MCNY Blog: New York Stories

Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at MCNY.org

Studio 54: Behind the velvet rope

Wurts Bros. (New York, NY). [Gallo Theater], 1928. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.2.26504.

Wurts Bros. (New York, NY). [Gallo Theater], 1928. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.2.26504.


Studio 54 opened on April 26, 1977, at 254 West 54th Street. The space initially served as a home to the Gallo Opera House (pictured to the left), which opened in 1927, changed hands several times, and, by the time it was acquired by Studio 54 founders Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, served as CBS television and radio’s Studio 52 (no relation to 52nd Street, studios were numbered consecutively in the order CBS acquired them).

Studio 54 guest list, 1978, in the Collection on Culture and Entertainment. Museum of the City of New York. 2015.7.2

Studio 54 guest list, 1978, in the Collection on Culture and Entertainment. Museum of the City of New York. 2015.7.2.

Rubell and Schrager purportedly turned the theater studio space into a nightclub within six weeks, and opened with much fanfare as a result of the efforts of Carmen D’Alessio, a public relations entrepreneur in the fashion industry. It was D’Alessio’s contact list that brought in celebrities such as Bianca Jagger, Andy Warhol, Liza Minelli, and Truman Capote, quickly turning the venue into one of the premier nightclubs in the world, and the epicenter of the disco craze.  Warhol was even quoted as saying, “Every time I go to Studio 54 I’m afraid I won’t get in—maybe there will be somebody new at the door who won’t recognize me.”

While the club was known for featuring live performances from artists such as Donna Summer, Grace Jones, and Diana Ross, with known repertoires of dance hits, it also relied heavily upon the entertainment value of its DJs, staff, and clientele to continuously drive its popularity. Crowds amassed outside of its doors on a

Photographer unknown. Portrait of Bella Abzug and Lester Persky dancing, 1977. Museum of the City of New York. 2002.1.1.82.

Photographer unknown. Portrait of Bella Abzug and Lester Persky dancing, 1977. Museum of the City of New York. 2002.1.1.82.

nightly basis, as doormen allowed only the most famous, most chic, and most beautiful patrons into the club. The photo to the left features television, film, and theater producer Lester Persky dancing with politician and social activist Bella Abzug at the 1977 Beatlemania Party.  Studio 54 operated under the management of Rubell and Schrager until February 4, 1980, at which point the two founders were arrested for tax evasion and spent 13 months in prison. Following the verdict, the club’s liquor license was suspended as of March 1, 1980. The club reopened in September 1981 under the ownership of Mark Fleischman, retaining its celebrity guest list and renown as the hottest nightclub in the city.

In 2013, the Museum accessioned a number of items related to Studio 54, including event invitations, posters advertising Studio 54 jeans, and a matchbook.  The material was donated by Steve Desroches, who took advantage of New York City’s nightlife while attending college in the city.

Studio 54 invitation to the Purple Rain Tour, 1985, in the Collection on Culture and Entertainment. Museum of the City of New York. 2013.8.1.

Studio 54 invitation to the Purple Rain Tour, 1985, in the Collection on Culture and Entertainment. Museum of the City of New York. 2013.8.1.

Studio 54 invitation to Stevie Nicks Wild at Heart Tour, 1983, in the Collection on Culture and Nightlife. Museum of the City of New York. 2013.8.7.

Studio 54 invitation to Stevie Nicks Wild at Heart Tour, 1983, in the Collection on Culture and Nightlife. Museum of the City of New York. 2013.8.7.

Studio 54 Champagne Flute, 1977, in the Collection on Culture and Nightlife. Museum of the City of New York. 2013.8.12B.

Studio 54 Champagne Flute, 1977, in the Collection on Culture and Nightlife. Museum of the City of New York. 2013.8.12B.

This past spring, Mr. Desroches donated three Studio 54 door lists from 1978 to the Museum that he acquired through a collector, by way of a former club employee.  The lists – one of which is pictured at the top of the post – include the names of musicians and entertainers David Bowie, Peter Frampton, Ringo Starr, Carol Douglas, Desi Arnaz, Jr., and Liberace; Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood and the band’s financial manager Prince Rupert Lowenstein; and actress Lindsay Wagner.

Studio 54 matchbook, ca. 1980, in the Collection on Culture and Entertainment. Museum of the City of New York. 2013.8.13.

Studio 54 matchbook, ca. 1980, in the Collection on Culture and Entertainment. Museum of the City of New York. 2013.8.13.

Not only does Studio 54’s legacy include a celebrity clientele and an aura of exclusivity, it was also known for its atmosphere of sexual freedom and open drug use. Disco developed its own fashion trends, many of which were showcased in the Museum’s past exhibition, Steven Burrows: When Fashion Danced.  Studio 54 defines an era in New York City, providing a glimpse into the party scene at its height.  Fleischman continued to operate the club under the Studio 54 name until the mid 1980s.  The space was next occupied by a rock club known as the Ritz, until Allied Partners, a real estate investment company, purchased it in 1994.  However, it sat largely unoccupied until it was eventually rented and occupied by the Roundabout Theater Company in 1998 in order to host their production of Cabaret. The Roundabout purchased the building in 2003 and continues to stage musicals and large-scale productions there.

Original founder Steve Rubell died of an AIDS related illness in 1989. Ian Schrager is a successful entrepreneur, working in hotels and real estate.

Visit our online Collections Portal to view all materials in the collection related to Studio 54.

About Lindsay Turley

As the Museum's Director of Collections, I oversee projects involving the stewardship and access of the Museum's collections objects.

One comment on “Studio 54: Behind the velvet rope

  1. lagerwhat
    June 17, 2015

    I’d love to know what Abzug and Persky’s chatted about. To go back in time and be a fly on the wall!

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