It’s hard to believe that Studio 54 was open for only 33 months. And that it’s founders, Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell, had almost no experience in the nightclub business when they launched their era-defining disco on the west side of Manhattan in 1977. Studio 54, from director Matt Tyrnauer, chronicles this brief but dazzling period when Studio 54 was the unrivaled superpower of New York’s nightlife scene and throngs of people waited outside every night, hoping to get past the velvet rope.
The story is told mainly from the perspective of Ian Schrager, the more introverted of the two partners, and fleshed out with archival footage, photos and print media elements from the time. The filmmakers make excellent use of never-before-seen archival footage shot by Susan Hillary Shapiro and Glenn Albin - both NYU film students at the time – who had shot footage inside Studio 54.
Both from Brooklyn, Schrager and Rubell met as undergrads at Syracuse University and recognized in each other a kindred spirit, forging a deep, lifelong bond based on their common roots and shared ambition.
“From the beginning, they had this intuitive understanding that they were getting out,” said Norma Kamali, the fashion designer and Schrager’s former girlfriend. “And they were going to do something big together.”
The film, which marks the first time Schrager has spoken at length about his time at Studio 54, is very much about their friendship, and a certain kind of once-in-a-lifetime moment that they recognized and exploited. Rubell, who died of AIDS in 1989, is clearly missed. “I’m lucky that I had one of those friendships,” Schrager says toward the end of the film. “Not many people do.”
Though the pair had some experience running dance parties, Studio 54 was their first nightclub. But if Schrager, then 29, or Rubell, then 33, had any fear or hesitation about diving in, they didn’t show it. Once they found their venue, in an old theater in what was then a seedy part of Manhattan, they jumped headlong into renovations and were ready for business in six weeks. Unable to secure a liquor license prior to opening, they used a series of one day catering permits for most of the club’s first year.
Schrager and Rubell were prodigious promoters, sending out “thousands of invitations” and relentlessly working celebrity connections to build buzz in advance of opening. And it clearly paid off as the club was mobbed from the first night on.
“Something happened from that first night opening party,” says musician Nile Rogers in the film. “The message was sent out. It was like, boom. This was the spot.”
“They invited the people that everyone else wanted to be in a room with,” says Sandy Linter, a Studio 54 regular.
The pair seemed to understand the burgeoning obsession with celebrities in a way that few others did at the time. They knew from the start that celebrities would bring publicity to the club. But what quickly became apparent was that Studio 54 could become an engine of celebrity culture, making everyone more famous, or at least feel that way, and feeding the insatiable appetite for celebrity news.
“There was this paradigm shift away from reading about crime and sports heroes and people became fascinated with celebrities. It was the beginning of the age of celebrity,” Schrager says. “We were there at the right time and we rode it for all that it was worth.”
Their gift for scene making, attracting celebrities and risk-taking propelled their meteoric rise and ultimately led to their downfall, which began with an IRS raid in 1978 and ended with convictions for tax evasion in 1979. While the initial tip to the IRS came from a disgruntled former employee, many people still believe that an ill-considered remark from Rubell in a New York magazine article, in which he said that “only the Mafia does better but don’t tell anybody,” attracted the attention of the feds. Either, resentment against the club and its owners had been building since the club opened.
“They thought they were so important that they could do anything,” says Steven Grimes, a writer and Studio 54 regular.“But people started to get angrier and angrier at Steve Rubell and Studio 54 because they couldn’t get in.”
Though the two would serve only part of their sentence in federal prison, their incarceration marked the end of the Studio 54 era. Once out, they moved into the hotel business, become part owners in Morgans Hotel and the Royalton, both in Manhattan, as well as the 1980s nightlife institution, Palladium. The two are credited with originating the boutique hotel trend, which Schrager would build into a global empire following Rubell’s death.
Studio 54 is streaming now on Netflix.