Saturday, March 9, 2019
Matt Tyrnauer | Studio 54
the damned looking into paradise
by Douglas Messerli
Matt Tyrnauer (director) Studio 54 / 2018
I can’t imagine entering the magic doors of Studio 54 at the famed opening in 1977. Besides I was not in New York in those days and would—given my limited time in the city when I devoted my attention to theater and food—ever have found time to even try to get “into” that famed disco nightclub. I like dancing, but perhaps I am not as graceful (despite my 1969 studies at the Joffrey Ballet Company) as I might have once imagined. In a Brazil club, where the dancers moved with the only lower parts of the body, my pumping torso and hand movements looked perverse.
Finally, and most importantly, I am not a night person—at least I wasn’t one in the late 1970s, even if a decade before, when I did live for a year in Manhattan, I spent late hours in gay bars and participating in endless nighttime sex.
No, I watched Matt Tyrnauer’s documentary about that famed nightclub, located in the former Gallo Opera house on 254 West 54th Street, which also was used as a CBS studio years later, because I knew and had written about how my friend Charles Bernstein’s mother, Sherry, had been a club regular, dressing up in beautiful gowns and her famed John Pico Johns’ hats. When I first was told of her nightly ventures, Charles and his wife Susan admitted that they too had accompanied her a couple of times into the glorious halls where into so very few ordinaries were admitted. They described it as truly boring, as I imagine they might truly have perceived it, since their interests do not concern the drugs, sex, and generally revelry that characterized the activities of the place.
Sherry does not appear in this documentary, although many figures with whom she was photographed do, including her dear friend, Disco Sally (the former day-time lawyer, Sally Lippman [see My Year 2006]). Photographs with the Studio 54 celebrity denizens, which Sherry collected on the walls of two bedrooms in her Central Park West home, was clearly one of the major activities of owner’s Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager’s perks—and of course a publicity tool that made it clear that anyone of importance was attending their highly theatrical studio events.
Indeed, Studio 54 was not so much a disco bar—indeed Rubell and Schrager obtained an actual liquor license very late in the club’s existence, preferring to rely instead on a day-to-day catering permit that allowed them to serve liquor—as it was a grand theater experience in which anyone who got through the doors could participate. The waiters and barboys all appeared in white shorts only, and the dance floor was placed on what had been the stage. In the balconies people might watch, have sex, and do whatever else they might wish to.
If, at first, I might have dismissed this over-the-top, anything-goes club experience, I gradually began to perceive that these two gay men had, in fact, created a kind of gay-trans-heterosexual space that allowed for whatever one wanted to do, not so very dissimilar to the gay bars I had attended (without all the stars and hype) a decade earlier, when I night visited, not far from the now-revered small Stonewall bar, a big gay bar near the docks on the lower West Side, which contained a back room where, at a certain witching hour, everyone broke loose into a huge orgy of twisting and turning bodies. Anyone who was willing went along to do any kind of sexual act one might have imagined. I loved it. It was a far less theatrically-conceived version of Studio 54. No one there knew who anyone was (you just had to be good-looking or at least attractive to your neighbor) while in Studio 54 there were many well-known figures (not always so beautiful but gloriously famous) surrounded by the beautiful nobodies. For those within, everyone was equal; as one commentator put it, “we danced with the entire club.”
In short, what Rubell and Schrager were able to create was a kind of back room with not only lovely figures but celebrities, lights, music, dance, theater (most of the design and lighting had been created by theater people). You could be a grand dame voyeur as was Sherry, or a mad bacchante, or you could be, as the documentary voices speak in refrain, anything or anyone you wanted to be—if only you were blessed by entry.
As this film surmises, however, that issue, the permission or lack of entery, was one of the downfalls of this paradisiacal world. As Schrager puts it, those on the outside were the like the “damned looking into paradise.” And that hierarchy brought with it a smoldering hostility which ultimately worked against the Brooklyn gay friends who had made this hedonistic world possible.
There were numerous other problems: the drugs Rubell used to lure many of the celebrities in were so obvious that he often simply hid them in his coat.
The very fact of so much press coverage made authorities aware of how they had abandoned the liquor codes. And the vast amounts of money that they daily accumulating surely led the government to question their taxes.
These were the issues which ultimately led to the arrest of the two owners and their later imprisonment. That and the absurd procedures of one of the most horrific lawyers of all time, Roy Cohn, who led the Rosenberg’s to their death, supported Joseph McCarthy, and was also a personal mentor to now President Trump. He was a kind of monster which these Brooklyn boys should have stayed as far away from as they might. But then Cohn was gay, and, I suppose Rubell and Schrager were drawn to him for that very reason. His strategies, involving government officials who had attended the club, brought them into a world of which they were totally innocent, leading to even darker vengeance.
Perhaps even worse, was their timing. It might have been dangerous to attend such gay orgys, as I did, in the late 1960s. But by the late 1970s, hosting a huge gay-heterosexual orgy at the vast scale of Studio 54 was deadly: AIDs had already shown its ugly face. Both Cohn and Rubell died of it, as did many of the Studio 54 participants. The damned, those who might not be permitted entry, were perhaps saved by that very restriction.
It might be interesting to see how many of the Studio 54 participants are still live today. Some of the most famous patrons—Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, Freddie Mercury, Elizabeth Taylor, Robin Williams, Lou Reed, and so many others, have died for various reasons, many of them having to do with sex. Yet, even if Studio 54 may have been a special place to celebrate one’s personal identity, it also reflected a darker image upon the entire culture than this film seems to suggest.
I must, finally, admit, I too have been to Studio 54, now a theater again owned by Roundabout, where I saw, perhaps significantly, an excellent production of Waiting for Godot.
Los Angeles, March 9, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (March 2019).