Along with his Steve Rubell, Ian Schrager was the mastermind behind Studio 54. The two Brooklynites revolutionized the nightclub scene, transforming what was the Gallo Opera into an all-night club that led hundreds to wait outside on the streets fin the hope of passing through the velvet ropes.
In an interview Tuesday, Schrager talked about their rocketing ascent and damning fall that resulted in pleading guilty to corporate tax evasion and serving time in prison. Now, working as hard as he was 20 or 30 years ago, Schrager is a partner with Marriott for its Edition hotels, and he has his Public hotel enterprise through his own company. Looking back to Studio 54’s heyday in the late Seventies — as people often ask him to — Schrager said, “We were two guys from Brooklyn trying to hold onto a lightning bolt and to create the best crowd we could to make everybody have a good time.”
WWD: Why does Studio 54 have such a lasting impact?
Ian Schrager: Everybody is an expert about this. There were three things that Studio did that had never been done before. Number one — everybody, when you were lucky enough to get in there, felt a feeling of absolute freedom. There aren’t many places or times where you can experience that. Anything goes, nothing you do you can’t wake up the next morning and walk away from. No one is going to stare. No one is going to judge — an absolute freedom to be who you are and how you wanted to have fun and entertain yourself. There aren’t many times in life that you feel that. Secondly, when you were lucky enough to get in, you felt absolutely protected. Again, no one was going to gawk, stare, ask you for an autograph. If you were sitting next to someone very, very famous, nobody cared. Everybody was there just to have a good time and to let it all hang out. They felt that protection and it made it feel like a sanctuary. The third thing, which could have been the most important, was there was a complete diversity of crowd, which had never been done before. It was rich people and not-so rich people. Old people and young people, straight people and gay people, black people and white people. Putting in the room such diverse elements creates this combustible spark, this energy that you don’t get when you’re in a room full of rich white people, or any kind of uniformed people. What creates interest is when you are with people who are not like you. All those things went into making it special. So 40 years later, people are still curious about it. In my life, I went to a couple of seminal events, like Woodstock, but none has had the influence that Studio had.
WWD: How did you know what the ingredients were if it hadn’t been done before?
I.S.: We didn’t. Anytime you create something new or innovative, you just go about doing what you yourself like. There is no map. You are just spontaneously doing it. The fashion people you write about probably do the kind of clothes that they like to wear. Low and behold there are other people who also like them. It’s not by design. It’s not an intellectual thing. It’s certainly not to make money. It’s an expression of what you yourself would like to do and like to see. I never felt comfortable in those places that were kind of fancy and were all straight people. You were there to meet somebody, talk to somebody and talk somebody up. I never felt comfortable. It always felt contrived. That kind of energy that used to be in gay clubs downtown that was — we thought — a great place to party. It should include more people than just gay people. We felt that kind of revelry could work with anybody.
WWD: Why was fashion such a key part?
I.S.: I’ve lived through when the baseball players, fighters or athletes were the stars. I’ve lived through the era where the movies stars were king of the mountain. Then I moved to the rock stars. It’s funny — it’s gone through the gamut. It moved through the people who led media. I’ve seen it go through everything. At that time, in New York in the Seventies, American fashion was just about to make its imprint. Fashion designers were the movie stars of our time in New York. When they went to a place, it was like getting the Good Housekeeping seal of approval. They were all bigger than life and they were setting the cultural tone then. That may have had a lot to do with Mr. [John] Fairchild. In that Golden Age of fashion in New York, there were 10 or 15 designers that were setting the tone for the first time right up there with Milan and Paris.
WWD: Do you feel like people are always pulling you back in when they reference their own Studio 54 experiences or they wished they had experienced it, when they meet you?
I.S.: Of course. And I think things always have a tendency, the thoughts, become better and better and better. The idea of the freedom of going in there and being in a sanctuary in the middle of New York, in an unsafe area of the city, is just compelling to people. And people had a lot of fun there.
WWD: What was the selection process?
I.S.: We always thought that it wasn’t elitist. It was very democratic. We weren’t making any choices based upon race or creed or color or wealth. We were just trying to put together a good party. We wanted to make sure that women wouldn’t be bothered. It’s like the same kind of discretion you exercise when you do a private party over at your home. You put somebody talkative next to somebody not so talkative. But that doesn’t seem so politically correct in the public domain. People got aggravated about it because a lot of rich, powerful and famous people didn’t mean anything to us at Studio. That kind of resentment found an institutional outlet at some point. Look, whatever Steve and I did at Studio — we broke laws and did stupid things. I think a lot of people got very aggravated about it — the public success and everything that we were having there. And you could pay a price for that. There were a lot of people angry that they couldn’t get into Studio.
WWD: What were you looking for when people were waiting outside?
I.S.: The whole process was spontaneous, difficult and mistakes get made. We wanted to invite people to come inside that we thought would enhance the party. Everybody who worked at the door would pick a different group of people. It was like creating a salad. Steve was very, very good at it. He was the only person who could say no in kind of a nice way where people didn’t get mad at him. He had this nice, innocent way of doing it. You were just making a selection of who you thought would work in there. You could be wrong. But it turned out to be right.
WWD: How many people would be in there on any given night?
I.S.: Well, we didn’t have a quota. You don’t do something like that for money. Everyone thought we were holding people outside to make people feel it was hard to get in or that it was too crowded inside. Nothing could be further from the truth. It could fit a couple thousand people at one time. When you saw a couple thousand people on the dance floor moving in unison like one big organism, it was something to witness. Some people would wait an hour or two or more. Some would be indignant about it, some would understand, some would walk away. Yes, [some would offer large sums of money]. They would offer everything — sex. People were desperate to get in. It’s only human nature. I don’t think they were offering drugs. I’ve seen wives leave their husbands to get in and couples split up. I’m serious.
WWD: At what point, did you realize you had created something unmatchable?
I.S.: It’s funny. I’ve been at this for a long time. I’ve had some natural hits and some hits that weren’t natural. You had to work at them to create the success. Studio was a natural. We knew we had something special a few days before we opened. When we were doing the last-minute touches to get ready, moving sets in and out, the visual stimulation, the size of the whole thing, the commitment to excellence — we just knew that nobody had seen anything like this before. From the time we opened, every single day was crowded. We had a big snowstorm with 40 or 50 inches of snow and Studio was still busy. You could hardly walk — it was still busy.
WWD: What were some of your favorite memories?
I.S.: Opening night wound up on the front-page of The New York Post. That was unheard of for a nightclub to be on the front page of a New York newspaper. There was a picture of Cher in a pair of overalls and a straw hat. Steve called me up at five o’clock in the morning, because I always left too early and he always left too late. He told me, “We made it — in the front page of the New York Post.” Bianca’s birthday a week or two after we opened. Joe Eula, who worked with Halston and was part of that crew with Elsa Perretti and Pat Cleveland, called up to have the party on a Monday night. We were dark that night like Broadway theaters are so we opened up to have a party. We got about 80 or 100 celebrities in there. We had two nude people with clothes [body]-painted on them. The woman came out with long blonde hair, pulling a birthday cake. She got off the horse and Bianca jumped on — in a red dress on a white horse. It probably was a Halston dress and the shot went all around the world. It’s so funny because you can’t do that for some reason. You can’t bring animals in. We brought panthers, leopards and then everything changed. We were just having fun. We were putting on a show every single night.
WWD: What about the addiction that wrapped up in all of it. Do you feel a sense of responsibility? For some people, it was just being social and for others it was lethal.
I.S.: The drug addiction? I don’t feel responsible for any of that. I’m sad if anybody has an issue with anything. We used to have a prop there that was a man in the moon with a spoon. A lot of people thought it was promoting the use of cocaine. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s all part of the subversive aspect of a nightclub where everything gets started underground. It was kind of having that arrogance and upsetting the status quo. It wasn’t anything about promoting drugs. We certainly didn’t have anything to do with any of the drugs that were there. And there were no more drugs there than there were at any other place at the time.
WWD: What about the tax evasion charges?
I.S.: We were guilty of that. We weren’t some organized gang. We were the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. All this money was coming in and it was the worst kept secret in town. Steve did an interview at that time. There was a quote in New York magazine that we made more money than the mafia but don’t tell anybody. He was telling that to a reporter. It was a stupid, silly thing that we did. We weren’t doing it for the money. We wanted a success. I used to think that we kept our feet on the ground because we kept all of our old friends. We didn’t really spend a lot of money because we didn’t really do anything. But obviously, we lost our way and did something stupid. It almost destroyed us.
WWD: Was there anyone who oversaw the business side of it?
I.S.: There was, but it doesn’t really matter because we all participated in it. We were all to blame. [Had the money been stashed in the ceiling of the club?] No, not true, folklore. But there were equally silly places. I had money stashed in the trunk of my car. It could have been towed. It could have been robbed. Being caught and being punished for it was kind of inevitable because it was done so stupidly. Everyone in the city knew.
WWD: What was it like to be in prison? How did you get through it?
I.S.: Terrible. I read a lot. I remember reading “The Best and the Brightest” by David Halberstam….That’s when Steve and I decided that we would go into the hotel business. We were all in a big dorm room.
WWD: Were you in physical harm during your 13 months in prison?
I.S.: You were worried about that. You were there with some hardened criminals. Steve and I were there with one of the guys involved with the Lufthansa robbery. We were there with Frank Lucas, who Ridley Scott did that “American Gangster” movie about. The funny thing was Steve and I were the only ones that were guilty. No one else was guilty of anything. I’m only making a joke. Jail is just a terrible, terrible thing. You were robbed of all humanity and human discretion. Those things you take for granted that you make a decision — you just don’t have that. It’s just a terrible, terrible thing. I had a hard time with it. I didn’t get anything out of it. Just the crash that happened to our personal lives and our barely escaping destruction — that we got something out of. That made us stronger. That guided our moral compass and everything else. I suppose I could have learned that without having gone to jail. Part of that process is losing everything. You lose you, your resources. It’s almost like standing up there taking your epaulets off and ripping your brass buttons off. I always have the scar of that. I’m embarrassed by it. I’m still embarrassed by it. It’s something you never get over. I still haven’t told my youngest child. I hadn’t told my older children either.
WWD: How did the experience shape what you do today?
I.S.: From a legal perspective, I absolutely play by the rules and I feel comfortable and good about that. All the great men and all the great women, they all play by the rules instead of thinking the rules don’t apply to you and you can cut a corner. All the great people I deal with in business from Marriott and all the other bigshot people that I deal with are all absolutely honest, straight and of integrity. That’s the way I live my life right now. I suppose I did not before. It used to be any time that I felt blue, I would think how I felt in jail and I would immediately feel better.
WWD: What are you looking to do that you haven’t done?
I.S.: I still love what I do. I don’t think you can be good at what you do if you don’t really love what you do. It’s not work. I’m still working really hard. It’s just as compelling as it was in the past. Norma Kamali is another one who is like that. I’m still very curious about everything. After my experience with the documentary, I do not think I’d be interested in doing film. There are just too many people involved. I might do some kind of Broadway or theatrical show. That’s undergoing great change right now. I’m doing more hotels with Marriott and I’m doing hotels on my own with Public. I’m working just as hard today as I was 20 or 30 years ago.
WWD: Could a place like Studio 54 exist today?
I.S.: I absolutely think it can. It exists in the clubs in East Berlin and in Ibiza. I know things are different with the cell phone and taking photos. We don’t change as human beings — the human species, the human condition has been around for 5,000 years. You just have to find what the catalyst is to make people enjoy that. I am 100 percent certain even with all the changes, all the technology that you could go and do another Studio in a second. The fashions change, but it’s still the same automobiles, the same planes, the same refrigerators with technological improvements. Whatever it is that was inside of people that made them respond to Studio is still there. It hasn’t gone anywhere. We are social animals. I could still do it.
WWD: Are you talking to anyone about doing that?
I.S.: No, I did that already. I’ve got five kids and I’m very happily married.
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