaint, the dress code at Studio 54 was anything goes. With all the looks being experimented with and ideas flying around, there was some incredible cross-pollination amongst the thought leaders in attendance. With a colaberative culture and some notably creative people hanging out, the stage was set for some serious style.
The brief moment between Rock, Disco, Electronic, and Hip-Hop was open season for new looks. Luckily, after some decades of cringeworthy retrospectives, some of that 70’s style is cool again. Might be worth checking your closet to see if you held on to anything from this zenith in fashion. Still, the leisure suit probably isn’t coming back anytime soon.
The Velvet Rope was more like a concrete wall
The hype around Studio 54 in its heyday was so strong, perspective partygoers would do nearly anything to gain entry. If your style or friends weren’t enough for admission, maybe you could bribe the doorman? Apparently, that didn’t work. Bouncers, doormen, and other employees were seemingly immune to a generous tip. But what about other ways inside?
At the height of Disco Mania, there were even maps that purported to lead readers to the club through underground tunnels in the New York City Subway system. While you’d probably have a greater chance of finding an alligator down there (or being struck by lightning) but it was worth a shot. Connections, attempts at over-the-top fashion, and even personal fame didn’t guarantee entry. Numerous celebrities were allegedly turned away at the door. Tough break.
More than a nightclub, it was a cultural touchstone
Few things say disco more than John Travolta’s performance in “Saturday Night Fever.” His indelible portrayal of a young Brooklynite who just wants to dance has stuck with audiences forever. It’s worth noting that both the film Studio 54 opened in the same year, 1977. The echo chamber of cultural significance was running high, and disco fueled, well, more disco.
In addition to disco, nightlife as a whole was reshaped by Studio 54’s all-too-brief run. Almost twenty years later, a new club culture would emerge in New York. This time, its epicenter wouldn’t be in Midtown Manhattan. Having spread across communities, the rise of techno music would be decentralized. All thanks to the spark provided by Studio 54’s incandescent energy.
It was the bridge between the Golden Age of Hollywood and today
Elizabeth Taylor, Truman Capote, Salvador Dali… what do they all have in common? They were all regulars at Studio 54. Any night could find old Hollywood royalty partying alongside a crazily, irresponsibly, inappropriately young Drew Barrymore. But that’s a whole different story. Either way, the torch was actively being passed between the last generation of big glamour and the new, burgeoning punk rock sensibilities of the late 70’s.
By the time the club shut its doors for good, the change in pop culture and American society was near complete. The old guard had ceded the reigns to the hippies and punks. The new freedom and self-expression would be short-lived, as other crises would soon engulf the nation. Still, for that brief moment, Studio 54 was like the last flash of brilliance from the icons of the 50’s as their star went supernova.
It wasn’t exactly the most creative name
Located on, duh, 54th street, Studio 54 displayed a shocking lack of inventiveness when it came to naming. Groundbreaking in almost every other way, the moniker Studio 54 just kind of worked. Situated in Midtown Manhattan, some of the busiest and most expensive real estate in the world, the nightclub was steps away from Times Square, the “Crossroads of the World.”
In those days, the neighborhood around Midtown wasn’t exactly the kind of place you might feel safe or comfortable. Still plenty gritty, the city would be decades away from the M&M’S Store and Disney characters roaming the streets. This was definitely more like sketchy Elmo. Regardless of the issues, Rubell and Schrager were all about repping NYC and that’s exactly what they did.
The strict door policy even inspired an early diss track
Decades before East Coast/West Coast rivalries, Kanye or Drake, Nile Rodgers and his “Chic” bandmates were shut down by the Studio 54 bouncers. Even though they had been invited by style legend and club regular Grace Jones, the man on the door just wasn’t hearing it. After retreating to find another place to party for the night, an idea was born.
A prime example of pulling the “do you know who I am?” card, the band came up empty. Rodgers changed the doorman’s harsh and not radio-edit friendly words “—- off!” to “Freak out!”, and bingo – the chorus was basically complete. The incident inspired what became one of the genre-defining hits of the entire disco era. Isn’t it ironic? Don’tcha think? (sorry, different song)
The Studio 54 name lives on… in SPACE!
Terrestrial radio is so last millennium. First beaming out in 2008, satellite radio listeners can rock those throwback jams all night long with Studio 54 Radio on Sirius XM radio. While you won’t bump into any famous faces, there’s no long line or doorman to worry about. The Studio 54 brand has proved to be so durable, it’s even launched several other nightclubs under the same name in places as far-flung as Las Vegas. As short lived as the original, it’s tough to capture lightning in a bottle. Twice.
Still today, the very name conjures images of unbelievable excess, an apex of celebrity culture, and back-room antics that go unspoken. In this age of cellphone cameras and TikTok videos, the very freedom and annonimity that made Studio 54 possible will likely never happen again. In the end, maybe that’s not such a bad thing, is it?
The disco backlash was even bigger than the wave
In July of 1979, many Americans had just about enough of disco. They didn’t want to get down, they didn’t want to boogie, and they certainly didn’t want to put on their disco shoes. Light-up dancefloors, open shirts, and lots of polyester were gradually giving way to punk, glam, and other forms of expression. The pushback was so strong, one radio host even saw an opportunity. After advertising entry to a White Sox vs. Tigers doubleheader for just $0.98 with a disco record. Thousands of baseball fansturned out to show their feelings for disco.
The great American passtime turned into a sort of fever dream nightmare that night, with over 50,000 disco-haters crowding the stadium. Possibly representivie of broader social issues and the rejection of the freedom and openness of disco culture, the event did not end well. After the DJ, Steve Dahl, used an overly enthusiasic share of explosives to destroy some of the disco records in the outfield, thousands of angry fans stormed the field. Maylay insued, and disco pretty much never recovered.