In 1977, Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager opened a nightclub in the building, retaining many of former TV and theatrical sets and naming it for its street. Launched at the peak of the disco dancing and music trend, the club became world-famous, noted for its celebrity guest lists, restrictive (and subjective) entry policies (based on one's appearance and style), and open club drug use. In 1980, the club shut down after its founders were convicted for evading taxes. They sold the club to Mark Fleischman, who reopened it, then sold it in 1984 to new owners, who closed it in 1986.
Designed by famed architect Eugene De Rosa, the venue opened in 1927 as the Gallo Opera House (soon revised to Gallo Theatre), named for its owner, Fortune Gallo. Beginning with a very large-scale production of La bohème which closed after three weeks, the Gallo was met with a succession of failed attempts to draw an audience and was lost to foreclosure after only two years. It later reopened under new ownership as The New Yorker, but continued failing to attract sufficient crowds. It changed hands in the early 1930s, then in 1937 it became the WPA Federal Music Project of New York City's Federal Music Theatre/Theatre of Music, then it became the New Yorker Theatre in 1939, housing an all-black version of The Swing Mikado, originally from Chicago, for two months, when the production moved to the 44th Street Theatre to finish its run. The New Yorker Theatre saw its final production, Medicine Show, end in May 1940, following which the building remained vacant for three years.
When CBS began marketing the building in 1976, various parties in the art and fashion world expressed interest in seeing it converted into a nightclub. Male model Uva Harden tried to get gallery owner Frank Lloyd to finance the club, until Lloyd lost a $9 million lawsuit to the estate of the artist Mark Rothko, in the Rothko Case.
In 1977, Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager transformed the theater into a nightclub called Studio 54, with Jack Dushey as a financial backer. They operated the company as Broadway Catering Corp. It took only six weeks to transform the theater into a nightclub and cost $400,000 before its grand opening on April 26.
Rubell and Schrager hired Scott Bromley as architect, Ron Doud as interior designer, and Brian Thompson as lighting designer. Jules Fisher and Paul Marantz, two well-known lighting designers, created the dance floor environment and created movable theatrical sets and lights using the copious existing TV lighting circuits and fly system, which allowed for a dynamic, constantly-changing, environment and with which the crowd could be lit brightly.
Within a month of opening, the New York State Liquor Authority raided Studio 54 for selling liquor without a license and closed it. The owners of the nightclub said the incident was a "misunderstanding". The next night the club reopened, serving fruit juice and soda instead of liquor. Prior to the raid, the nightclub had been using daily "caterers' permits", which enabled the nightclub to serve alcohol but were intended for weddings or political events. The State had denied the daily permit for the night and raided the nightclub. The nightclub had been using these permits while waiting for its liquor license to be processed.
The scene (1977–1979)
Event planner Robert Isabell had four tons of glitter dumped in a four-inch layer on the floor of Studio 54 for a New Year's Eve party. Owner Ian Schrager said it was like "standing on stardust", and it left glitter that could be found months later in attendees' clothing and homes.
Sally Lippman, also known as "Disco Sally", was a 77-year-old widow and regular dancer at the club.
The band Chic wrote a song in 1978, "Le Freak", after being refused entry to the club on New Year's Eve 1977, despite having been invited by Grace Jones.
End of the first era
In December 1978, Rubell was quoted in the city's newspapers as saying that Studio 54 had made $7 million in its first year and "only the Mafia made more money". This got the attention of the IRS. Shortly thereafter, the nightclub was raided and Rubell and Schrager were arrested for skimming $2.5 million.
From 1981 to April 1986, Mark Fleischman owned Studio 54. In April 1989, The Ritz nightclub, which had previously operated at 11th Street and Third Avenue from 1980 to 1987, moved into the former Studio 54 under the name The New Ritz. In 1990, the club changed the name back to that of its former location, The Ritz. The new owners, CAT Entertainment Corp operated the club primarily as a venue for new wave, punk, Eurodisco, and heavy metal artists and also offered it as a public venue available for rent.
In 1993, CAT Entertainment was acquired by Cabaret Royale Corporation, a nightclub operator based in Dallas. CAT Entertainment completed a renovation of the nightclub earlier abandoned because of a lack of funds, and resurrected both the nightclub and the Studio 54 trademark, which had never been properly registered by any of the prior owners or operators. The newly remodeled nightclub was operated as "Cabaret Royale at Studio 54" by CAT Entertainment until early 1995. The Pilevsky interests which owned the theater itself and the adjacent office building had several years earlier granted a mortgage on the properties to the Bank of Tokyo and, in an effort to resolve a large unpaid indebtedness of Pilevsky to the bank and to forestall foreclosure, a trustee had been appointed by Pilevsky and the bank and granted the right to sell those and numerous other properties owned by Pilevsky.
In late 1994, Allied Partners acquired the Studio 54 properties and, after protracted litigation, CAT Entertainment lost its lease on the nightclub and ceased operations.
Roundabout Theatre at Studio 54, mid-1990s–present
Studio 54, July 2019
In 1994, Allied Partners bought the building for $5.5 million. They restored much of the architectural detail that had been painted black or covered with plywood by Schrager and Rubell. The nightclub reopened with a live concert by disco stars Gloria Gaynor, Vicki Sue Robinson, and Sister Sledge. The building again went into bankruptcy in 1996 and Allied announced plans to demolish it and replace it with Cyberdrome, a virtual reality gaming venue, however, the project was never completed.
The building, which is still frequently referred to as the Studio 54 building, houses a variety of tenants, among them a theater venue, offices, and an educational facility called Mandl School, the College of Allied Health. This building also houses Olivtree Securities LLC. In 1965, the building housed Scepter Records's offices, warehouse space and a recording studio, where The Velvet Underground & Nico album was recorded in April 1966.
Studio 54 at MGM Grand in Las Vegas
In the late 1970s, Studio 54 was one of the best-known nightclubs in the world, and it played a formative role in the growth of disco music and nightclub culture in general. Several franchises, notably in Las Vegas, have sprung up around the country. Additionally, multiple works of art, entertainment, and media refer to or are associated with the nightclub. Examples include:
Fiorucci, an Italian fashion shop formerly located on East 59th Street, became known in the late 1970s as the "daytime Studio 54".
54, a movie about the disco, was released in 1998.
In 2011, Sirius XM launched Studio 54 Radio, a satellite radio station featuring classic disco and dance tracks from the 1970s to the 2000s, hosted by original doorman Marc Benecke and Myra Scheer featuring testimonials from the people connected to the club. It originally debuted at channel 15 and was moved to channel 54 in 2013.
In 2018, Studio 54, a 98-minute documentary by Matt Tyrnauer, reached both the Tribeca and Sundance film festivals before being screened at select theaters. This film has never-seen footage of the club as well as interviews with Ian Schrager.
In 2019, Studio 54 became the theme for multiple collections from fashion and cosmetics brands, including Michael Kors and NARS Cosmetics. The collections took inspiration from the club's glamorous heyday and showcased the iconic "54" logo.
Gaines, Steven; Cohen, Robert Jon (1979). The Club, a Novel. New York: William Morrow and Company.