Studio 54 was the dream become actual of two guys from Brooklyn, Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager. They met at Syracuse University, became dear friends even though Schrager was a straight introvert and Rubell was a gay extrovert, at a time when that could be even more dangerous than now. In 1977 they fashioned this place where the beautiful people came to drink, snort, dance ecstatically, and sometimes have sex in various parts of the club.
The space Schrager and Rubell chose in Manhattan, known as the Gallo Theater, had been built in 1927, and the theater history somehow held on. Rubell and Schrager didn’t have the connections in New York to get club people to work for them – the other clubs froze them out -- so they got theater architects, designers and lighting people to create a magical space where everyone from guests to managers to owners to the young shirtless male waiters knew that in one way or another, they were performers in an outlandish show.
Even watching film of the club in action you feel the intoxication. The mindless, repetitive disco rhythms, people dancing as if they’d left consciousness at the door. Everyone was welcome, but not really, of course. Studio 54 thrived on keeping people out and having constant news broadcasts of the throngs outside, who were not hip enough to be allowed past the ropes on the sidewalk. British journalist Anthony Haden-Guest, a chronicler of indulgent wealth and celebrity, says in the movie that, “It was like the damned looking into paradise.”
The genius of Matt Tyrnauer’s documentary is that the picture lets you look without a lot of judgment. Most of the people who talk in the film were there at the time. They still sound enthusiastic and amazed at what happened, but not demented or with axes to grind. So, if moral judgment shows its head, it’s from viewers, who may still be surprised at the sight of this palace of hedonism.
The film shows that Studio 54 is still a phenomenon of human behavior, and the movie is a remarkable historical artifact. You see the kinds of people who congregated there, and if you weren’t around at the time, there’s Andy Warhol in nearly every shot, Mick Jagger and Bianca Jagger, actresses Liza Minelli and Elizabeth Taylor, Truman Capote, and I suppose anyone who was anyone at the time. Its celebrity culture run wild that certain class of people celebrating themselves. Schrager was interviewed for the film – Rubell died in 1989 – and Schrager talks about the wonder of people letting loose to be themselves. And that too is an idea that resounds and fascinates through the movie; what does it mean to be oneself? Is someone being oneself all costumed up and performing, and doing it just like all the others?
It was never innocent. Rubell and Schrager learned early on how to cut corners. They were in too much of a hurry to get building permits; for months they had no liquor license, but each day got a catering license for the evening. They had two sets of books; they hid Quaaludes and cash in the nooks and ceilings. Schrager still deludes himself that the IRS went after them because they upset the norm. Not. They went to jail for major tax fraud, for stealing. The lawyer Rubell and Schrager engaged from the beginning was Roy Cohn, the infamous, slimy figure who became a New York celebrity – and who had begun his career with Joe McCarthy, the Wisconsin senator who gave his name to the disgrace called McCarthy-ism. Cohn is also a central character in the great play Angels in America.
The reach of Studio 54, the movie, is deep and wide. You can learn a lot from the film about America then and now, and you’ll also get a feel for why the place was so attractive to so many.