Beyond the Velvet Rope: Matt Tyrnauer explores the short-lived heyday of Studio 54

Movies Features

As a fairly new arrival in Manhattan and soon-to-be-dropout of my second college, I had but one ambition in life in 1977: to work in a disco. It was all tied up in my coming out gay and a love for dancing to the innovatively sexy, funky sound then being invented by the likes of Donna Summer, Grace Jones, Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, Barry White and myriad other keepers of a throbbing nocturnal, urban beat. I was an acting student at NYU/Stella Adler Studio when I saw a posting on the office bulletin board, calling for “Actor/Singer/Dancer/Model” types to work in a new disco opening up on 54th Street in April. I joined a cattle call of young, beautiful and eager hopefuls stretching all the way down outside a huge theatre. I waited in this colorful throng and was finally ushered in to see a wild Brazilian woman named Carmen D’Alessio, her legs, encased in thigh-high python boots, resting on the desk where she sat, a comely lad by her side.

“Dahling!” she said. “Where are joo from?’” Well,” I began, “I moved here recently from L.A…” “Oh, L.A.!” she cried, “My boyfriend, Rick, here, he is from L.A. Joo are hired!”

And that is how, not long after, I found myself on opening night of the most legendary nightclub ever, in a sleeveless vest, skimpy shorts, sneakers and a campy bellboy cap, a busboy at Studio 54.

Matt Tyrnauer, who last year made the wonderful doc Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood about the notorious pimp to the—mostly gay—stars and is now working on one about Roy Cohn, has created the definitive account of this definitive club. It only lasted a few years but was truly star-crossed, as it both captured and indeed was the zeitgeist in a supposedly decaying NYC, where a feckless, often drug-fueled hedonism was an element, small or large, of nearly every urban resident’s life. Studio 54 is also the story of the friendship between its two creators, Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell, the former so adept at business and yet so taciturn he could have been played by Robert De Niro, the latter more like Dom DeLuise. They enjoyed sensational success and then crashed and burned, winding up in jail for tax evasion.

Watching the film brought back floods of new—and even suppressed—memories to this one-time avid party boy who has somehow still managed to recall so much. What I experienced, for a few nights as employee and then many more as an addicted patron of this pleasure palace, stamped itself too firmly on my being for it to be food for forgetfulness. So it was a pleasure to meet Tyrnauer and hear him describe how he became the official chronicler of this small but entirely incredible chapter of New York nightlife, which somehow had a resounding effect around the world.

After I described my hiring to him, he said, “Wow! Yes, Rick! Carmen [the party consultant, who basically created the club’s ineffable success, stirring together just the right mix of the famous, rich, artistic and gay by combining her rolodexes] was just talking about Rick, the love of her life, with “his big dick!” [laughs] And what you say is true, because even today you can go into one of Ian’s hotels and the staff will be young and beautiful [and sometimes inept through total inexperience, I would add]. Yes, so much of what they created—the casting of staff, the definitive door policy, etc.—have had an effect that is still around. I have known Ian Schrager for a while now—we both have an obsession with design. But I never talked to him about Studio and I think that was attractive for him, because that’s what everyone wants to ask him about.

“I was never that interested in clubs to begin with. I like to talk when I go out and it’s impossible with the music and noise. And I felt I knew enough about it and didn’t need to know anymore. He has never spoken about it, really, so I thought: Well, the era is very interesting to me. I think it’s a good time to reassess the deeper meaning of Studio 54 and having his participation was irresistible.”

The rest of our interview follows.

Film Journal International: There were certain incidents that didn’t make it into your film and I personally witnessed, like Margaux Hemingway and her then-husband Errol Wetson being the ones who really started the party on opening night because everyone was too cool to get on the dance floor. But DJ Richie Kaczor—or was it Nicky Siano—threw on Marvin Gaye’s cooking “Got to Give It Up” and she hit it, doing a fabulous hustle and looking a goddess with the perfect shag haircut and Giorgio Sant’Angelo pink and turquoise spandex disco dress. Sadly, at the end of the night, I saw her being carried out as I left, totally unconscious and a total mess, a chilling precursor of her own untimely end. Also, there was an infamous drag party for the club’s A-list elite—Liza, Andy, Bianca, etc.—thrown by Halston at his townhouse that was top secret—no press invited, as drag was far more transgressive then than it is now. But it truly reflected the way Studio and its patrons pushed the sex and gender envelope way back when, with the men coming as women and vice versa. I was trying to imagine Ian in a dress!

Matt Tyrnauer: Someone mentioned that to me, but it was sketchy. Actually, oh yes, Ian told me about it. He did not go in drag and was kind of freaked out that night.

FJI: Did he have a lot of memorabilia from that period?

MT: Not really, but back then he used a clipping service and kept box after box of clippings from publications around the world. Tens of thousands of them, untouched since the 1970s and that was fascinating. A lot of the newspaper headlines you see in the film are taken from his collection.

He had some things, some scrapbooks. But we found a lot more photographs from outside photographers who had licensed them, a lot which have never been seen before, alternate takes of more familiar shots. We went through hundreds of thousands of photos and tried to pick ones that were not the usual angle .But some—like the one of Bianca Jagger riding the white horse at her birthday party—are so iconic that we had to use them. Oh, and finding the 16mm film footage taken inside during a typical night there was really special.

FJI: How long did you work on this film?

MT:A year and a half, and for a documentary that’s very quick. It was produced and financed by A&E Indie Films, they gave us a budget.

FJI: Along with the star power, glamour and music, 54 became symbolic of a certain post-Pill, pre-AIDS decadence, with rampant drug use and sex happening anywhere. I remember being there one night when Bianca staggered in late, dressed in a very Marlene Dietrich tuxedo. A topless blonde was gyrating on the shoulders of model Sterling St. Jacques [the black model/dancer in the fashion shoot scene in The Eyes of Laura Mars]. Halston, a drag queen named Poutassa de Lafayette who was the unsung muse of the joint, a living designer I won’t identify and a couple of others were sitting on the main banquette right on the dance floor, passing a joint of angel dust in full view of everyone, and I remember thinking, “Is this what ancient Rome was like, before it fell?”

And I can attest to canoodling going on in the balcony, where I worked, the ultra-privée basement and even in the crawlspace just beneath the roof where you got an incredible bird’s-eye view of everything, hundreds of feet above the dance floor. You largely eschew the juicy lore that abounds about the place.

MT: Yes, I kind of steered clear of all that. I felt there were a lot of competing perspectives about how much sex there was in the club. Some said it was really overstated, as there wasn’t all that much. And others said that things were happening that you may not have known about.

The question was whether I wanted to enter the debate about that, as there aren’t a lot of pictures as evidence. And I didn’t want to have people talking about naughty sex—that seemed kind of juvenile to me.  

FJI: Well, the vitamin of choice there, besides cocaine—famously depicted in that crazy blow-snorting crescent moon that would descend over the dance floor at the height of the party every night—was Quaalude, the loosey-goosey love drug, now off the market. I once felt something lumpy in the banquette I was sitting on. I reached between the cushions and pulled out a baggie of Quaaludes, which made me the most popular guy in the club that night.

MT: Do we really need to talk about it, though? Quaaludes are mentioned twice, but then to hear people’s nasty stories, “Well, then he took me into the closet…” seemed like high-school stuff. And did we really need to dwell on cocaine?

FJI: Any filmgoer who expects to see, say, Liza and Bianca and Diana and Calvin reminiscing about their wildly spent youth will definitely be disappointed. Although you did get designer Norma Kamali, who made Grace Jones’ infamous New Year’s Eve costume and was Ian’s girlfriend at the time. What a sexy power couple! Was it a conscious decision to make this free of celebrity talking heads?

MT: The 16mm film footage taken inside during a typical night there was really special. It was my conscious decision not to go after the usual suspect celebrities who frequented the club. I wasn’t interested in hearing stars raving about how fabulous it was. I chose much more to focus on the staff and people who put it together. And Ian is very loyal—a bunch of original employees still work for him now in his real estate.

FJI: Some of those guys, always cute but very street, were like lovable Dead End kids, I remember. And these two guys who put all this fabulousness together, which gained the approval of the chicest women of their day, were from Brooklyn, bridge-and-tunnel guys themselves, Manhattan social anathema then. They had a chain of Steak Lofts in the suburbs!

MT: Right! That’s what surprised me most about Ian and Steve. They weren’t these chic, sophisticated guys I was expecting. They were much more bridge-and-tunnel, the kind of people who would never have gotten into Studio in the first place. And I think the actual bridge-and-tunnel people took a kind of pride in the fact that these two, who were really like them, managed to pull it off, even though they knew they could never get in.

FJI: Well, they also had their own discos like 2001 in Brooklyn. Every borough had its own big clubs to go to; the whole city was so disco-mad. Even Susan Sontag loved “Stayin’ Alive,” especially in the wake of her cancer diagnoses. I remember going into a DiscoMat record store the day Donna Summer’s Four Seasons of Lovedropped, and the entirestore—white, black, Latino, straight, gay, young, old—were all bopping along to her “Spring Affair.” Very few phenomena united the city the way disco did, much more than the Yankees, Knicks or Giants. Steve and Ian may have been rather out of their element in the beginning, but they sure caught on fast, surrounding themselves with the finest in their fields: Broadway pro Jules Fisher did the amazing lights, Renny did the flowers, Richard Long did the sound and Ron Dowd was the architect.

MT: Yes! It’s a shame that Dowd died so young, and although he was the hottest architect around, there is virtually nothing about him to research. I looked and looked, and he did such a phenomenal and innovative job at 54. Also Jules Fisher’s rarely mentioned lights, which came down from the ceiling, were really new, all part of the general plan to create an entire environment.

What I really hope people take away from the film is a sense of the strong friendship that existed between two very different guys who created something extraordinary that people still think and talk about to this day, and what one could achieve in a New York that is no more. And, David, you remember so much, I should have interviewed you!