Studio 54 opened 35 years ago today
Having both come from New York Jewish circles -- where competitions for the largest Bat Mitzvah celebration remained tense between families -- both Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell had long since known how to throw a party. After meeting at Syracuse University, the pair had opened the club Enchanted Gardens in Queens in 1976 -- which many snubbed for its location. Only one year later, they had one of the highest grossing clubs in New York on their hands. "Steve had the kind of vision and big picture of it all," remembers film producer and Studio guest, Howard Rosenman, "and then Ian followed through, because Ian had the knowledge and the financial muscle."
With Rubell as the charismatic face of the operation and Schrager the calculating business brain in the shadow, Studio 54 was literally stuffed to the roof with money. With a $20 cover and enough booze sold to keep the coked-out disco queens from flying through the ceiling, the operation was making more money than Rubell and Schrader knew what to do with. And instead of reporting their earnings to the IRS, the team began hiding garbage bags of cash in the ceiling tiles, behind fake walls and inside safety deposit boxes.
Meanwhile, the infamy of Studio 54 seemed to know no bounds. Bianca Jagger rode a white horse through the club during her private birthday party. The cast of Grease held their release party at Studio with mustangs scattered throughout. Truman Capote would DJ, Andy Warhol would take Polaroids. Michael Jackson (most likely the most sober person in the club) would to dance all night next to drag queens and gay waiters/prostitutes, especially to the song "I Will Survive" which was an unknown B-side until Studio 54 DJ Richie Kaczor began putting it into the rotation. All this in a club located in an unpopular section of town surrounded by pornography theaters.
The success of Studio 54 had gone beyond even the meteoric imagination of Steve Rubell, who, drunk on the power of being king of the discos, he began bragging to anyone who would listen about the stashes of cash and the two, differing sets of books the club would keep. "Steve was very high on 'ludes one night, and he was being [filmed for television]," says author of The Club, Steven Gaines, "and he said on the air, 'What the IRS doesn't know wont hurt them.'"
On the morning of December 14, 1978, Rubell's loose lips sunk the disco ship. IRS agents raided the club, finding the garbage bags full of cash, along with Studio 54's real accounting books and a significant amount of cocaine. Rubell and Schrager were charged with withholding $2.5 million from the IRS -- one of the biggest busts in IRS history. A year later, Studio 54 held a going away party for Rubell and Schrager. They were going away to jail for two years, but there was still plenty to celebrate.
Studio 54 would lose their liquor license once the pair left, forcing the club to close for eighteen months (it would later reopen, but with significantly less popularity), making the night a going away party for Studio as well as Rubell and Schrager. "I Will Survive" was played repeatedly, along with "My Way," with Rubell giving a going away speech wearing a Frank Sinatra style fedora.
After the two were released from prison, they found their friends were no longer available. In order to reduce their prison sentence from three and a half to two years, the pair had rolled over on many celebrities, turning over books that documented gifts of drugs and cash -- including a confession that White House Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan was seen using cocaine and engaging in anonymous sex on the balcony of the night club.
Disco was dead. Rap was coming up. Polyester and the Hustle were traded in for track suits and breakdancing. But Studio 54's legacy would remain in tact, becoming known as the springboard for the New York party planning business, as well as the drugs and sensory explosion of the rave scene. It would be immortalized in films, photography books, documentaries and stories of aging celebrities, forever known as the place where, for a short while, art was infused with glamor, celebrities danced with the unknown, and everyone refused to come down.
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