Prairie Pop: Behind the door of Studio 54

Studio 54
Studio 54 inspired disco hits like Chic’s “Freak Out.” — illustration by Lev Cantoral

Studio 54 was more than just a nightclub — it was a pop culture supernova.

“To me, the best room in the city has always been Studio 54,” says Jim Fouratt, who ran the disco in the late 1970s. “I mean, just the physical space, and the way that they used screens and just how they ran it — it was a theater. It was an absolutely fabulous space.”

The club had a spectacular lighting system that featured towers of multicolored lights, seizure-inducing strobes, rotating light balls, roving spotlights, swirling color wheels and a huge mirrored ball. Studio 54’s centerpiece was a massive man in the moon — with a coke spoon — that descended and blew bubbles.

As euphoric partiers lost themselves on the 5,400 square feet dance floor, folks on the balconies could watch, be seen, take drugs and/or have anonymous sex. Hedonism was in the steamy air: The bartenders and busboys were shirtless, and they were highly sought after by clubgoers as sexual conquests.

“I used to go to Studio 54, before I opened up Hurrah,” Fouratt says, referring to one of New York’s other major clubs that he operated, in addition to Danceteria. “Studio was the place to be at, and to me, the core of Studio was the gay guys on the dance floor. It was basically a gay dance club — not just all the other celebrity stuff and everything going on.”

Studio 54 grew out of a business partnership between Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell, who co-owned the successful Steak Loft Restaurant chain. Business boomed in 1974 after Rubell turned one of their locations in Queens into a nightclub called Enchanted Garden. Then in 1977 they opened Studio 54. It was built inside an old CBS soundstage called Studio 53 (because the entrance was on West 53rd Street), back when classic TV shows like The $64,000 Question and Captain Kangaroo broadcast from there.

The midtown Manhattan office building that held Studio 54 — located at 254 W. 54th St. — occupies a central space in pop culture history. It contained the recording studio and business offices of label Scepter Records, which released hit records by The Shirelles and several other girl groups in the early 1960s. The Velvet Underground also recorded its debut album there, and Tom Moulton engineered the first 12-inch disco remix in Scepter’s studios. More than just a curious coincidence, it highlights how the mainstream and the underground can converge in remarkable ways — particularly in New York City.

Studio 54’s opening night on April 26, 1977 was a major media event. As Calvin Klein, Brooke Shields and Margaux Hemingway partied inside, many of the 5,000 invitees (including Warren Beatty and Henry “The Fonz” Winkler) couldn’t get in because of the mob scene outside.

Co-owner Rubell — a short, schlubby, skinny white guy — quipped that no one who looked like him ought to be able to get into Studio 54. The club’s exclusive door policy furthered its mystique, and inspired some good disco songs. Kid Creole and the Coconuts scored a minor hit with “Dario, Can You Get Me Into Studio 54?,” and Chic’s mega-hit “Freak Out” was written after Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards were denied entry.

The annoyed musicians went back to their rehearsal space and came up with a catchy hook directed at the offending doorman: “Aaaaahhhh, FUCK OFF!” Realizing it was potential hit, the Chic masterminds altered the chorus to the more radio-friendly, “Aaaaahhhh, FREAK OUT!”

“I changed the door policy at Studio when I was there, about who got in and who didn’t,” Fouratt says. He took over the club in 1979, after Rubell and Schrager went to jail for tax evasion (during the famous 1978 raid on Studio 54’s offices, the police reportedly found piles of cash hidden in the ceilings and floorboards).

“We changed the door people, we put women in as bartenders,” Fouratt says, describing some of the adjustments he made at the club. “I remember Steven [Rubell] on the phone from prison, saying, ‘Do they take their shirts off?’ I said, ‘No, Steven, the women bartenders do not take their shirts off.’ He just couldn’t get this.”

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“I had a door policy at Hurrah, I had a door policy at Danceteria,” Fouratt says. “It was really thought out, about who got in.”

More than anything else, this door policy was meant to filter out aggressive displays of machismo. For instance, Fouratt recalled a time when the blustery concert promoter Bill Graham tried to get into Studio 54, but couldn’t.

“Of course he couldn’t get in, with his rude manner,” Fouratt says. “Two days later, I get this phone call, screaming at the top of his lungs at me, for 25 fuckin’ minutes. And I said, ‘Well, why didn’t you call first? You know, you wouldn’t have had any problem.’ I said, ‘You know, there’s a reason we have a door policy.’”

During this time, Studio 54 hosted an unlikely assortment of people.

“It wasn’t about who was rich — who was this, who was that,” Fouratt explains. “It was about a mix of people, and it was about it being a safe place for gay people and a safe place for straight women. And everybody got laid. The straight guys made out like crazy,” he laughs, “If they acted like they were gay.”

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 170.

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