Studio 54 shows how the cultural touchtone came to be
“When you walked through those blacked out doors you were in another world.”
Such is the description offered at the outset of Studio 54, a terrific documentary which tells the story of the rise and fall of perhaps the most famous — and infamous — nightclub of all time.
In 1977, at the peak of the disco era, friends and business partners Stevie Rubell and Ian Schrager took an old opera house in Midtown Manahattan and turned it into a mecca for dancing, music, sex, drugs, and any alternative activity one can imagine. The streets outside were not a friendly place–especially to those living on the societal fringe–but on the inside, every partygoer, no matter how odd, could be the star of their own show. Unlike other clubs of this time and place, Studio 54 (or simply “The Studio” as it was affectionately called) wasn’t designed as merely a dance floor with a cover charge. No, this unique venue was meant to recreate the experience of live theater, only in this show, anybody could take center stage.
After an explosive opening which attracted the minds and bodies of New York’s cultural elite, The Studio began to draw the biggest celebrities, which in turn drew crowds so big that the nightly line had to be corralled with velvet rope and tons of security. And by “tons of security” I mean “much less security than they probably should have had.” But that’s how everything seemed to go at The Studio. The employees were Jacks and Jills of all trades, stepping into whatever role they could to keep the booze flowing, the music pumping, and the increasingly high-profile guests happy. No liquor license? No problem! Rubell and Schrager got around such annoyances by applying for nightly catering permits. Bartenders short on change? Just put some money in the ceiling so that we don’t have to open the safe every five minutes. The people behind this house of pleasures were flying by the seat of their pants at all times, and as these things go, it eventually caught up to them.
Writer/director Matt Tyrnauer corrals an impressive roster of people who witnessed the magic firsthand, all of whom are still affected by their short time in paradise (the club was open for just under three years). From former security guards to bartenders to dancers to partiers, everyone who was touched by the Studio 54 understands that they were part of something special not just in the vacuum of the nightclub scene, but on the global stage. This lush locale represented a progressive shift in queer nightlife. It fueled a cultural transformation indelible to New York’s history. It was even instrumental in the birth of celebrity culture as we now know it. It put inclusivity on the front page of the newspaper, bringing class and dignity to the image of folks who at the time were associated only with debauchery.
The photographs and footage from the club’s heyday are so rich with detail and life that they could’ve served as a satisfying silent montage of their own. But throw in a pulsing disco soundtrack and some truly unbelievable stories from behind the scenes, and Studio 54 successfully brings the viewer to back to a fleeting time and place, securing the legendary setting’s place in the party pantheon, warts and all.
Perhaps it’s best summed up by a description of the hordes of people desperate to get past the “I’ll know it when I see it” guest vetting process and through the front doors:
“It’s like the damned looking into paradise.”
Studio 54 opens today at the Ritz at the Bourse.