As co-owner and co-founder of Studio 54, Ian Schrager remembers when he knew that the New York nightclub was on its way to becoming the stuff of disco legend: When a photo of Cher, arriving for opening night on April 26, 1977, landed on the cover of The Post.
“I remember Steve [Rubell, his late partner] calling me at 5 a.m. — because I always left the club too early and he always left too late — telling me that ‘We did it, we did it, we made it on the cover of The New York Post!’ ” said Schrager, 74. “And the funny thing was, in the first edition that they had — which is the one I happened to have had in my collection — they had ‘Cher at a New York nightclub.’ And we had to call up and get Studio 54 added on to it in the later edition.”
That 43-year-old copy is one of the many personal items that Schrager lent to the newly reopened Brooklyn Museum for the exhibit “Studio 54: Night Magic,” which, after being slated to begin in mid-March until the pandemic shut everything down, runs through Nov. 8.
“I saved them for 40 years, and so they all have a significant meaning to them,” said Schrager, who went on to become a hotelier after Studio 54 closed in 1980. “I’m thrilled that this is probably the first time in history that a nightclub has its own featured exhibition in a world-class museum.”
Although open for only 33 months, Studio 54 symbolized the druggy, debaucherous heyday of the disco era, with a who’s who of celebrities — from Diana Ross and Andy Warhol to Sylvester Stallone and an underage Brooke Shields — whisking past the velvet rope of the Midtown mega-club in their designer duds.
Among the designers with their fabulous vintage fashions on display are Halston, Yves Saint Laurent and Norma Kamali, who is responsible for one of Schrager’s favorite artifacts in the exhibit: the Studio 54 jeans, with a ’54’ stitched on the back pocket in the style of the club’s logo. “The advertising campaign said ‘Now everybody can get into Studio 54,’” said Schrager. “I remember that the model didn’t have any underwear on [as he was putting on his jeans] in the photo, which was a very risqué thing to do at that time.” But back then, “a lot of people didn’t wear underwear underneath their jeans.”
Schrager’s other personal memorabilia in the exhibit includes his handwritten business diary from Studio 54 and the typewritten guest list from opening night with “a lot of names that were big-time celebrities … Everybody that was in town was there. Everybody.”
There was one surprising celebrity who left Schrager particularly starstruck. “Hard to believe, it was Vladimir Horowitz, that great classical pianist,” he said. “And he used to come to the club with earplugs on. It was just unexpected to have such a cultured, foreign person like him still want to come and see what was going on.
“It just shows you how much Studio resonated with everybody, from all walks of life … All of those different kinds of people just created this combustible energy.”
Schrager said the club’s “anything goes” Halloween parties were his favorite. “Everybody came in with the most original, fantastical outfits and really completely changed the place into something else,” he said. “We were just trying to transfer people to a new reality.”
There was sometimes also some anxiety for Schrager, who acted as “the producer of the evening” while Rubell was “the host of the party.” One tense moment happened at the New Year’s Eve party when Grace Jones performed to ring in 1978. “We were all packed in a big sardine can,” he said. “And she was two and a half hours late putting on the show. The show went on around 3 a.m.”
While Schrager is still “very embarrassed” about his and Rubell’s tax evasion conviction that led Studio 54 to close in February 1980, he is “very proud” of the club’s legacy. And he wishes that Rubell — who died from AIDS in 1989 — was here to witness the Brooklyn Museum’s celebration of the “Night Magic” they made together.
“He’d probably be out there handing out cigars, like it’s a newborn baby,” said Schrager. “He would feel complete redemption and be completely happy.”
“Studio 54: Night Magic” at the Brooklyn Museum runs through Nov. 8, 2020. 200 Eastern Parkway, Prospect Heights; BrooklynMuseum.org
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