Studio 54: the ultimate temple of hedonism

By Carlos Mundy


Liz Taylor, Halston and Bianca Jagger (source Pinterest)


I arrived in New York for the first time in my life at the end of September 1978 on my first stop of a year-long round-the-world trip. I was 22 years old and starting a year of adventure.


I had friends in the Big Apple among whom were the Spanish designer Juanjo Rocafort who lived in a spectacular penthouse in the Olympic Tower on 5th Avenue, the designer Mimi Trujillos who was a close friend of Andy Warhol, Irma Rolon and some other key figures of the New York scene of those fabulous years at the end of the 70s.


Grace Jones (Pinterest)


THE DIVINE CARMEN


The passage of time has made me not remember clearly how I met Carmen D'Alessio, but it was in the first days of my arrival in New York. Thanks to her, the doors of the mythical Studio 54 were opened to me and I spent every night there in October 1978. I will never forget the memories of that month of absolute disinhibition because I was a participant witness of the history of New York. Of an era that will never return. An unrepeatable era.


Carmen D'Alessio birthday coming out of the cake dressed by Norma Kamali.


It is quite possible, dear readers, that you do not know who Carmen D'Alessio is. Let me introduce her to you. I assure you that you will be delighted to meet her. Carmen was born in Lima and has been a New York night czarina for decades. Her reputation for public relations knows no bounds, thanks to her ability to summon celebrities and financiers and surround them with beautiful people. Carmen is an alchemist who knows the exact formula for creating unrepeatable atmospheres. She is an exceptional woman with a captivating smile. Her overwhelming personality captivates everyone who has the honour of meeting her and her strength and energy are indescribable. She was unquestionably the brains behind Studio 54. She is part of the living history of an unrepeatable era in New York.


Carmen D'Alessio photographed by Bill King


The divine Carmen knew Steve Rubell and Ian Shrager from the suburbs across the Hudson River and brought them to Manhattan. She was the one who found the old theatre converted from a former CBS television studio at 254 West 54th Street (between Broadway and 8th Avenue) and convinced them to rent it. For the pre-opening dinner, she bought them both Armani suits at Barneys and introduced them to Andy Warhol and designers Halston and Calvin Klein. The rest is history.


THE TEMPLE OF HEDONISM


Carmen put Studio on the map by throwing the most extraordinary parties, such as the one where Bianca Jagger celebrated her 30th birthday by riding into the room on a white horse, Valentino played a circus tamer with live animals and Armani was honoured with a ballet of drag queens. Carmen knew very well that celebrities are not always rich and that the rich are not always handsome or fabulous, but when you put rich, famous and handsome in the same big room you create magic and people are fascinated by magic. That was the big secret to the success of Studio 54 where people danced and cavorted under the iconic coke-snorting crescent moon sculpture. Without counting the bacchanalian parties of the Greeks or Romans, I don't think there has ever been or ever will be a freer place than Studio 54.



Steve Rubell and Bianca Jagger (Pinterest)


To Studio 54 went from Salvador Dali, Betty Ford, John Travolta, John Lennon with Yoko Ono, Bianca Jagger, Marisa Berenson, Liza Minelli, Michael Jackson, Arnold Schwazzeneger, Jacqueline Bisset, Jackie Kennedy, Princess Grace of Monaco, Liz Taylor, Robert Redford, Carrie Fisher, Mary Taylor-Moore, Mick Jagger, Jerry Hall, Lauren Hutton, Madonna, Princes Egon and Diane von Furstenberg, Truman Capote, Keith Richards, Sylvester Stallone, John Travolta, Margaret Trudeau, David Bowie, Elton John, Elio Fiorucci, Cher, Deborah Harris, Alana and Rod Stewart, Kris Kristofferson, Rita Coolidge, John McEnroe, Halston, Andy Warhol, Calvin Klein, Rudolf Nureyev, Barbara Streisand and even Donald Trump among many, many other celebrities from all over the world.



Once you crossed the threshold of the door and passed through what was known as the Corridor of Joy where the cloakroom was located and which was the anteroom to the dance floor, the rules ceased to exist. Freedom was total and absolute, and one could give free rein to all passions and fantasies without limits. European aristocrats, Hollywood stars, financiers, politicians, pop stars, designers, models, and athletes mingled with Jersey mechanics, Bronx waiters and Harlem students. Those from Jersey, the Bronx or Harlem were only asked to do one thing, and that was to be good looking. Once inside, everyone was treated equally. There was no obsession with celebrity. Not once did I see anyone in Studio 54 ask for an autograph.


Every night was magical and full of surprises, including live performances by divas such as Grace Jones, Donna Summers, Amy Stewart, Diana Ross, Thelma Houston, and Gloria Gaynor.




The story goes that on the opening day on 26 April 1977, a huge crowd of people crowded outside the club in the hope of gaining entry to what would later become the global epicentre of disco madness and the most famous nightclub on the planet. For 33 months, Studio 54 reigned alone as the world's most famous discotheque: the Olympus of the Golden Age.




By the time I met Studio 54 it had already become the statue of debauchery. Every night the who's who of the beau monde gathered there, and if your name wasn't on the list, it didn't matter who you were, as entry depended solely on the mood of Marc Bennecke, the doorman who was one of the most powerful people in New York nightlife. People would offer him anything to be let in, but they never got in. Also, Steve Rubell would regularly show up at the door to give his blessing to whomever he pleased at the time. More than one celebrity was refused entry! Rumour has it that Warren Beatty was refused entry one night and it is known that this was the case with Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards who went home that night in a huff and composed the famous song "Le Freak"! Andy Warhol said: "The door is a real dictatorship, and the dance floor is a democracy!


Steve Rubell and friends. Source all images Pinterest


Bob Colacello, the editor of Andy Warhol's legendary magazine, Interview, published an interview with Steve Rubell in which he said: "He's bisexual. Very bisexual. Very, very, very, very bisexual. And that's how we choose the people who come in. In other words, we want people to have a great time and be very beautiful."


Among the people I hung out with virtually every night of the month I spent in New York were Rollerina, a gentleman dressed as a fairy with a magic wand who was on roller skates and was said to be a top Wall Street financier by day; and a lovely eighty-year-old grandmother they called Disco Sally who danced and danced and danced until she died on the dance floor one night. Nights at Studio were the height of performance art where it was foggy, windy, and snowy. The sun rose and set inside the club, literally experiencing the sunrise and sunset!


Rollerina


Steve Rubell was, along with Carmen, the heart and soul of Studio. During the three years of the dream, Carmen organised the extraordinary parties and Steve, the great showman, directed the performance. And the two of them were the perfect masters of ceremonies. They were a perfect team. There was a theatrical quality to Studio 54 that club goers had never seen before as it appealed to all the senses, and you were always left wanting more. For the month I went every night I recognised people doing the same thing. Studio 54 itself was like a drug. You needed to be there, and you never got tired of it, you just needed more.



LUST AND DEBAUCHERY


In the upper boxes of what was once the theatre, people disappeared into the darkness, and I leave it to the readers' imagination what happened. I only add that Studio was known as the Palace of Bacchanals for a reason! And for the VIPS there was the basement, a small ramshackle space with low ceilings where you could indulge your every desire without worrying about prying eyes. I was invited down to the basement one night by Steve Rubell and I'll cherish those memories! We were all young and cool!


On the dance floor poppers were snorted to enhance the dance experience, the trendy pills of the moment called Quaaludes were taken and of course most of the audience had access to the best coke! In the lounge the gorgeous waiters were all Adonis selected for their beauty by Steve himself and all were bare-chested as part of the visceral spectacle. One of them was a very young Alec Baldwin.


EPILOGUE


Every dream comes to an end and Studio 54 couldn't last forever. After three epic years Steve Rubell and Ian Shrager were accused of tax evasion and illegal cocaine sales and after a media trial were sentenced to three and a half years and sent to prison. It was the end of the temple of hedonism and the disco era.


On 4 February 1980 Steve and Ian's Studio 54 closed with one last party, "The End of Gomorrah of the Modern Era," hosted by Steve, Carmen, and Ian. The party was held two days before the couple went to prison where they would spend a year and a half and Diana Ross took to the DJ booth where she sang to the delight of the 2000 guests.


7-year-old Drew Barrymore


After their release from prison on April 17, 1981, they opened the Morgan Hotel on Madison Avenue.

Ian Shrager became a successful hotelier. Steve Rubell and Peter Gatien later opened the Palladium, a large nightclub famous for exhibiting artwork by Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Andy Warhol, which became the centre of New York nightlife in the 1980s.


Steve Rubell died of AIDS-related causes in 1989. Donald Trump and all the Studio 54 faithful attended his funeral.



THE LEGEND LIVES ON


In 1998, Miramax released the film 54, directed by Mark Christopher: a sweetened and superficial vision with 45 minutes cut from the gay theme (an essential part of what Studio! was all about). As one critic once said, "downplaying the gay aspect of a film about Studio 54 is like downplaying Hinduism in a film about India".


Mark Christopher had the opportunity to present his director's cut at the Berlin Film Festival in 2015 to great critical acclaim. At last, the film did justice. Last year saw the release of an interesting documentary "Studio 54" directed by Matt Tyrnauer and available on Amazon Prime more focused on Schrager's greed than Bianca Jagger on the back of the white horse and other extraordinary moments from the famous parties that created the 54 legend. Unfortunately, this documentary makes virtually no mention of Carmen's role. A serious and unjust mistake.


Recently, the Brooklyn Museum in New York had an exhibition Studio 54: Night Magic that was last summer’s success in the Big Apple.


Although Studio 54 remained open until 1986, it was never the same. It closed its doors forever in full decadence but its legend will always live on because it is part of the history of a generation.