For 33 months, Studio 54 was the American bacchanal, an unprecedented mix of glamorous sophistication and primal hedonism. The brainchild of Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, the club opened in a onetime CBS soundstage on April 26th, 1977, and immediately became the epicenter of nightlife in New York City – and the world. The sex, drugs and disco on offer at Studio 54 served as the perfect release for a generation raised under the pressures of Watergate and the Vietnam War. Though the club was ultimately destroyed by vice and greed, its short reign defined the flashy exuberance of the late Seventies, before the scourge of AIDS ended the party forever.
In the four decades since Studio 54 first opened its doors, tales of what went on behind the velvet rope have become modern myths. What’s more, they’re almost all true. Read on for 10 of the craziest stories from the club’s legendary heyday.
1. Donald and Ivana Trump attended the opening – while a Quaalude-fueled orgy occurred outside in the street.
Among the first to appear outside the doors of Studio 54 on opening night was Donald Trump, accompanied by his new wife, Ivana. The couple had been enjoying dinner a short time earlier with socialite Nikki Haskell and her date at the iconic Upper East Side eatery Elaine’s. “I said, ‘C’mon! There’s this new club opening tonight. Why don’t we go?'” Haskell remembered in Anthony Haden-Guest’s book The Last Party. “So we got to Studio 54 and there was nobody there. We were like the first. We knocked on the door. Donald hadn’t built Trump tower. Nobody knew him in those days.” Their knocks went unanswered. “About fifteen minutes later we were just getting ready to leave, and they opened one of the doors. They didn’t even know we were waiting out there.”
The atmosphere was hardly better inside, as the couples wandered through the empty disco. “They were still adjusting the lights and fixing the music,” says Haskell. Workers had been laying down black flooring less than an hour before, and when the bulbs behind the bar suddenly stopped working, gofers were frantically dispatched to the nearest bodega to purchase armloads of votive candles. DJ Richie Kaczor dropped the needle on the first record of the night, “Devil’s Gun” by C.J. and Company, but the party was initially dead. “About a half an hour later there were 50 or 60 people in there. We kept saying, ‘Gee, I wonder where everybody is?'”
The flow of revelers grew from a trickle to a torrent after 11 o’clock, and soon thousands swarmed the building. Traffic on 54th Street was brought to a standstill as both celebrities and humble ravers struggled to approach. Frank Sinatra was stranded in his limousine, unable to get near. Cher, Margaux Hemingway and a young Brooke Shields made it inside, but Warren Beatty, Kate Jackson and Henry Winkler did not.
With nowhere else to go, the party spilled onto the street. One clubgoer waited outside with a group of friends, including a doctor packing a jumbo bottle of Quaaludes. “The doctor started handing them out,” he told Haden-Guest. “About 30 people standing around us took them, and then everybody started having this mad sexual orgy. All the men had their dicks out … the women were showing their tits … everybody was feeling everybody else … the crowd was moving in waves … all of a sudden you would find yourself next to someone you didn’t know.”
Meanwhile, the future president was up to less scandalous shenanigans inside. “No one remembered him being there the first night. He was a non-entity. He was never on the dance floor,” Studio 54 busboy Richie Notar recalled in a 2017 BBC radio documentary. Nonetheless, Trump became something of a regular at the venue. “I’d go there a lot with dates and with friends, and with lots of people,” he told The Washington Post in 2016. According to Haskell, the non-drinking, non-dancing mogul had business reasons for making the scene. “He understood it was an opportunity to be grabbed. He was not there for the drug-fueled disco deliria. He was there to be seen with the famous people, to network, to cut the deal; whilst everyone else cut the coke.”
2. Birthday girl Bianca Jagger rode a white horse across the dance floor.
Opening night at Studio 54 was an unqualified success, but the days that followed were comparatively slower. The club’s fortunes were reversed when Steve Rubell received a call from fashion designer Roy Halston Frowick, a.k.a. Halston.”It was 10:30 in the morning and the phone rang,” club associate Renny Reynolds told Haden-Guest. “It was Halston. Well, this was big-time. Steve at that point wasn’t known by anybody. [He] wanted to have a birthday party that Monday for Bianca Jagger.” Like many venues, the club closed Mondays for a “dark night,” but Rubell made an exception. “When Steve got off the phone we flipped into action to make it happen. I called everybody I knew in New York to come and blow up masses of white balloons … and I went to the Claremont Stables to arrange for a horse.”
On May 2nd, Jagger celebrated in grand style. “[Halston] only had about 150 people. The best people, from Baryshnikov to Jacqueline Bisset,” Schrager recalled in a 1996 Vanity Fair profile. One of the bartenders donned a diaper and popped out of a cake, but the highlight of the evening occurred around midnight, when a white steed was led out from behind a stage curtain by a nude couple slathered in shimmering paint and sparkles. The birthday girl took the place of honor astride the horse, which trotted across the dance floor while cameras greedily snapped.
The stunt was one of the most effective in the history of publicity, as photos of Jagger on horseback instantly appeared in papers across the globe. “It just snowballed from there,” doorman Marc Benecke recalled in a 1998 E! documentary. “Studio opened on a Tuesday. The next couple of nights weren’t as busy. But that picture started the ball rolling. It was that soon.”
The photos also gave birth to the enduring myth that Jagger actually rode into the club on the horse. The animal-loving activist tried to correct the misconception in a 2015 letter to the Financial Times. “As an environmentalist and an animal rights defender I find the insinuation that I would ride a horse into a nightclub offensive.”
3. The highly selective doormen were frequent targets of abuse, and sometimes gunshots.
“The key of the success of Studio 54 is that it’s a dictatorship at the door and a democracy on the dance floor,” club regular Andy Warhol once observed, and Steve Rubell ruled the velvet ropes with an iron fist. To achieve the perfect blend of guests for his nightly party, he often stood on a stepstool outside, selecting members of the crowd for admittance with a subjectivity that bordered on heartless. “It’s like mixing a salad,” he explained, “or casting a play.” Doorman Marc Benecke, then a 19-year-old student at Hunter College, served as Rubell’s deputy. “We had the kid who worked at McDonalds next to some movie star or some superstar model,” he said in the E! documentary. “Whether they were dressed in a festive way or they were interesting, high energy, danced well, or socialites, celebrities, models, you had to bring something to the table.”
The door code played upon the fundamental human quirk of desperately wanting what one can’t have. Those who were turned away often returned night after night, changing their outfits, hairstyles and company. Some tried to grease palms with thousands of dollars. Actress Jaid Barrymore, mother of Drew, bore witness to the ceaseless parade of lurid attire. “People were waiting in lines with the most fantastic costumes on, each one trying to outdo the other one so that they could be pointed to and get in.” One Halloween, two women, perhaps recalling the famous Bianca Jagger photos, took out a $500 loan to rent a horse, which they rode nude to the velvet ropes as twin Lady Godivas. The horse was granted entry. The women were not.
To many, Rubell and his army of doormen and bouncers appeared to be, in a word, dicks – but it was never personal. “Steve had certain criteria,” an insider later told Vanity Fair. “He used to joke, ‘If I wasn’t the owner, I wouldn’t be allowed in.'” Even so, would-be patrons often took rejection badly. Club employees were tasked with stripping nearby garbage cans of bottles and cans, lest these potential projectiles land in the hands of disgruntled guests. Benecke often needed an escort back to his apartment. “At times it got really hairy outside,” he told Haden-Guest. “Once, a regular customer had too many people, or some problem. I walked him back to his limo. And all of a sudden the guy starts choking me.”
That was a minor inconvenience compared to the trials of security chief Chuck Garelick, who tells Haden-Guest that a man once tried to literally crash the VIP entrance in his Oldsmobile. “A car whizzed by. Somebody yelled out, ‘Hey! Asshole!’ I looked and there was a rifle pointed at me. And I kind of let that slide because he didn’t shoot.” Another morning, someone did pull the trigger. “We walked out through the entrance where the garbage goes out. It was closer and we were dead. The next thing we knew, these guys were out of a car across the street. They’d been waiting and they just started shooting. Above our heads. Chips of brick flew down. We dived onto the ground. I personally tried to get very friendly with the underside of a car.”
4. Disco legends Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards were denied entry, inspiring one of their biggest hits.
Although their songs were must-plays on the dance floor, Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic found themselves unable to clear Benecke’s ultra-strict door policy on New Year’s Eve 1977. “We were invited to meet with Grace Jones at Studio 54,” Rodgers told Sound on Sound in 2005. “She wanted to interview us about recording her next album. At that time, our music was fairly popular – ‘Dance, Dance, Dance’ was a big hit – but Grace Jones didn’t leave our name at the door and the doorman wouldn’t let us in.” They waited around until the early morning hours. “We stood there as long as we could take it, until our feet were just finally way too cold. We were really totally dejected. We felt horrible.”
The men sulked back to Rodgers’ apartment just a few blocks away. “We grabbed a couple of bottles of champagne from the corner liquor store and then went back to my place, plugged in our instruments and started jamming.” Aching from the rejection, Rodgers and Edwards poured their anger into the music. “We were just yelling obscenities: Fuck Studio 54 … Fuck ’em … Fuck off … Fuck those scumbags … fuck them! And we were laughing,” Rodgers described to Haden-Guest. “We were entertaining the hell out of ourselves. We had a blast. And finally it hit Bernard. He said, ‘Hey Nile, what you’re playing sounds really good.'”
Within half an hour they composed a song called “Fuck Off.” After some lyrical tweaking they arrived at a slightly more Top 40–friendly title. “First, we changed it from ‘fuck off’ to ‘freak off,’ and that was pretty hideous. … Then, all of a sudden it just hit me. One second the light bulb went on and I sang ‘Aaaaahh, freak out!'” Released as “Le Freak” that September, the song would become Chic’s first Number One and biggest hit. Perhaps understandably, Rodgers now considers Benecke a friend.
5. One gatecrasher died trying to sneak in through an air vent.
While some front-door rejects got vengeful, truly tenacious clubgoers tried to find alternate access points to crash the party. “We would have this situation where people would climb down from the building next door in full mountain-climbing gear with ropes tied around their shoulders,” Studio 54 associate Baird Jones explained to Haden-Guest. “They were trying to get into the courtyard. … They would tangle in the barbed wire and fall to the cement pavement which was 10 feet below. I remember where this guy had really screwed himself up and they got a stretcher.” Although he had broken his neck and left wrist, he took pleasure in the fact that he had actually made it inside. “You could see him, trying to scope out the inside of the club. Trying to see it. Desperately!”
One man was less lucky. “This guy got stuck in the vent trying to get in,” Jones confirmed. “It smelled like a cat had died.” His body was discovered in black-tie attire.
6. The dance floor was transformed into a farm for Dolly Parton, complete with livestock, corrals and bales of hay.
While Studio 54 traded in nightly excess, the elaborate themed parties held on special occasions allowed Rubell, Schrager and their team to bring VIP guests’ most vivid fantasies to life. Costing tens of thousands of dollars, these one-night-only productions put the neighboring Broadway shows to shame, only to vanish by the time the club opened the next day.
Even a brief sampling of these parties is enough to scramble the senses. Karl Lagerfeld held a candlelit 18th-century party with the staff in court dress and powdered wigs. Elizabeth Taylor’s birthday featured a performance by the Rockettes, which the star viewed while perched on a float of gardenias. She was later presented with a life-size portrait of herself made of cake. For Valentine’s Day, Studio 54 was transformed into a garden with flowerbeds, picket fencing and a group of harpists. Giancarlo Giammetti threw a circus-themed birthday party for his business partner, fashion designer Valentino. “Ian put it together in three days. We had a circus ring with sand, and mermaids on trapezes,” he told Vanity Fair. “Fellini gave us costumes from his film The Clowns. Valentino was the ringmaster, and Marina Schiano came as a palm reader with a parrot on her shoulder.”
One of the most memorable soirees was held in honor of Dolly Parton. When she visited the city for concert dates in May 1978, Rubell created a rural farm setting to help the country singer feel more at home. “Steve went all out for that,” Michael Musto remembered in the E! documentary. “They had haystacks and horses and donkeys and mules running through the club.” Renny Reynolds procured most of the animals from a farm he was renting in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. “We had big wine barrels we filled with corn. I had a farm wagon we brought in and piled with hay. We had chickens in a pen,” he says in The Last Party.
Unfortunately, the guest of honor was less than amused. “Dolly came and was completely freaked out at the number of people there. She had not had a Studio 54 experience. She was real nervous about this whole deal and went up to the balcony and sat up there for a while. She was not a comfortable lady there.”
7. The Fifties-themed premiere party for Grease could have gone up in flames.
The July 1978 bash celebrating the release of Grease gave Dolly Parton’s pastoral party a run for its money when Rubell and Co. recreated the movie’s retro set. “You walked in and the hallway was nothing but lockers, high school lockers on both sides,” marveled the film’s producer, Allan Carr, in 1998. “And then you went into the main part of the club and he had all these old convertible cars of the Fifties.”
Reynolds, who had tracked down livestock with ease, had a more difficult time finding vintage cars for hire. “I called various places and it was impossible,” he told Haden-Guest. “Nobody wanted to rent a car to Studio 54. So I found this little auto museum down somewhere in New Jersey. They agreed to bring these cars up.” Six big-finned classics were parked on the dance floor, but minutes before opening the fire marshal cited a major hazard: The cars hadn’t been drained of gasoline. Each vehicle had to be taken onto the street, where its tank was emptied, and then pushed back inside by hand.
The party went off without a hitch, save for a minor incident. “There was a 1950 Chevy convertible that got a bit trashed because people climbed in and burned the seats,” says Reynolds. “So we ended up having to pay for new seats. But the party was wild.”
8. VIPs looking for extreme debauchery were steered to sex cubicles in the basement, or “the rubber room” in the balcony.
Once you found yourself inside the hallowed grounds of Studio 54, the next place you wanted to go was the fabled basement; a cavernous, dingy, decidedly unglamorous space decorated with damaged banquets, pillars of rolled carpet and set pieces from past parties. It was down here that the privileged few were invited to indulge in their wildest desires. “Celebrities headed for the basement. Getting high low-down,” Grace Jones wrote in her 2016 memoir. “Not even those who got inside the club could all make it into the basement. You’d stumble into half-hidden rooms filled with a few people who seemed to be sweating because of something they had just done, or were about to do.” Security men brandishing walkie-talkies discreetly patrolled the area, removing any uninvited gawkers. The secluded corners furnished with mattresses quickly became a popular feature.
Less exclusive was the balcony area, upholstered in rubber because it was deemed easy to clean. Exactly what needed to be cleaned is best left to the imagination. “Up high in the seats above the stalls, you could disappear into the shadows and get up to whatever,” writes Jones. “Up above the balcony, there was the rubber room, with thick rubber walls that could be easily wiped down after all the powdery activity that went on. There was even something above the rubber room, beyond secretive, up where the gods of the club could engage in their chosen vice high up above the relentless dancers. It was a place of secrets and secretions, the in-crowd and inhalations, sucking and snorting.”
9. Steve Rubell gave Andy Warhol a trashcan filled with cash for his birthday.
Studio 54’s fast and loose accounting would ultimately contribute to its downfall. In 1977 the club made millions yet reportedly paid just a paltry $8,000 in taxes. “Skimming” was standard practice in the cash-flush world of restaurants and nightclubs, but this was an order of magnitude greater than most offenders. Each morning, massive portions of the previous night’s take would be stuffed in garbage bags and hidden above ceiling panels, or smuggled home to Rubell’s apartment and concealed in a hidden compartment. The newly anointed nightclub king got cocky, joking to a radio host that “what the IRS doesn’t know won’t hurt them,” and bragging to New York magazine, “Only the Mafia makes more money.”
But he could be generous with his cash. For Andy Warhol’s 50th birthday in August 1978, Rubell gave the artist a fresh roll of 5,000 free drink tickets and a silver garbage can filled with $1,000 worth of crisp new dollar bills. According to friends, Warhol said it was the best present he had ever received. In a jovial moment, revelers tipped the bucket over his head, showering him with money. Not amused, Warhol scrambled to collect the singles.
The gift caused some tension a year later, after the IRS raided Rubell’s office and seized his financial records, including a catalogue of gifts dolled out to celebrity friends and clients. When New York published this list of “party favors” in November 1979, Warhol was horrified to discover that his pail had only contained $800. “Andy’s first reaction was, ‘You mean they told me there was a thousand dollars in there and it was only $800? Oh, I knew I should have counted it,” wrote Warhol’s colleague Bob Colacello in his memoir.
10. Rubell and Schrager threw a star-studded farewell party before being sent off to prison.
IRS agents raided Studio 54 on December 14th, 1978, seizing garage bags of cash, financial documents and five ounces of cocaine. Both Rubell and Schrager were arrested and accused of skimming $2.5 million in club earnings. That November they pled guilty to two counts of corporate and personal income-tax evasion. Judge Richard Owen shocked the court by imposing the maximum penalty: three-and-a-half years in prison and $20,000 fines.
The following February, just before they were due to serve their time, Rubell and Schrager threw one last bash, billed as “The End of Modern-Day Gomorrah.” This final blowout was intimate compared to most nights, with just 2,000 of Studio 54’s most faithful, including Richard Gere, Halston, Reggie Jackson, Andy Warhol, Lorna Luft and Sylvester Stallone. Diana Ross serenaded the owners from the DJ booth, and Liza Minnelli sang “New York, New York.” Rubell, donning a Sinatra-like fedora, piped in with a spirited rendition of “My Way,” which played on repeat during the night, as did Gloria Gaynor’s Studio 54 anthem “I Will Survive.” From a mechanical platform high above the dance floor, Rubell addressed his guests with an emotional speech. “Steve was coked out of his mind,” remembered one in attendance, “Bianca was hugging him, and he was saying, ‘I love you people! I don’t know what I’m going to do without Studio!’ And everyone was crying and weeping.”
New York Post columnist Jack Martin found Rubell in the early morning hours. “He was sort of spaced-out,” he told Haden-Guest. “He had accepted it. It was a sad going-away party but we were laughing and trying to have fun. We were with him literally until he took a car to go home and meet the authorities.” The party was over.