Looking Back at the Notorious Disco Studio 54: Sex, Drugs, and Thump Thump

Also: Gaga soars in "A Star Is Born."

With a new documentary upon us about the legendary 1970s disco Studio 54, it’s time to remove the cobwebs from the corners of my mind and relay some misty, water-colored memories about the whole dizzying experience.
 

First of all, the place was everything it was cracked up to be. At a time when the country was disillusioned with our shady government and New York City was in shambles, it rose up like a miracle, a glitzy hedonism haven for escapism and glamour, filled with people of all races and sexualities. Here are some things you might not know about the TV studio turned dance palace, which attracted a conga line of glitterati starting in 1977:

*It consisted of three levels (plus a bathroom landing slash lounge). The main dance floor was a thrilling wonderland, with blinking panels descending and rising, and a quarter moon with a faux coke spoon coming down at key moments. Downstairs was where the celebrities did real coke. A lot. And the balcony was where…well, let’s just say I once sat there to relax for a minute, only to have some man reach from the row behind me to grab for my business. Why, I never!

*To get in, you had to be famous, beautiful, a media person, or know someone. I was press, so frisky co-owner Steve Rubell would always pull me in, but when he didn’t happen to be at the door, the regular door guy, Marc Benecke, would shoot me withering looks and refuse me entry, correctly sensing that I was not Bianca Jagger. The longer you stood there hoping for admission, the smaller your chances got, so I had to cook up some better schemes. I became pals with an Oscar nominated actress, and she always got us in free, but then came the problem of how to ditch her inside the club and have some fun with my gay male friends! Ah, the problems of the ‘70s.

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*Gays were not only welcomed, they were worshiped. This was after Stonewall and before AIDS, so it was a time of liberation, pride, and tons of fun, when nocturnal NYC gays romped freely and straights wanted to be near them at any cost.

*The array of celebs was extraordinary, and right up in your face. Liza Minnelli, Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Andy Warhol, Halston…everyone. And there wasn’t the kind of security celebs have now, so they were mixing with the rest of the crowd and even photographers were roaming free, with grins on their faces. One night, Rubell snuggled up to me and cooed, “Elton John and Rod Stewart are coming together later. Don’t tell anyone.” I told everyone—and that’s what he wanted! And sure enough, Elton and Rod came in and electrified the place. Another night, I was dancing with a friend, but noticed that your dancing partner could change as the crowd swirled round, and no one minded, since everyone was equal under the great glitter ball. (We’d all gotten in, after all.) So I found myself eventually dancing with world-famous model-actor-scion Margaux Hemingway, who didn’t mind! I was verklempt.

*The place also created its own celebrities, like Rollerena, a drag queen on roller skates, with a magic wand in tow, and Disco Sally, a 70-something retired lawyer and widow who loved to boogie, especially with younger guys (one of whom she married in a much publicized ceremony).

*The music pumped all night, with great songs that were heavy on the black female vocals, plus wonderful orchestrations. The yin and yang of disco hits were Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” (a thump-thump anthem celebrating a defiant refusal to care about the schmo that got away) and Thelma Houston’s “Don’t Leave Me This Way” (the flip side of that, about desperately trying to hold onto your man at any cost). Both were incredibly fun to act out on the dance floor, with lots of arm gestures and facial expressions (some of which people could even see through the strobe effects). Speaking of “leaving this way,” when you heard disco queen Donna Summer’s “The Last Dance” emerge from the DJ booth, you knew it was—duh—the last dance of the night, and you had to pull yourself together and try to sneak into a cab (or, in my case, subway) home. Depressing! But there was always tomorrow night.

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*I once went to Halloween at Studio 54 and it was kind of bad! The crowd always dressed so remarkably that being forced to do so on this night of rituals simply didn’t inspire them, and the dance floor was mostly filled with bridge and tunnel types in lame ensembles. Every night was Halloween for the core 54 crowd.

*The party ended when Rubell and partner Ian Schrager went to jail for tax evasion, and in 1980, the new owner, Mark Fleischman, took over. We all tried to pretend that nothing had changed, but eventually we had to face the fact that the magic was gone. In 1998, the main space became a Broadway theater and then the basement was repurposed as the cabaret room Feinstein’s/54 Below. I’ve occasionally spotted customers there trying to sniff the floor.

 
 

Googoo for Gaga


Moving on to a retread of Liza’s mother’s greatest triumph: Lady Gaga can act! She and Bradley Cooper (who directed and costars) have cooked up a fab A Star Is Born, full of great offhand moments, wonderful singing and acting, and fancy drag queens. (In an early scene, Cooper autographs Willam Belli’s fake tits, and you’ll never forget it.)

What I liked about this version of the oft-told tale is that Jackson Maine, Cooper’s superstar singer character, isn’t really jealous of his wife’s rising success, but of the fact that she’s sold out and gone cheesy. I also appreciated the realistic way Ally (Gaga’s character) approaches Jackson’s alcohol problem, first with dismay and tough love (threatening him to shape up) and then with a more compassionate take, realizing that he’s suffering from a disease and it needs to be treated. Early on, there are some jokes about Ally’s nose getting in the way of her success, and it makes sense that at that point she wouldn’t go for surgery, wanting to just be herself (until she becomes a sort of glorified Britney Spears).

Just two complaints: They should have gone for broke and had her say “I’m Mrs. Ally Maine” in the big finale scene (shades of the Judy Garland version). Putting in the “Mrs.” would have resonated in light of a previous scene where she irritably calls Jackson her boyfriend. Secondly, Cooper should have directed Gaga to cry harder during a certain pivotal dramatic moment; it would have clinched her an Oscar. Otherwise, this Star is both raw and dazzling—and though Gaga sings the intro to Judy’s “Over The Rainbow,” it’s closer to the Barbra Streisand version, but way better.

In Other Movie News…


Leave No Trace is Debra Granik’s thoughtful film about a troubled veteran (Ben Foster) and his daughter (Thomasin McKenzie) trying to find solace in a Portland nature reserve. After a special screening, Cooper urged the crowd to take a walk and touch a tree to restore communication with nature. (When he said this, I quickly turned off my phone! I won’t be owned by technology anymore.)

At a luncheon afterwards, Foster told me he’s tempted to undo certain news apps on his phone because the news is so disheartening these days. I agreed, saying I can’t bear reading Trump’s horrifying tweets, though I feel I need to stay in touch with what’s happening just to be plugged in. In another life-changing development, Foster told me that he’s moving to Brooklyn with his wife (Laura Prepon) and their kid because the East Village has changed and there’s a Target there now, for starters. I told him I’m from Brooklyn and didn’t really want to go back there that much, alas. I also confessed that The Village Voice and Theater Talk had both recently folded, but I was handling it okay, knowing that life brings more than one bad thing—or good thing—at a time. “I wish you ease,” he replied, sincerely. Nice!
 

At a screening of The Great Buster, Peter Bogdanovich’s doc about the slapstick comedy legend, Bogdanovich extolled the glories of black and white silent films. He said Hitchcock told him that movies had become just people talking, while Orson Welles advised him that “black and white is an actor’s best friend.” Still, Bogdanovich decided to have people talk in his doc, including Spider-Man: Homecoming director Jon Watts, who says that since Spidey has an expressionless (i.e., covered) face, Watts researched how to do blank-faced comedy by looking at Keaton’s work!

 

Eliciting a bevy of emotions, Tamara JenkinsPrivate Life is a seriocomic look at a married couple’s repeated attempts to have a baby, from in vitro to adoption and beyond. After the movie, Paul Giamatti was asked how he researched playing a guy with one testicle. He joked that in real life, he has three of them, so he had to scale it down, then he added, “I feel like a lot of the characters I play have one testicle.” That’s one more than our President. I wish him unease.

Michael Musto is the long running, award-winning entertainment journalist and TV commentator.
@mikeymusto