For those still mourning the death of notorious New York, get ready to OD on nostalgia with A&E’s new documentary, “Studio 54.”
Directed by Matt Tyrnauer with delicious commentary by surviving founder Ian Schrager, the film (10 p.m. Monday) details his business partnership with fellow Brooklynite and Syracuse University graduate Steve Rubell. Together, they turned an empty theater on West 54th Street into the global destination for sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.
Studio 54 lasted from 1977 to 1980, but those 33 months were the stuff of legend. “It was the James Dean of nightclubs,” Tyrnauer tells The Post. “It burned very brightly all too briefly.”
Tynauer interviews Schrager and many former club employees as well as designer Norma Kamali and journalist Bob Colacello — all of whom were on the scene. He found many of them on social media, which of course didn’t exist back in the day.
“There’s a network of ex-Studio people,” Tyrnauer says. “This is the one place where we might be thankful for Facebook. They obsessively keep in touch with each other. It was a very formative period of their lives. For something that was so brief, Studio 54 had a disproportionate impact on the people who went there.”
Schrager, a self-described introvert, had an ambition to create the “ultimate nightclub,” and Rubell’s sparkling personality helped him attract the glamourpusses of the day: Cher, Diana Ross, Liza Minnelli, Halston, Mikhail Baryshnikov and even a teenage Michael Jackson, who was filming “The Wiz” in New York. Cops outside the club tried to keep the clamoring masses in line while Rubell inspected prospective patrons, one by one. If you were a guy and hadn’t shaved that day, you were out. Rubell called the undesirables “bridge-and-tunnel people” as a way of explaining he didn’t want customers who wore polyester shirts.
As the disco beat of songs by Sylvester and Thelma Houston filled the club and the celebrities poured in, Schrager and Rubell sold discreetly taken photos to the newspapers and a phenomenon was created. Straitlaced reporters with the joie de vivre of a David Brinkley descended upon the club to find out what the secret was. According to Rubell, it was simple. People wanted to be free. They could do anything they wanted at Studio 54 — and often did. The balcony was covered in rubber and hosed down every night to clean up after the patrons. There were mattresses in the basement for those who wanted to hook up.
“They built the ultimate adult amusement park,” Tyrnauer says. “There was a kind of hedonism in the air which contrasted with the city, which was having an economic crisis. It was the last volcanic expression of the sexual revolution.”
And then it ended, with a bang. Police raided the club on Dec. 14, 1978 for serving liquor without a license. Schrager and Rubell attorney Roy Cohn advised them to obtain one-day catering permits commonly used for weddings. “It was emblematic of the kind of corner-cutting, stop-at-nothing-to-succeed mentality that they had,” Tyrnauer says.
After Rubell was quoted in the press for bragging that Studio 54 had made $7 million in its first year and that “only the Mafia made more money,” the IRS perked up and discovered that the dynamic disco duo were skimming 80 percent of the take, a grift partly accomplished by changing the rolls in the cash register during the night. “The idea is you report one receipt and throw out the other one. Skim the money you take in after you take the receipt roll out,” Tyrnauer says.
It was a princely sum, some $2.5 million. Rubell and Schrager pleaded guilty to tax evasion and spent 13 months in jail. The club closed in February 1980 and was sold in May of that year. Schrager, who was pardoned by President Obama in 2017, went on to create a line of boutique hotels we’ve all heard of: the Royalton, Morgan’s, the Mondrian. Rubell wasn’t so fortunate. He died of AIDS in 1989.
“The world changed when Studio ended and Schrager and Rubell went to prison,” Tyrnauer says. “It was the dawn of the AIDS crisis. You can’t have that kind of freedom anymore when we’re talking about sex. Hard to imagine now.”
“Studio 54,” Monday, 10 p.m., A&E
By Robert Rorke