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Studio 54 - An assault on the senses

Studio 54 - An assault on the senses

Picture this - It's 8 PM. The year is 1977. It is New Year's Eve. And you're in New York City. You slip your feet into a shiny new heel or button up your crisp white shirt. You get a good look at yourself in the mirror, add an extra layer of cologne or lipstick before you head out the door.

You arrive at a street in Midtown Manhattan. It is lined with all sorts of shops; it would have been a busy street during the day. You join your friends standing outside an abandoned theatre and before you have the chance to second guess why you aren't at any of the swankier clubs on more expensive streets you get swooshed into the cyclone of a crowd that is headed towards a velvet rope. 

The other side of the rope was a majestic vacuum of silence while on your side, it was pure chaos. All that everyone present wanted was to get past that rope and into that vacuum beckoning with its mystique.

There is a small man of medium build wearing a grey puffer jacket that reached well below his knees, his hair is all over the place but his eyes keen and alert. He is your key to the world beyond the rope, the one that decides how your New Year's Eve turns out. It's your turn now, you stand confidently and give out a warm smile. There is an aura around you that the keeper of the gates has just taken note of. He lets you in while he says no to those behind you, you and your friends heave a sigh of relief and walk past those huge black doors and into the abyss.

A scintillating lobby filled with fresh flowers directs you to a coat check area which you can see is in pure mayhem. You can see people walking towards a tunnel, like a moth to a flame, and are either throwing their coats or thrusting them onto the counter before running off into it. You follow suit. Before you know it, your senses get bombarded with information. The tunnel is pulsating with music, lights and pure anticipation. 

You and your friends pass through the tunnel in awe and reach the entrance to what can only be described as otherworldly. 

There are people from all ages of adulthood, all walks of life and all shades of skin. The dance floor is packed with people moving to the music that sounds more divine than thumping. The lighting is magnificent and there is a literal sunset you can see inside the club. You cannot see the roof as it extends upwards to eternity. The space is sprawling and impeccably decked. There is a mysterious breeze blowing through the club, making you feel like you're at a beach.

You can see Diana Ross shaking a leg on the dance floor with a group of people that look just as stunned to be in her presence as you. You spot Andy Warhol in the gallery above taking a look at what is unfolding below on the dancefloor and decide he is probably getting inspired for his art. You get to your booth and the living daylights get knocked out of you as you realise you will be sharing it with Cher and her company due to lack of space. Your heart skips another beat when you notice that your neighbouring booth is playing host to the Rolling Stones. There are bankers, designers, actors, singers, rappers, somebodies, and nobodies all rolled into one ecstatic night. The biggest thing that has the lion's share of your attention, however, is the dance floor - every inch of that vast floor is covered with heaps and heaps of glitter!

There is glitter all around you. Glitter being kicked up by those dancing. Glitter on the clothes of those sitting. Glitter on the busboys back. Glitter on the bar counter. And even before you can let that sink in, you notice that your hair is spangled with glitter too.

The sun rose and set inside the club. There was fog, snow, smoke, thundering music and expensive fragrance in the air. 

You were at the most notorious club in history. 'Studio 54' and the only phrase that could ever come close to describing it would be, 'An assault on the senses'.

Studio 54, dubbed as the Modern-day Gomorrah had a short stint of 33 months beginning in 1977. But the short period was enough to propel it into the hall of fame reserved for eccentric places, parties, cultures and nightlife legacies. All the credit goes to its two enterprising founders, Steve Rubella and Ian Schrager. 

Steve and Ian helped set up a club earlier and had always been keen on setting one up that would redefine clubbing as it was known. While looking for a perfect spot in 1976, they ran into an old CBS theatre (a place where What's my line? and several other shows filmed before permanently closing it in 1975) located at 254 West 54th Street, between Eighth Avenue and Broadway in Midtown Manhattan, New York City.

They began work at a brisk pace. Within a few weeks, they rebuilt the place ground up. They retained several features of a theatre like the lighting and the lobby which proved to be a blessing adding to the allure of the club. Due to lack of folks willing to take on such an adventurous construction project, they hired sound and light technicians from the movies, set designers from the Broadway and theatre shows. 

The opening night on April 26th, 1977 came around so soon that they did not even have the time to obtain a liquor license! They blissfully pushed it to the back of their minds, with the million tasks they had on their plate. They somehow managed to obtain a day pass which allowed them to serve alcohol for the day. Steve was a force of nature and took responsibility for bringing in the glamour to the club. He was that gatekeeper in the puffer jacket. You needed to have a captivating personality, something to bring to the place to gain entry which meant there were several who did not gain entry. A lot of revellers decided to party right outside the street. There are stories of orgies, drinking and dancing that went on outside the club by all those waiting to get in or could not get in. "You must be a somebody if you got in!" is what everybody thought to themselves when they got inside. 

The staff that helped with the opening night recall the enormous amounts of stress they were under to keep the crowds under control. They say that the rush at the coatroom was so huge that they began handing out tokens from already numbered coats and that the whole night was chaos, the good news, however, was that no one seemed to care. Everyone was too busy with exploring this new world that they found themselves inside. The night became such a hit that pictures of the street with Cher waiting to get in made it to the headlines, which was the first time a club made it to the New York Times. 

Post the roaring success of the opening night the club began to grow at unprecedented levels. However, the founders ensured that they kept the crowds coming with their eccentric way of handling things. 

"It's dictatorship at the door and democracy on the dance floor", said Andy Warhol and true to his word Steve ensured they followed strict protocol on who gets to enter and who doesn't. 

Scantily clad busboys, outlandish birthday parties (for her birthday party, Bianca Jagger rode the club atop a white stallion, Dolly Parton transformed the studio into a farm for hers and Elizabeth Taylor decked it up with gardenias) drugs, dancing, sex and drama came tied with the brand Studio 54. 

The greatest thing about the studio was how it could turn a boring middle school teacher into the most electric person on the dance floor for a night. They used to say that Studio 54 had a way of changing people. People threw their clothes off the balcony, made out with the busboys or a stranger and if they were lucky enough they could head to the guarded basement or secret rooms reserved for those in the higher rung of the club. It was a place you went to indulge yourself in some visceral entertainment or illicit substances. There were maps sold outside the premises that explained the club and its many corners. 

The likes of Michael Jackson, Rolling Stones, Mick Jagger, Frank Sinatra and so many other big wigs of the time were regulars at the club. Being seen at Studio 54 made a huge difference to your public image so much so that even Barbara Streisand who wasn't known for being fond of clubs or partying made sure she was there at least once. Another feather in the cap for the studio was how they did not restrict the crowd's flow, which enabled the rich and famous to mingle amongst regulars. The atmosphere this created was an excellent place for meeting with new people, celebrity viewing, running into creative individuals or enabling better art. 

However, Steve's statement "only the Mafia earns better," caught the eye of the FBI in 1979. The discrepancy in accounting was evident. Both Steve and Ian ended up having to serve three and a half years in federal prison. The studio ran for a while later, but nothing could ever come close to the original period. Like all good things, it too came to an end. 

"There was a theatrical quality to Studio 54 that club-goers had never seen before. It touched all your senses and left you wanting more".

Written by Trishala Nara

You can follow her on Instagram @trishala_nara


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