For three magical years, when a pre-gentrified New York City was still reeling from a crippling economic crisis, the iconic nightclub Studio 54—co-founded by two entrepreneurs from Brooklyn, Ian Schrager and the late Steve Rubell—was not only the playground for the rich and the famous, but a gathering place where culture thrived through dance, music and art (as well as drugs and sex). There were no racial or class boundaries at the theater-turned-club on West 54th: whether you were straight, gay, black, Latino, a member of high society or a wannabe, there was something for everybody.
Merely mentioning the name Studio 54 conjures up a number of different meanings: style, fashion, parties, celebrity, ambition, creativity, excess and hedonism. While it was only in existence from 1977 to 1980, it has been long memorialized in books, magazines, movies, music and documentaries and now in the form of a new Brooklyn Museum exhibition, Studio 54: Night Magic, which was scheduled to open last Friday before the museum closed due to the coronavirus outbreak. In the absence of knowing when, exactly, the museum will reopen its doors, think of this as a virtual tour.
“It was night and suddenly I felt like dancing” is a lyric displayed on a wall as you enter Studio 54. This line from the song “Fashion Pack” by the ’70s French pop singer and model Amanda Lear perfectly sums up what that feeling must have been like, to walk into that club with the sound system pumping out the disco hits and the dance floor teeming with excitement and energy.
Among the many noticeable highlights from the show include the stylish clothing worn by the club’s patrons by such famed designers as Halston, Norma Kamali, Calvin Klein, Yves St. Laurent and Giorgio di Sant’Angelo.
The imprint of Pop artist Andy Warhol, a club regular, is felt throughout this show that features his artworks as well as the covers from his magazine Interview.
Video screens present archival footage of club-goers strutting their stuff and ecstatically dancing all night as if there was no tomorrow.
Of course, there are photographs galore of 54’s popular patrons letting loose on the dance floor or catching up with other celebs: among them Liza Minnelli, Brooke Shields, Mariel Hemingway, Farrah Fawcett, Diana Ross, Truman Capote, Bianca Jagger, Grace Jones, Elizabeth Taylor and Cher.
Some of the rooms in the show also highlight particular aspects of the club, including ‘DJ’ (about the club’s soundsystem) and the club’s famous visual iconography of the moon with a coke spoon under its nose.
Photos of shirtless bartenders and busboys in roller-skates are blown-up onto the exhibition’s walls. And of course, the infectious music pumping throughout the galleries’ PA system, from Chic’s “Le Freak” to Heatwave’s “Boogie Nights,” add to the mood.
The club shut down in 1980, just before the dawn of the AIDS crisis that would later claim the lives of Rubell and many others from 54’s heyday. Its notoriety and influence had permeated into other clubs that mixed pleasure and decadence throughout the ’80s, like the Palladium in New York and the Hacienda in Manchester, England. Since then, no other club in the city has come near to surpassing Studio 54’s popularity, which is why this new exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum exists: it was a wild ride that became legend.