Legendary nightclub Studio 54 was the brainchild of Brooklyn-born Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager who operated it during its first incarnation from April 1977 to February 1980. The two sold the business in 1980 and the club soon reopened operating until 1986, but without the glamour of its heyday.
By 1976, discomania was sweeping the nation with over 8,000 dance clubs throughout the country. Rubell and Schrager wanted to create a new nightclub that replicated the energy of New York’s gay clubs, which were more dance oriented and sexually charged. They were inspired after visiting Le Jardin at 110 West 43rd Street (in the basement of the now-demolished Diplomat Hotel), a gay nightclub that became one of the first to blur the line between gay, bisexual, and straight spaces.
Studio 54 occupied a former theater space and was transformed into a disco in six weeks with a modest investment of $400,000. Among the design team were many gay men that included architect Scott Bromley and those who later died of AIDS: interior designer Ron Doud, sound designer Richard Long (also for the Paradise Garage), and graphic designer Gil Lesser (known for his award-winning poster for “Equus”).
The club was known for its velvet rope door policy where Rubell hand selected guests ranging from unknowns to high-profile gay, bisexual, and straight celebrities. At capacity, the club could accommodate 2,000 patrons with a 5,400 square-foot dance floor and 85-foot high ceilings. Special effects included fluttering fabric flames, floating aluminum strips, neon wheels, strobe lights, and the legendary animated Man in the Moon with a Cocaine Spoon sculpture. Well-built bartenders and busboys dressed in gym shorts and sneakers added to the sexual energy of the music and crowd.
“It’s like mixing a salad…or casting a play. If it gets too straight, then there’s not enough energy in the room. If it gets too gay, then there’s no glamour. We want it to be bisexual. Very, very, very bisexual.”
It attracted many heterosexual luminaries as well as such gay and bisexual men as Truman Capote, Roy Cohn, Salvador Dalí, Divine, Bob Fosse, Halston, Mick Jagger, Rick James, Elton John, Calvin Klein, Karl Lagerfeld, Yves Saint- Laurent, Francesco Scavullo, Valentino, and Andy Warhol.
Artists who made live appearances included frequent patrons Grace Jones and Donna Summer as well as Sylvester, James Brown, Gloria Gaynor, and the Village People. In 1979, Rubell and Schrager were arrested for tax evasion, and the club closed in February 1980 with “The End of Modern-day Gomorrah” party. During its second incarnation, Studio 54 was host to emerging artists including Culture Club (with lead singer Boy George), Duran Duran, Madonna, Menudo, and Wham! (with lead singer George Michael).
In 1998, the Roundabout Theatre Company, retaining the name Studio 54, took over the former space with the opening of its production of Cabaret starring Alan Cumming. The basement of the former club was converted to the cabaret in 2012 now named Feinstein’s/54 Below due to its alliance with Michael Feinstein.