After launching The Paradise Bar in Times Square last month, Ian Schrager remembers the venue that kick-started his career.
Long before people were raving at Fabric and getting rejected from Berghain there was Studio 54. Masterminded by the original club kids (club godfathers?) Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell, the enterprise set the gold standard for nightlife for generations to come. Described by regulars as a ‘playground for adults’, those lucky enough to be admitted to Studio 54 would rub shoulders with Andy Warhol, Calvin Klein and Elizabeth Taylor. There was sex on tap, drugs on tap and, thanks to a much disputed liquor license, alcohol too. And then the lights went on. After raiding the club a year and a half after it opened, and finding millions of dollars of cash stuffed in a basement ceiling, the Feds shut Studio 54 down and started building a case against its owners.
Three decades on, it’s now the focus of a new documentary that explores the sordid details behind the biggest scandal of the 70s since the Tate murders. The notoriously reclusive Ian Schrager risks indictment by revealing as much as he can about the glory days, his relationship with business partner Rubell and the tax fraud that resulted in their incarceration. SKIP Dinner talks to Ian to find out how two working-class boys from Brooklyn revolutionised nightclubbing.
Could Studio 54 work today?
I definitely think Studio 54 could work today because of what it accomplished. After 40 years, I think the thing that still fascinates people is that Studio was a place that you could come to and feel absolutely free. There aren’t many situations like that in life where you feel free, protected, and could do anything you want and not hurt anybody, and you didn’t care what anybody else was doing… and I think that is part of the human condition. Although it might take a different form today. Things are different, everything changes -- just like cars change and kitchen appliances change. I think that although it may look a little different and could be a little different, it could absolutely happen today.
How important was it to be an inclusive space back then?
Being inclusive was one of the most important ideas at Studio. Everyone accused us of being elitist, but we really didn’t look at it that way. We thought we were doing the ultimate democratic thing because the people we were looking for had nothing to do with race, creed, colour, wealth, or where you came from. We were just spontaneously trying to attract those people that would add to the energy and the fun. There would be no dead weight. Women would feel comfortable, they wouldn’t be bothered. Gay people would feel comfortable doing anything they wanted, and nobody cared or looked at them differently. It was the same kind of discretion that we operated in the public space, that people would operate in the benefits of their own private home. Except, when you’re in a public venue sometimes it’s not considered politically correct.
What made you disregard the public’s desire for ‘political correctness’ and welcome the gay and trans communities?
I just don’t think anybody’s sexual orientation, or race, or creed, has anything to do with anything. I just hoped more people would feel like that. You aren’t born with prejudice. It’s something you have to learn. I never learned it.
How did you cultivate such an unprejudiced clientele?
Getting the right crowd to come, you have to create a product. That does most of the work. You have to create the experience and the ambiences and do something that resonates with people. Hopefully, it resonates with sophisticated people and people who are in the know. If you do something that is special and unique, it will by itself attract the right people.
Did your experience with Studio 54 change you?
It gave me the confidence to break rules, march to my own drum beat, and go off in a different direction without being concerned about what happens if it fails, just to do your best.
The other important thing is that because Studio didn’t have any discernible product other than the magic that was created there every night -- it had the same liquor and same music everyone else had --- it made us very effective at communicating to people exactly what we wanted. When we went into the hotel and residential business, we actually had a product to sell and it was much easier.
What would you change if you could go back?
Firstly I would pay my taxes. Secondly, I wouldn’t be afraid that playing by the rules meant giving up the swashbuckling approach that made mine and Steve’s careers. Of course I would do it all again but try not to make some of the same silly mistakes I made as a young man.
What did you learn from Studio 54 that informed your hotels?
It was all about creating magic. Walt Disney did it to animation. That same technique was available to everyone else, but he just put it together in such a magical way that it stood out from everything. My children still watch the same animated cartoons as I did 60 years ago, and it still resonates with them. Another example would be what Steve Jobs did with Apple. Those products were out there already and had been for a long time, but he put them together in a way that touched people on an emotional and visceral level and distinguished it. That’s why when people ask me what business I’m in, I say I’m in the business of creating magic.
'The five best ways to cut through the line' by Andy Warhol (1979)
1. Always go with Halston or in Halston.
2. Get there very early or very late.
3. Arrive in a limo or a helicopter.
4. Don’t wear anything polyester, not even your underwear.
5. Don’t mention my [Andy Warhol’s] name.