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That Night at Studio 54

Tales from New York City in the 70s

Disco Sally-like woman
Disco veterans like Disco Sally from Studio 54 — RDNE stock project on Pexels

It was Studio 54’s heyday, and I wanted to go. The neighborhood Democratic Party sold tickets as a fundraiser that gave the holder entrance to Studio 54.

Standing in line was a show. Limousines pulled up to the curb, and someone beautiful or famous or both got out, the security guards muscled a clearing in the line, and the VIP sashayed in. The rest of the poor schmucks waited, hoping they might be chosen to pass the velvet ropes.

Part of the cachet was to be selected for entrance to Studio 54. The line guardians didn’t want suburban tourists from Jersey or plain and ordinary people. I lived in Manhattan but I didn’t think I’d been there long enough to have shucked my Midwestern accent or demeanor, and I didn’t think I was cool enough. But I had a ticket.

Like everything else, one could buy one’s way in, with cash and a contact.

The nightclub had rotating lighted poles. The beats and bodies pulsated and sweat poured. The tempo on the floor quickened. I swayed. Nobody could sit still.

The waiters were hunky young men with short, spangled boxer trunks and bare chests, appealing to both the gay men and the hetero women, fluidly moving in and out of the crowd, carrying drinks and a lot of cash.

I must have separated from my friend because I don’t remember her the rest of the evening. The club was as hedonistic as advertised. Bianca Jagger was there, and I played the game of naming that celebrity through the first drink, and by the second drink, I didn’t care.

I was whisked onto the dance floor and soon was dancing with whoever was next to me, or dancing with everyone, or dancing by myself, I couldn’t tell. The lights were changing color and beaming around the room, and the dancers looked shimmery and exotic and grotesque and interesting and dark, and we were. We all were. We were not individuals but part of the scene.

I went to the lady’s room and there was a trail of cocaine on the counter, and the woman snorting it up with a rolled bill asked me if I wanted a line. I think I declined. But, the evening blurs, so I’m not entirely sure about the details.

I remember Disco Sally, a tiny septuagenarian grandma and lawyer who was neither rich nor beautiful but became famous as the partying cougar. She was draped around the neck of her muscle man of a dance partner, twenty-something. Her hands were clasped, and he danced her around the floor like a human pendant. Everyone laughed and clapped. She exuded joy as an unlikely celebrity in an unlikely place.

I went upstairs to the balcony. Studio 54 was originally built in the 20s and eventually repurposed into a CBS sound stage until it became Studio 54, the nightclub.

Although debauchery casually took place upstairs, I mostly saw couples in theater seats, chatting, watching the dance floor from a bird’s eye view. The floor of the balcony was famously rubberized so it could be hosed down later.

Dancing and drinks and drugs and lights and music and time all blend. Studio 54 got going late and kept going until almost dawn.

Somehow, I got home. The west side subway ran all night, most subway lines did, but I took a cab home. I was not clear-headed enough to manage late-night public transit in a still-dicey New York City neighborhood.

I did see Andy Warhol, but not then.

I passed him on the street, with his wild hair — or wig — and thought how unmistakably Andy Warhol he was. My cousin and I would trade sightings. “I saw Diana Ross walking down 5th Avenue!” “Jackie O. was hailing a cab on Park!”

A couple of postscripts to my Studio 54 experience:

The first couple years I lived in New York City long-lost friends and relatives emerged from obscurity to visit me in New York and crash at my apartment for a night or two. This included one flight attendant — stewardess, then — who was a third cousin from Sweden. She stayed a few days specifically to go to Studio 54.

I told her how selective the guardians of the velvet rope were, but I didn’t take into account that she was attractive, platinum blonde, and from Sweden. She didn’t get back until dawn the nights she “stayed” with me, dancing at Studio 54. I didn’t see her much that first and only visit.

After the guest stewardess, I said “No” to anyone who wanted to visit that I hadn’t met before, even though I still have the Orrefors glass the Swedish cousin gave me as a hostess present.

I also met a 3-letter guy (FBI, CIA, IRS, one of those) who picked me up at an art gallery. We dated a few times and he told me he was assigned to the Studio 54 tax evasion case, and seemed to take pride in busting them. He thought he could whisper about confidential cases to me. I thought his loose lips risky.

Busting Studio 54 was a major buzz kill, but Studio 54 did allow illegal activities — public drug use and public sex — without restriction. Everything I saw indicated the three-letter guy didn’t have too many scruples, but what the hey.

It was part of the wide-eyed awakening of a kid from the Midwest. Minnesota, for example, passed a law prohibiting gifts valued at more than $5.00 to public officials. I had to go back to Minnesota government offices one time to retrieve a couple of apples. My friend wanted to avoid the appearance of bribery.

Studio 54 was open for three years in New York City. It operated without required licenses from the start, and in its three years, it made a lot of money in cash and was the place to be seen. It represented a flagrant violation of many sensibilities. A year later, the first story about what would be known as AIDS appeared in The New York Times.

Behaviors changed. A pall settled over the City.

But there was a brief time when anything goes was the mantra, and consequences be damned.

And I was there. Just walk through the door, lose the self, and be part of the club, gyrating, undulating, an anonymous piece of humanity. It is ironic, that to be part of the scene I wanted to be unseen; that to be part of the in-crowd, was to become part of the crowd, not be an individual. It was to be the girl, the dancer, the club-goer. I was a Manhattanite, I was at Club 54.

Individual agency, and choice, were secondary to participation as background.

Then hail a cab, and get dressed for work in the morning. Go back to claiming self, building a reputation, establishing identity.

But I remember I was at Studio 54, now that it is legendary. Meaningless, or packed with too much meaning and baggage, but legendary.

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  1. SingingFrogPress
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    Ah, so good. I love these 1970’s NYC memories, and your evaluation of them decades later. Yes to every word!

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