Studio 54’s lasting impact on American culture will be examined in a new exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum.
Disco, fashion, drinking, design, drugs, music, sex, freedom — the iconic nightclub lived up to its hype night after night. Founders Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager ushered in an era of creative expression, gender fluidity, sociopolitics and the possibility that everyone can be a star — if only for a night.
In the late Seventies, New York City was battling back from the edge of bankruptcy. Once passing through what is meant to be reminiscent of Studio 54’s hallway, ticketholders will eye black-and-white photos that show just how gritty the city was at that time. The economic malaise meant that artists, fashion designers, writers and musicians could forge their way in Manhattan, where rents were within reach. Many were lured by Andy Warhol’s quip that “Success is a job in New York,” according to Matthew Yokobosky, the museum’s senior curator of fashion and material culture.
Studio 54’s opening at 254 West 54th Street collided with such other cultural forces as the Brooklyn-set “Saturday Night Fever,” the start of “Saturday Night Live,” New York City’s two-day blackout in July 1977 and the debut of the “I (Heart) NY” campaign. “The day after the blackout, New York City began — ironically — its ‘I love New York campaign.’ They were all re-branding what had been a depressed New York City, when Gerald Ford said ‘go to hell’ to New York City. Everyone kind of pulled it together,” Yokobosky said.
The idea for the exhibition was sparked after he noticed a lot of fashion designers were doing Studio 54-inspired collections. “I would look at it and be like, ‘How?’ I lived through the late Seventies as a teenager and I knew what it looked like,” Yokobosky said. “I realized that Studio 54 had become this catchall phrase for disco.”
The West 54th Street club lasted for only 33 months. Like many of the patrons that will find their way to the museum, Studio 54 was long gone by the time he moved to New York. During a preview Monday afternoon, he said two years of research and 100 interviews with former clubgoers and staff were needed to determine the truth from lore. Schrager was an indispensable source, but not an overbearing one. “We’re a museum — the facts have to be right. The only way I could do that was to go back to the original sources for a lot of things,” said Yokobosky, who weeded through thousands of items before the final curation.
“Certainly there are a lot of myths about Studio 54. A lot of those myths aren’t true. The exhibition really focuses in on the visual aspects — the photography, the fashion design, the set design, the lighting, the makeup. Matt Tyrnauer’s film got into all the legal issues, which isn’t a part of this exhibition. That’s the interesting thing about Studio 54 — it’s such a rich topic that you can approach it from so many different angles,” the curator said.
Spanning from April 26, 1977, through Feb. 2, 1980, (“when Steve and Ian had to go away for a little while”), “Studio 54: Night Magic” features 650 objects from fashion, photography, drawings, film, stage sets and music. Following a raid in December 1978, Schrager and Rubell plead guilty and served time in prison for federal tax evasion. Then-President Obama granted Schrager a presidential pardon in 2017 (Rubell died in 1989). The show opens to the public Friday and will run through July 5.
Doused in strobe lights, neon lights and disco ball effects, visitors will meander through galleries heavily stocked with photographs, video footage and slide shows of uninhibited celebrities lavishing in the mayhem. Museumgoers can see footage of Pat Cleveland swirling on the dance floor, and the Fiorucci chainmail skirt she was dancing in. A similar set-up is on view throughout the exhibition to magnify Studio 54’s fashion influence. Music is blasted from one gallery to the next with songs like “Le Freak” (which was written after the band Chic was left standing outside the club) and Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” the club’s unofficial anthem thanks to DJ Richie Kaczor. Patrons can also find photos of former doorman Marc Benecke and Rubell’s former assistant and p.r. person Myra Scheer, who was also known as the keeper of the list. And yes, there are guest lists — multipage typed ones.
There is also proof that Elizabeth Taylor really did dance her feet off at her 46th birthday party that Halston hosted and featured a performance by the Rockettes. “These are her Halston shoes. You can see Elizabeth Taylor’s toe prints,” said Yokobosky, gesturing toward a pair of strappy silver shoes. There are also a few pages itemizing the various designs Halston made for her, including a red chiffon dress. The actual dress is on a nearby mannequin that has been anatomically designed to her exact measurements from 1977. Ditto for the neighboring ones sized and suited up with outfits worn by Liza Minnelli, another go-to resource for the show.
Noting how Rubell once said that while the Fifties were all about rock stars, the Seventies were about fashion designers, the curator has spotlighted medleys of looks from Halston, Norma Kamali, Stephen Burrows, Giorgio di Sant’Angelo, Calvin Klein, Larry LeGaspi, Zandra Rhodes and others.
There are also traces of Studio 54 fashion shows for Kenzo, Claude Montana, Gloria Vanderbilt, Charles Jourdan, Bill Haire, Issey Miyake’s “East Meets West” and “A Salute to American Designers.” Visitors, who read the fine print, will find references and glimpses of Karl Lagerfeld’s 18-century-themed party, Valentino’s 45th birthday party, Yves Saint Laurent’s Opium perfume launch and Giorgio Armani’s party featuring the Trocadero Gloxinia Ballet Company. The slew of images includes a striking one of Carolina Herrera seated on a banquette in a one-shoulder gown. Antonio Lopez’s original sketches for what Alvin Ailey dancers wore to the Kay Thompson-choreographed opening night performance are also in the mix.
There were also sit-down dinners, starting with a Jaipur Ball UNICEF benefit in honor of First Lady Rosalynn Carter. Nearby is a photo of a 12-year-old Brooke Shields and a 16-year-old Mariel Hemingway bursting with laughter at the club in 1977. “They were young and they were at Grace Jones’ 3 a.m New Year’s Eve performance,” the curator said.
Referring to a video clip of Calvin Klein explaining how a man once approached him at 4 a.m. at the club, asking if he ever considered designing blue jeans, the curator said. “We all know that story.” To his point, a pair of Calvin Klein jeans are on view with three pairs of Studio 54 ones. Kamali designed the latter, which were licensed by the club’s two owners to Landlubber.
Gesturing toward photos of Bianca Jagger seated on a white horse at her May 2, 1977, birthday party, Yokobosky said Halston had called Rubell and Schrager on a Friday, asking if he could throw her a party the following Monday, the one night the club was closed. Schrager recruited two members of the cast of “Calcutta,” whose nude bodies were body painted for the Lady Godiva-inspired theme. Someone else rounded up a horse from a local stable. “Bianca decided she wanted to be on the horse. The young woman got down and Bianca sat on the horse for all the photographers. But she didn’t enter on a horse and ride the horse around. You hear so many things,” Yokobosky said of the myth.
Disco beauty is spotlighted with such elements as a book penned by makeup artist Sandy Linter, as well as Andy Warhol’s “Make-up” video — essentially tutorials for daytime and nighttime makeup. “The designer labels aren’t the only story. It’s important to talk about beauty. It’s not just the dress — it’s the hair, the makeup, the shoes — the total look of disco,” the curator said.
More somber is the area that acknowledges those who went to Studio 54 and later died from AIDS-related illness, including Rubell. It also cites how Taylor later founded the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation. Yokobosky said, “Sometime people say Studio 54 happened between the pill and AIDS. When you talk to people from the late Seventies, they tell you stories about how people were already getting sick and they didn’t know why they would pass away. Of course, the pill was invented in the Sixties. This idea that suddenly we had this sexual freedom and then there was this punishment — I don’t think we should be positioning it that way. I’m just trying to talk about facts.”
With “Studio 54: Night Magic” ready to be revealed and sponsors Spotify and Perrier supporting the cause, Yokobosky is gunning to top the 275,000-person attendance figures for the Brooklyn Museum’s 2018 “David Bowie Is” exhibition. The curator is on to other things, namely researching a Valentino exhibition — although that has not yet been officially confirmed.