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Exploring the dazzling and dark history of New York City's Studio 54


If you’ve ever been inside the Broadway theatre on 54th St. in Midtown, Manhattan, it might be hard to believe that Studio 54 has ever been a nightclub in its nearly century-long history. From its vintage detailing and cascading chandeliers to its very location amid the theatre district of New York City, you would never have any reason to guess that it had a life outside of housing some of the city’s best Broadway shows.

However, this theatre, which began as an opera house and was later turned into a TV studio, had a shelf life as a nightclub that was as short as it was iconic. From the years of 1977 to 1980, Studio 54 became a nightclub that welcomed the world’s hottest stars. 

Club co-founder Ian Schrager explains some of its impact on popular culture: “It was the beginning of the age of celebrity. Now, 40 years later, the idea of celebrity has become a parody of itself. When we got started, you became a celebrity when you accomplished something. Now, you become a celebrity without accomplishing anything. It’s completely upside down, but I guess that’s the way it is now.”

When the club opened in 1977, it had already been functioning as a TV studio owned by CBS since the 1940s, attracting celebrity attention already. It was somewhat of a smooth transition into the era of the nightclub addition. “Any celebrity that came into New York made a stop on The Tonight Show, then made a stop at Studio 54,” said Schrager. “That’s just the way it was.”

This is especially true considering that it took six weeks and $400,000 to transform the space. The photography, style, and patrons all contributed to influencing style and pop culture both in the city and beyond, with famous guests consisting of Woody Allen, Bella Abzug, John Belushi, Leonard Bernstein, Jacqueline Bisset, David Bowie, Debbie Harry, Elton John, Grace Jones, Tom Jones, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Calvin Klein, Lou Reed, Mick Jagger, Bette Midler, Liza Minnelli, Freddie Mercury, Al Pacino, Dolly Parton, Elizabeth Taylor, Andy Warhol, Robin Williams, and more. Seriously, that’s not even scratching the surface.

Although there was technically a no photo policy in the club, the many photos that were taken inside have become some of the best historical images of the time. “I remember Andy Warhol walking around with his camera, in a funny kind of way, you might want to say he was the one who invented selfies,” said Schrager of the photography in the club. “When I see a Studio 54 photo, it’s just like yesterday.”

However, unfortunately, all fun things must come to an end, and in 1980, that’s what happened for Schrager and his co-founder Steve Rubell. In 1979, the two were arrested, and in June 1979, were indicted on charges of skimming $2.5 million, as much as 60% of Studio 54’s receipts over the past two years. The club closed with a final party in February of 1980. 

When it comes to the club’s reputation, Schrager said: “People thought we were celebrating drugs, far from it. When you have a club, it’s supposed to be cool, subversive to the status quo, a little arrogant, underground, we thought that was a way to present it. It’s a bit subversive and risque, but that’s what a nightclub is about… Would I do it again? Not if it ended up in the same way. Knock on wood.”

Nowadays, you can see any number of Broadway shows in the same iconic location, as the nonprofit Roundabout Theatre Company has operated Studio 54 as a Broadway theatre since 1998, where they showcase both musicals and plays.

Like so many of New York City’s historical locations, there is a sense of life and living history within the space, even if it doesn’t function as it once did. And unlike many iconic locations around the city, this one isn’t closed off to the public or shut away. In fact, you can walk its very halls and try to capture some of the magic.

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