Studio 54: The Rise and Fall of the Star-Studded New York Club

Close your eyes and picture the 1970s. What do you see? Bell bottoms, David Bowie, and gold glitter? Yeah, me too. That’s pretty much the 70s in a nutshell. Now close your eyes again, and imagine the backdrop, the scene, of where the 70s took place. Yeah, I also thought of Studio 54. Which brings us here!

Studio 54, the most popular celeb hangout in the 1970s, became synonymous with the entire decade. Everyone from David Bowie (of course) to Cher to John Travolta was regularly seen at the night club. It was a place for celebs to leave their “troubles” behind and dance with doves and horses (yes, horses).

This is a look back at Studio 54, which was basically the 70s in a wild and glittery nutshell.

The 70s in a Night Club

From a pop culture perspective, the ’70s was a wild and crazy decade. Aside from (or maybe because of) the economic inflation, the Vietnam War, and women’s rights, it was a time of wild parties, hyper-self-expression, experimentation, and a general sense of free spirit.

11/1/1978-New York: Photo shows crowd waiting outside Studio 54, the popular New York City disco. Photo by Bettman/ Getty Images

Studio 54, New York’s newest and hottest club opened its doors in 1977 and stayed opened for only three years, until 1980. And three years is all it took for Studio 54 to go down in history as being the exclusive nightclub with a guest list that people could only dream of. In other words, it wasn’t for any old regular Joe.

Bowie: Denied Access

Like most fancy clubs, Studio 54 had a red velvet rope with a chain that was only lifted for a select few. And believe it or not, some celebs of the time weren’t allowed entry into the club. Among those who didn’t get the green light past the red rope were Waren Beatty, Henry Winkler, Nile Rodgers, and yes, David Bowie.

Source: L3xicon

The wild and famous musician who created “Le Freak” didn’t write the hit song until after he was denied access into the club. Bowie was nearly shoo-ed away from the doors until one of the club owners corrected the mistake and ushered the star and his entourage in. So my question is: how did the bouncer not recognize him?

Cher was a Regular Guest

Located in New York City’s 8th and Broadway, Studio 54 was known for its “care-free” environment, making it a safe haven for celebrities like Cher to let loose and unwind. Remember, these were the days before Instagram and Twitter. For the most part, what happened in Studio 54, stayed in Studio 54.

Cher at Studio 54 opening. April 26, 1977. Photo by Vernon Shibla/New York Post Archives /(c) NYP Holdings, Inc. via Getty Images

It was a place where the pop Goddess of the time could have fun without a bunch of screaming fans and flashing lights of the paparazzi. Here, she’s seen from the club’s opening night. And she stayed until sunrise.

It Wasn’t a Party without MJ

Another reminder: these were the days of Jackson 5 and Michael’s early career (and I’ll say no more). This is a shot of Steve Rubell (one of the owners of the club), Michael Jackson, Steven Tyler, and Cherrie Currie. As you can see, a regular moment in this night club was what we would consider a celebrity sandwich.

Steve Rubell, Michael Jackson, Steven Tyler of Aerosmith and Cherrie Currie at the Studio 54 in New York City, New York (Photo by Bobby Bank/WireImage)

Little did Jackson know at this point that he would later become the King of Pop, introduce a whole new genre and style to the music, and wow the world with his moonwalk. But forget about all that; Studio 54 wasn’t about career moves. It was about wild parties and unforgettable nights (that were probably forgotten the next day due to too much drinking).

Liza Minnelli Poked Fun at His Shoes

Rumors were spreading like wildfire about the theater turned night club, earning a somewhat sleazy reputation. People were saying that its owners, Steve Rubell and Ian Schrage, laced the ventilation system with a certain white drug (that rhymes with bloke). There were even rumors that the club had underground tunnels connecting to New York’s subway system.

Source: Mashable

But people didn’t mind the rumors – they just worried about having a good time. Like Liza Minnelli, who always took to the dance floor in a pair of classic bell-bottom jeans. In this photo, Minnelli is pointing at a club goer’s platform shoes. Apparently, he asked her to dance, but after insulting his footwear, the two didn’t tear it up on the club floor.

Bianca Jagger and the Horse She Rode in On

Aside from the celebs and the hype, Studio 54 made a name for itself in being truly wild. The iconic image of the bouncer with the clipboard in his hands, giving guests and thumbs up or down based on their attitude and wardrobe all began with this club.

Source: CNN

And sometimes things as wild as wild animals were given access to the club (yet Bowie was denied…). The club bouncer let Bianca Jagger literally ride in on a horse. The then wife and muse of Mick Jagger, Bianca was seen nonchalantly riding a beautiful white horse. She was led by a naked man covered in body paint and glitter (but that wouldn’t be acceptable to show). Sorry, folks.

A Triple Threat

From left to right, we have Jerry Hall (then a supermodel), Blondie frontwoman Debbie Harry, and that woman whispering in her ear? Well, that’s jewelry designer Paloma Picasso, who was also the daughter of the famous cubist painter, Pablo Picasso.

Source: CNN

Talk about a triple threat, right? Who knows what Paloma was whispering in Blondie’s ear, but I’m going to guess that it was something cunning and wonderfully juicy. I highly doubt that she was just complimenting her on her scarf.

Brooke Shields and Mariel Hemingway

This shot was taken in 1979, at an Oscars party in Studio 54. On the left is a much younger Brooke Shields and to the right is her friend and actress Mariel Hemingway. Brooke had graced the front cover of Vogue. That and her memorable role in “Blue Lagoon” landed her entry into the club. She was only 12 years old. Yeah…

Source: realclearlife.com

But the young pre-teen model and actress wasn’t alone – she chose to bring Mariel, the grand-daughter of the most famous writer in American history, Ernest Hemingway. Mariel continued on to be a famous actress and beauty icon. And if you’re wondering what she’s drinking, it’s a soda. The club didn’t want any lawsuits on their hands. They drew the line at underage drinking.

Jaw Lines and Star Quality

If before we had the female triple threat, then we now have a male double whammy of masculine jawlines and star quality. Regardless of how they may be seen today, these two were in their heyday in the 70s and 80s, and Studio 54 was just one of their romping grounds.

Source: dailymail.co.uk

John Travolta made disco popular in his performance in “Saturday Night Fever.” The film was a phenomenon that fed the Bee Gees to the masses and gave the meaning of staying alive. But let’s not forget about Sylvester Stallone from his equally famous movie “Rocky.” This moment of the dynamic duo was captured while they walked through the club’s doors in 1977.

Like the Beginning of a Joke

So Keith Richards, James Brown and John Belushi walk into a bar… What may sound like the beginning of a joke was a reality at Studio 54. And while the lines outside the club were getting longer and people more eager to get in, these three were just getting started.

Source: worldlifestyle.com

John Belushi, the “Animal House” star made his appearance in Studio 54, which wasn’t too far away from his untimely death in 1982. And based on Richards’ and Brown’s smiles, I can safely assume that it was about something Belushi said. RIP.

Robin Williams and Andy Warhol

Many of you might be looking at this photo with a feeling of bittersweet nostalgia. Robin Williams was a beloved comedian and actor that sadly passed not too long ago, leaving many of his fans heartbroken. And by looking at his expression here, it looks like his troubles may have started a lot earlier than we thought.

Source: Reddit

But on a lighter note, this photo also features the famous artist Andy Warhol sitting next to Valerie Velardi (Robin William’s first wife). Robin didn’t look too pleased with his then wife’s intimate conversation with Warhol. But then again, in a loud club, if you don’t yell in someone’s ear, they’re not going to hear you.

Elton John Before His Rise to Ultimate Fame

That man on the right in his New York Yankees baseball cap (that today would be worn by rappers and punk stars) is Elton John, folks. But while he’s sipping on his Manhattan, Alana Hamilton and her future husband, Rod Stewart, are taking an interest in whatever is going on on the left. The trio arrived together that night in celebration of John signing a contract label with RCA records.

1978: Rod Stewart, Alana Hamilton, and Elton John at Studio 54 circa 1978 in New York City. Photo by Images Press/IMAGES/Getty Images

It was after this night that Elton released albums like an “A Single Man” (1978) and “Victim of Love” (1979). It also looks like these were the days before his switch to becoming Sir Elton John who’s always clad in colored eyewear and flamboyant clothing.

Bette Midler Gave in to Temptation

Bette Midler is seen here greeting the Temptations. “My Girl” Bette Midler entered the club scene and said hello to the hugely popular soul group. Yes, Studio 54 included celebrities of all sorts. It was really the only place you would ever see Bette Midler, Michael Jackson, a horse, and Sylvester Stallone in the same room.

Source: Mashable

A place for celebration and euphoria, Midler congratulated the music group for signing a new contract with Atlantic Records. They went on to produce albums like “Hear to Tempt You,” and “Bare Back.”

Even the First Lady Was Invited

She may have been the last person anyone would ever expect to walk into Studio 54, but yes, the First Lady Betty Ford was sitting on the glittered couch. This photo features three generations of women from different backgrounds in one photo. Oh, and Halston Ford.

1979: Liza Minnelli, Elizabeth Taylor, Halston and Betty Ford at Studio 54 circa 1979 in New York City. Photo by Robin Platzer/Images/Getty Images

Though their professions differed, all three women had their time in the limelight. Did you know Betty Ford was a tap dancer? All dressed up in glittering sequins, their dresses speak for their status. I can only imagine what the topic of conversation was among them.

The Queen of Country and Her Horse

Here’s the real explanation for why we saw Bianca Jagger on a horse. When it became known that Dolly Parton was going to grace her appearance in the notorious club, club owner Steve Rubell wanted to make the Queen of Country feel at home. So, got a local stable to bring in a white horse.

Photo by Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

Amazingly, this horse wasn’t the only animal seen in the club. It was, however, the biggest. But the rowdy club also saw the likes of chickens, mules, and dogs too. But let it be known that those animals had their share of star treatment. The horse in this photo had a wagon filled with hay and a wine barrel filled to the brim with corn.

Diana Ross Knew How to Let Loose

While other celebs were sitting on the couches, spreading rumors about other celebs, Diana Ross was getting her groove on the dance floor. This photo was taken in 1979, but before the doors to Studio 54 closed in 1980, Ross was there for one last hoorah.

1979: Diana Ross dancing at Studio 54, c 1979 in New York City. Photo by Sonia Moskowitz/Getty Images

On that last celebration before the club closed, Diana Ross and countless others sang and danced their worries away. And Liza Minnelli sang a rendition of “New York, New York.”

Another memorable moment was for a certain someone’s birthday…

The Birthday Girl: Liz Taylor

The goddess of the silver screen who managed to charm all the men in Hollywood in her day was always an icon and was one of the club’s VIP guests, to say the least. And not only was she a popular guest, she even had a special birthday party at the club.

1978: Elizabeth Taylor and Halston at her birthday party at Studio 54, March 1978, in New York City. Photo by Sonia Moskowitz/Getty Images

She was celebrating her 46th birthday, with women who might as well be a group of back up dancers as well as a cake with her face on it. Oh, and Halston, sitting right next to her – that was her fashion designer friend.

Richard Gere in All His Glory

Richard Gere was considered a fox, both before and after ‘Pretty Woman.’ So can we expect the man who played Julian in ‘American Gigolo’ not to show up to Studio 54 wearing sunglasses? Gere was wearing sunglasses at night before it became “cool.”

Source: dailymail.co.uk

Here, Richard Gere was all clad in his tweed suit and crocodile boots. And the lady he’s dancing with is Judy Licht, an entertainment journalist. Wherever the party was happening, Judy was there to “report.” While she may have really been working and getting information for a story, I think her main purpose was to have fun.

Bianca Jagger’s Birthday Party

Bianca Jagger was the former wife of rock and roll icon Mick Jagger, but she made a name for herself as not only an actress but as a human rights activist. This photo was taken at Studio 54 when the night was all about her, in honor of her birthday.

The dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, Bianca Jagger, and her husband the singer Mick Jagger, party at Studio 54 for Bianca’s birthday, May 1977. Photo by Rose Hartman/Getty Images

Bianca Jagger was never shy in front of the camera, and it looks Jagger has his eyes on the prize. The party was in celebration of her 32nd birthday in 1977. To her left is dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov. I think Bianca really enjoyed the club, having been seen on horses, with doves, and not to mention arm in arm with Mr. Jagger.

Grace Jones in Costume Galore

The ’70s faced some rough times, and Studio 54 was a place for people to forget about the outside world. It was a place for bright lights to shine down in a dark room onto the eccentric, the wealthy, and the famous. Someone who relished in that shine was Grace Jones, the supermodel, singer, producer, and actress.

Source: Mirror

Grace Jones referred to herself as a “warrior.” Jones often showed up at Studio 54 and would hit the dance floor with her eccentric costumes. For instance, here she was in gold glasses and basically resembled a disco ball. Jones was actually a fashion icon, known for her forward-thinking trends and fiery artistic sense.

An Impromptu Duet

Liza Minnelli was clearly born to be in the spotlight. And Bianca Jagger seemed to really love the attention. So when Liza started singing, Bianca took a microphone, and the two enjoyed an impromptu duet on the club floor.

Source: dailymail.co.uk

With club owner Steve Rubell on one side and Andy Warhol on the other, all eyes were on them. Sources say that Warhol would visit the club on a weekly basis and would capturing every moment with his camera. It looks like he was waiting for the right moment to capture these two.

Jerry Hall and Mick Jagger

Jerry Hall knows knew how to draw a crowd, and Mick Jagger knew how to attract the ladies. It looks like Jagger didn’t always show up to the star-studded club with Bianca. He would frequent with Jerry Hall too. Here, they attended an Oscar party at the club.

Rock star Mick Jagger (R), and model Jerry Hall are a twosome at Studio 54, a popular New York disco. They were among those attending an “Oscar” party at the disco. Big television sets were set up so that those at the party could watch Academy Awards Ceremonies. Photo by Bettman/ Getty Images

Jerri and Mick started dating in 1977. They got married a few years later in an unofficial, private ceremony in November 1990, in Bali, Indonesia.

But Bianca was still a frequent guest…

Bianca Jagger – When Doves Cry

Speaking of Jagger, Bianca was yet again seen with animals in the club. And she had privileges that other guests didn’t. Club owner Steve Rubell only wanted the best of the best in his club. At one point, he stood outside and acted as the bouncer, choosing who could and couldn’t enter the club.

Source: Vogue

The reason why people dressed so absurdly was so that they could get Rubell’s attention. But Bianca needed no eccentric or crafty costume to get her to pass into the club. She wasn’t just let in; she also had access to these white doves.

Robin Williams Showing His Wife a Good Time

Robin Williams was everybody’s favorite. He enjoyed his nights at the club, for the most part. Like here, enjoying his night with his wife, Valerie. While the two were dancing together like a happily married couple, this photographer surprised them with this shot.

1979: Robin Williams dancing with wife Valerie at Studio 54 circa 1979 in New York City. Photo by Robin Platzer/IMAGES/Getty Images

These two were together well after the club closed its doors and had their first child, Zachary Pym Williams in 1983. By that time, Robin Williams was starring in movies like “Popeye” and “The World According to Garp.” Robin, you will be missed!

Not Only Celebs

Aside from all the celebrities, the club had other features made people flock to its doors. The place had its own form of entertainment. There were opening parties that celebrated the premiere of “Grease” with scantily clad men riding in on motorcycles, for example.

Source: flashback.com

In other words, Studio 54 knew how to host a party. Here is a photo of dancers from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre who stole the show in this New York Club. The dance company performed one of its works “Suite Otis” on November 20, 1979.

Always Something Wild

There were also acrobats and live bands to entertain the crowds. Colored balloons would fall from ceiling nets, and women would dance topless or in transparent clothing. While many scandalous things happened on the club floor, be sure that there were more private rooms with even more devious acts.

Source: CNN

Here’s a fun fact: one New Year’s Eve, event planner Robert Isabell brought in four tons of glitter for guests to dance on. “You felt like you were standing on stardust,” Ian Schrager (one of the club owners later said). “People got the glitter in their hair, in their socks. You would see it in people’s homes six months later, and you knew they’d been at Studio 54 on New Year’s.”

Sylvester Stallone: The Ladies’ Man

One night he strolls in with John Travolta, another night with a model, and on this night he came to the club with Joyce Ingalls, the actress known for her roles in movies like “Paradise Alley” (in which she and Stallone co-starred) and “The Man Who Would Not Die.”

Source: Flashback

At the time, Stallone was getting praise for his performance in “Rocky” and was loving the limelight. It was also during this time that he married Sasha Czack. Stallone later went on to produce films like “Rocky II” and “First Blood.”

A More Recognizable Elton John

Here, Elton John may be a tad more recognizable in this outfit. Compared to the earlier photograph with Alana Hamilton and Rod Stewart, this photo of Elton John is more up to his speed with his current style. He was in an all matching ensemble and still looking swift.

Source: Mashable

This evening was in honor of his album release “A Single Man” which came out on October 16, 1978. The photo above shows Elton John lifting up his pants so he can get ready for a night of dancing and festivities.

Meet Disco Sally

Who said partying was only for the young and the restless? Sally Lippman, also known as ‘Disco Sally,’ was a true party spirit. The real hero at Studio 54 was Sally, who after becoming a widow, decided to live her best life.

Lawyer Sally Lippman, also known as Disco Sally, dances with young men at Studio 54, New York, New York, June 7, 1978. Photo by Allan Tannenbaum/Getty Images

When her husband passed away, Sally was beside herself. A friend of hers recommended that she try out Studio 54 “just to see what it’s all about.” Sally took her advice and managed to get in, as the manager loved her presence and gave her a free pass for whenever she wanted. “I didn’t dance for 50 years because my husband didn’t like it,” Sally said.

Rubell and Schrager Were Getting in Trouble

Studio 54 was the place to be. Even Michael Jackson stated that the club was a place where people can dance and “be free.” For many celebrities, Studio 54 was a safe-haven, where they can be themselves, away from the bright flashes of the paparazzi and screams from fans.

Outside Studio 54, owners Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager check out would-be clubgoers, New York, New York, July 20, 1978. Photo by Allan Tannenbaum/Getty Images

But the club was only open for three short years. In December 1978, the IRS came down on club owners Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager. In a CBS interview, one of the owners said that what took place in 1978 were “…probably the worst, one of the worst days of my life.”

Studio 54 in All its Glory

When Rubell and Schrager opened the club’s doors in 1977, the businessmen didn’t think their disco-themed club would be an immediate success. They bought a former CBS television studio and turned it into a room with a musical light show. They painted the ceiling black and used the old lighting as dancing features. It was basically a multi-colored wonderland.

View of clubgoers amid the light towers on the dance floor at Studio 54, New York, New York, May 15, 1978. Photo by Allan Tannenbaum/Getty Images

They were almost ready to open the doors, but there was one thing missing: booze. Liquor licenses were almost impossible to get, and Rubell and Schrager nearly forgot about it. Opening night was just around the corner, so they had to act fast.

The IRS Was Onto Them

Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager decided to purchase catering permits in order to fill their club with booze. They called their company the “Broadway Catering Corp,” and before they knew it, Rubell and Schrager were getting alcohol shipped in by the crates.

With his attorney, Roy Cohn (left), at his side, Steve Rubell, one of the owners of Studio 54, the exclusive New York discotheque, holds a press conference at the disco June 28. Rubell and co-owner Ian Schrager were charged June 28 with not paying federal taxes on $2.5 million allegedly skimmed from bar and admissions proceeds. A federal grand jury accused them of corporate and personal income tax evasion, conspiracy and obstruction of justice. Photo by Bettman/ Getty Images

But the Liquor State Authorities were suspicious of their tactics, wondering why a disco club wanted so many catering permits. One night, the music suddenly stopped playing, and the police swarmed in. This was the beginning of the end for the famous club.

Rubell and Schrager were starting to see everything unravel…

The Beginning of the End

Rubell and Schrager were arrested for selling alcohol without a liquor license, and Studio 54 shut down indefinitely. But thanks to their ruthless lawyer, Roy Cohn, he got them out of prison and back into the club and with a liquor license. But that was short-lived. The club was eventually seized.

Photo by Bettman Archive/Getty Images

Steve Rubell made a public statement that “only the Mafia does better” than Studio 54 when it comes to money. And the IRS took notice. The club only paid $8000 in taxes in 1977. On the day of the raid on December 14, 1978, the feds found a reported $600,000 in garbage bags hidden in the building. A few hours after, people were flocking the club to either to get the gossip or support the owners.

The Day Studio 54 Died

Before Rubell and Schrager were sent to prison to serve 13-month sentences for fraud, they were crooned by none other than Diana Ross and Liza Minnelli in front of a crowd that saw the likes of Jack Nicholson, Sylvester Stallone, Gia Carangi, and Richard Gere.

Source: Pinterest

During the raid, two dozen IRS agents seized the club and took any paperwork that related to the club’s finances. There was even an allegation that the club owners were skimming money from the club and were housing ample amounts of illegal substances. And as it turned out, inside the club’s safe were drugs and unreported cash. In total, there were $2.5 million undocumented.

The Champagne Room

The basement could also be called the Champagne Room – the room behind closed doors where people chose to be more discreet. And that says a lot for a club that pretty much had no rules and people did and wore whatever they want.

Source: The Independent

According to Rolling Stone, lewd things took place in the basement. There were stored props and rolled up rugs, but security guards constantly circled the area to keep people away from what went on down there.

The Same Year it Closed

The first cases of HIV and AIDS were reported in the same year that Studio 54 closed, and sadly, many of the club’s regular guests passed away. Steve Rubell contracted the disease and later died in 1989 from complications related to the disease. He was only 45 years old.

American Pop artist Andy Warhol takes a photo as he drinks from a glass held by club owner Steve Rubell at Studio 54, New York, New York, November 5, 1977. Photo by Allan Tannenbaum/Getty Images

Rubell and Schrager spent three and a half years in prison together, and once they got out, they tried to rebuild their lives and start another business venture. Schrager said that prison has the ability to tear a relationship apart, but it made theirs stronger.

Skimming Practice

Studio 54’s hasty accounting eventually led to its downfall. While “skimming” was, unfortunately, a standard practice in the cash-flush industry of restaurants and nightclubs, this club took skimming to another level.

Photo by Sonia Moskowitz/Getty Images

Every morning, massive amounts of last night’s earnings would be stuffed into garbage bags and hidden above ceiling panels or smuggled into Rubell’s apartment and hidden. Rubell got cocky, joking to a radio station that “what the IRS doesn’t know won’t hurt them.”

Andy Warhol’s Birthday Present

Rubell got generous with his cash. For example, for Andy Warhol’s 50th birthday in August 1978, Rubell gave the popular artist a fresh roll of 5,000 free drink tickets. He also filled a silver garbage can with $1,000 worth new $1 bills. Warhol said it was the best present he ever got. People tipped the bucket over his head and literally showered him with money.

Photo by Tim Boxer/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The gift caused some issues the next year as the IRS raided Rubell’s office and took his financial records, including a catalog of gifts given to celebrity friends and clients. New York published this list of “party favors” in November 1979, and Warhol was discovered that his money can had only $800. “Andy’s first reaction was, ‘You mean they told me there was a thousand dollars in there and it was only $800? Oh, I knew I should have counted it,” wrote Bob Colacello (Warhol’s colleague) in his memoir.

The End of Disco

The closing of Studio 54 and Schrager and Rubell’s time in prison overlapped with the notorious “Disco Sucks” event in 1979. Disco records were being burned at a baseball game while 50,000 people sat and watched.

Source: NPR

This event was explained as a reaction to people seeing images of glamorous places like Studio 54 while their real lives were more along the lines of “the worst financial recession since the Great Depression”.

After 40 Years

In a CBS interview, Schrager said: “Well, after 40 years … I wanted to really set the record straight for my kids. … I saw a quote. Berry Gordy said in the book, ‘If the hunter doesn’t tell the story, the lion will.'” Schrager and his college friend, Steve Rubell, were obviously the hunters.

Source: Skift

When asked about his relationship with Rubell, Schrager said, “It was a marriage. You know, I loved Steve. The first guy I talked to in the morning. The last guy I spoke to at night. I’ll never have another friend like that, never. … We went through this terrible debacle and stayed good friends. We went to jail together.”

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