Image: The Garrison Finish
We all have heard stories about the iconic studio 54, the most famous nightclub ever on New York City. The nightclub where Cher, Calvin Klein, Andy Warhol, Liza Minnelli, Tina Turner, Sylvester Stallone and many others partied under the same roof. But what was so magical about it? How did it change the nightclub culture? But most importantly, how did it change the consumers?
Business idea: How did the phenomenon started?
Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell were life-long team, they both were mid-class Brooklynites that met in college with hunger for success. Though they were similar in lots of ways, Steve was a highly sociable person while Ian is more of an introvert but an amazing designer. This combination was critical for the success of Studio 54.
Both had their first nightclub at Queens named “Enchanted Garden”, this is where Steve had the idea of an over the top experience for their customers. Each day they challenged themselves to make the nights better than the last one, a whole new level.
Customer experience before it was cool.
Steve found himself in and old abandoned opera house that used to be a CBS studio at 254 West and 54th Street, which at that time was in the “red zone”. Everyone thought they were crazy, but everything was thought on a way that now is emerging as a marketing trend, customer-centric business. Their main idea was to “escape reality” or in other words, being inside the play; you did not know who were performers, staff or guests… Everyone just had fun! Even bartenders and servers were part of the magic, with highly diverse backgrounds for “each end every particular taste”.
Ian and Steve benchmarked all NYC nightclubs at the time and took the best out of all of them, even the “recreational” drugs. Everything was designed and built for making an impression, just like a theatre production. Back in the day, nightclubs only had the DJ operating the whole experience, Steve and Ian had four people: DJ, lights operator and two fly reels operating visuals and props designed by Tony-award winning light designers Jules Fisher and Paul Marantz which also economized using original CBS production equipment. An enormous advantage over competitors.
The decor and staff were trained on a theatre-based atmosphere. With the iconic “men in the moon” decor of a moon inciting the use of cocaine or smoking sun, each one of them appeared on the middle of the neon decor throughout the evening. Everything was created in a six week record time with the goal to make the people feel comfortable and careless.
Studio 54 was a gay nightclub with disco music. At the time, disco music had a not very favourable perception due to it was attributed to the afro-american community and gay culture. But this was exactly what the most iconic nightclub needed, a place where people can be themselves and literally “do whatever they want”. At the time, gay clubs were very popular due to their customers; gays would normally work on the art-design industry which would attract models, designers, artists and lots of heterosexuals that wanted to meet the models.
This were the basis and fundamentals of Studio 54, people that went there said that “once you went through those doors, you had total freedom”. You could hear the music down the mirror-walled red carpet hall with huge chandeliers.
Three of the most iconic (not media famous) clients were: Rollerina; a Wall Street banker by day, fairy godmother at night. Disco Sally; a 78 year old lawyer and Potassa, the most fabulous drag queen of the disco era. People were able to be whomever they wanted to be, their authentic self. On the street, being an afro-american or part of the LGBT community could get you killed; “but as soon as they stepped in Studio 54, they were safe but not only safe. They were included, accepted, they were part of the scene.” -Bill Bernstein.
Tables turned, weirdos ruled
It was critical for owners and doorman to have “the perfect recipe” for customers, there was a balance every single night trying to equally represent everybody. The doorman Mark Benecke was in charge of this task, he said that too much females, males, young, old, gay, straight, or any dominant group would result in disaster and he was right. “In order to come in, you have to bring something to the table” -Mark Benecke. It was a place for fantasy, ordinary world was kept out.
The magic was not for everybody
Since the very first night, Studio 54 was a huge success. People would do literally anything to get inside, some even rappelled-down the neighbour buildings trying to sneak in . There was so many people, that they were afraid the doors might not resist the push and break; also there was lots of prostitution; so to keep those people out, velvet ropes raised up. It was amazing how big crowds stepped back against a simple velvet rope, concept that still continues today.
Guest-list was also a big player on the game, all names were followed by one of four acronyms “pay”, “comp”, “NFU” (No Fuck Up for very important customers) and “NG” (Not Good, depending on how are they dressed they might be admitted). This started to build a huge resentment with the people that did not manage to get in. For you to have an idea of how famous and desired the nightclub was, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of course would go inside for free, but the rest of the Rolling Stones were required to pay. Or as some other customers described it as the place where “Polyester melts under the lights”.
Images: Architectural Digest / Flashbak, Dexeen / The Garrison Finish / Bromley Caldari / Nylon / Line17qq.
One of the most amazing stories ever was when the government revoked their liquor licence, but people would still go there regardless of having no booze!
(Reporter) Why do you come here a lot?
“Because I like the atmosphere of Studio 54. I’ve been to a lot of discotheques and I don’t like them honestly”-Michael Jackson
(Reporter) Whats the difference?
“I dont know. The feeling, I mean. The excitement of props coming down, and the balcony. Its just exciting, honestly.” -Michael Jackson
(Reporter) When you hear the name Studio 54 what does that do?
“Im ready to have a good time. Its where you come when you want to escape. It’s really escapism.” -Michael Jackson.
It was truly amazing what Steve and Ian had created, but the magic did not stop there. How could they make the club a never ending trend? They hired Joanne Horowitz, a publicist hired exclusively to take pictures and promote them. she received $500 if a photograph appeared on the front page of Daily News or New York Post; or $150 for appearing on Page Six. Also, top clients had free cocaine or poppers.
At the end of the night, the door staff would give you a lollypop at the exit door as a sweet memory of the night.
“Thats what I tried to make it be too, is escapism. In other words, people who have whatever hustles they have all day, the come here and they can forget about them.” -Steve Rubell.
“There aren’t that many times in life where you are absolutely free. Everyone felt protected and safe”. -Ian Schrager.
This article was written in memory of all HIV victims an to those whom still struggle to get rid of the discrimination. And a reminder to everybody that history is not for us to judge, but to understand.
Yours truly, Monsieur Marketing.
Brandeis, J., & Brandeis, J. (Directors). (1998). Studio 54 august.27.1998 documentary [Video file]. VH1. Retrieved March 24, 2021, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oV7FKbgp2Lk
Studio 54 | behind the scenes documentary [Video file]. (2017, July 03). Retrieved March 23, 2021, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qgob2BUPgUw&t=626s
Tyrnauer, M. (Director). (2018). Studio 54 [Video file]. Retrieved March 19, 2021, from https://www.netflix.com/watch/81004511?source=35