Studio 54: Admission policies as a form of individualism in New York seventies’ most famous disco and its display in film and literature

Seminar Paper, 2006

20 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents

1. General Introduction
1.1 Introduction and problem identification
1.2 Approach of this term paper

2. The Seventies – need to escape?
2.1 The faceless decade
2.2 The economic downturn – stagflation and unemployment
2.3 Repercussions of Vietnam

3. Disco – feared and sneered at
3.1 Countercultural phenomenon or foofaraw?
3.2 Home of the Disenfranchised

4. Studio 54 – Queen of Manhattan
4.1 Steve Rubell, Ian Schrager and their dream
4.2 Drug supply at

5. Escaping the “grey people”: door policy at Studio
5.1 The “right mix”
5.2 Tossing the salad
5.3 The inner-sanctum

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

1. General Introduction

1.1 Introduction and problem identification

„...and for three years it was the most talked-about, written-about and shocked-about venue in the universe. Everyone wanted to go to Studio 54 (Jones/ Kantonen 1999: 246)”.

“A lot of people thought that at the door was a better show than inside...people would try anything to get in (“Shane” in Studio 54)”.

When Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager in the late April 1976 started their nightclub Studio 54, a legend came to life. On the floors of this unique party shangri-la, celebrities like Andy Warhol, Liza Minelli, Bianca and Mick Jagger, Brooke Shields and Truman Capote mingled with business people, politicians, soap opera starlets, drag queens and chosen few from the “grey people”, as nightlife guru Rubell called the normal people. Never before, a discothèque caused such a public stir. Paparazzi jostled beyond the velvet ropes to illustrate their gossip columns with pictures of the socialites – it was the “first time ever that celebrity photos would appear on the front page of the tabloids for no other reasons than they were there (Jones/ Kantonen 1999: 249)”.

The place for this unprecedented spectacle was 254 West 54th street in Manhattan, New York. As to grandeur and pomp, Studio 54 easily dwarfed all other night clubs, the interior was lavish in every respect, the decor sometimes changed from weak to weak. Besides alcohol, drug abuse was rampant – be it cocaine or MDA, Rubell and his team left nothing to be desired for Studio 54’s fastidious clientele. Disc Jockey Richard Kaczor, “who by 1979 was earning $50,000 a year and thus was the world’s highest-paid DJ (Shapiro 2005: 204), was a luminary in his field. But the frenzy was not about technical details or size of the club, not even about the latest in music – it was about seeing and being seen on the highest level conceivable.

By far not everybody came to know the true promise of the club – door policy at Studio 54 was probably one of the toughest in the history of nightlife. Rubell himself was eager to make sure that of the many different groups that made up the audience of 54, none should dominate the other, a type of “social engineering he called “tossing the salad”” (Shapiro 2005: 201). He himself supported his doorman Marc Benecke selecting the people who could pass the velvet ropes, whilst scores of people shouted Rubell’s name begging him to be admitted into the club. On one hand, there were certain criteria, but on the other hand, there was enough leeway for arbitrariness, indeed, it was a highly undemocratic procedure that precisely reflected its place, its period and social circumstances.

Scholars often describe the Seventies in the United States as a dreary, unsteady and uncanny period – a decade that has started with the trials and tribulations of Vietnam War, continued with the Watergate scandal and experienced the first post World War II economic downturn with skyrocketing unemployment rates, stagflation and a melting welfare state. Repercussions of these events were especially felt in New York City of these days, which Peter Shapiro reports, was felt by many to be a “cesspool of moral and spiritual degradation, a playground for drug dealers, pimps and corrupt cops (2005: x)”. Disco in this time not only served to escape reality but also epitomised an increasing drive towards individualism that replaced the ideas of participation and community of the sixties. The doors at 54 were instruments to form a new world with new social ladders and in their radicalism marked a peak in this development.

1.2 Approach of this term paper

This term paper wants to examine the new hierarchies that were established at Studio 54, especially at its front doors in the late Seventies and examines the cultural and historical context that determines this phenomenon. The paper evolves around two poles: Disco, which is treated herein as a trend towards escapism, hedonism and individualism with Studio 54 as its most extreme excrescence, and the United States, which in the Seventies delivered a setting with most attributes of a deteriorating industrialised country and New York as a city in which these attributes culminated. Disco herein is a term that labels a style of dance music as well as the movement with all its fashions and conventions. The distinction made between the two concepts will be clear from the respective context it is used in.

In order to manifest the above-mentioned society internal drive towards individualism the second point of this paper deals with the Seventies as the decade that enabled the success-story of disco. The pictures this paper delivers about the decade are not pleasant but it has to be considered that history is a concept that in its broadness is impossible to capture. Personal remembrances of the decade might vary from person to person. This paper therefore delivers texts of scholarly assessments and commonly-acknowledged views of the Seventies as a decade, trying to explain what triggered the public desire to escape reality and the sense of hedonism and decadence that characterised disco.

Point three deals with individualism and disco, introduces Studio 54 and its masterminds Rubell and Schrager and thereby wants to clarify why 54 was a solitaire in its field. Though one of the main motifs of this work is the Seventies Disco movement, it is not extensively discussing its history. It rather focuses on 54 as an urban phenomenon that in its radicalism could only happen in New York in the late Seventies and thereby tries to place it in a cultural context. The door politics at Studio 54, which are dealt with in point four, not only epitomise the quixotic wishes of nightlife guru Rubell, but, as the great success of the club suggests, hit the nerve of the times that longed for self-realisation, hedonism and individuality.

2. The seventies – need to escape?

2.1 The faceless decade

Indeed, the reasons people strived for escapism and the excesses of Studio 54 in the seventies were manifold. Scholarly opinion points out that this decade in the United States was a dreary, uncertain and uncanny era. After unifying events such as the student movements of 68, flower power and Woodstock, the seventies in many people’s memory simply fall behind. As Bruce Schulman suggests “the very term the sixties conjures a whole set of political, social and cultural associationsBut the term seventies sensibility elicits only laughter” (2001: xii). As a matter of fact, scholars do not deny that the seventies were an important period in many respects, even in some that are commonly accredited to the sixties. “The seventies transformed American economic and cultural life as much as, if not more than, the revolutions and manners and morals of the 1920s and the 1960s (Schulman 2001: xii). Steven Paul Miller concedes that “more Americans subscribed to alternative culture in the seventies” than in the Sixties (1999: 5).

However, common notions that describe the Seventies are vague, and only few of them are really positive. Miller reports that when telling a historian that he wanted to write a book about the Seventies, he was “asked how he could do it. “Wasn’t Watergate the only thing that happened during the seventies?” (1999: 11). Indeed, Watergate shocked established America and redefined public attitude towards politics. The Americans for the first time were confronted with an openly lying President – as a result, confidence in politics rapidly slumped and the sense spread, that if not the President, who could be trusted? Watergate added to the disenchantment with Politics the United States notoriously struggles with, it fuelled public delimitation and the public idea that nobody could be relied on. Schulman observes that Watergate “triggered the “gating” of American life. Every subsequent scandal – no matter how petty – has received the suffix “gate”” (2001: 43). This reveals the quality of this national trauma.

Especially the last years of the decade, which also marked the peak of Studio 54, “produced consistently terrifying news, such as the Jonestown mass deaths, the Three Mile Island nuclear threat, the Cambodian holocaust, stagflation, boat people, and the Iranian hostage crisis” (Miller 1999: 62). Of course, partly exaggerated news coverage of these events may have added to the public feeling of insecurity – nevertheless, people showed increased readiness to fight and defend them selves. This translated also in other public and social spheres in the form of increased individualism. It was again “I” that was in the centre of interest, “participation” and “We”, concepts of the sixties, took the back seat again. Schulman suggests that “the prevailing concept of the seventies remains the idea of the “Me Decade” – an era of narcissism, selfishness, personal rather than political awareness” (2001: 145). It can be supposed that these developments paved the ground for the excesses that were celebrated at Discos in the United States and especially at Studio 54.


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Studio 54: Admission policies as a form of individualism in New York seventies’ most famous disco and its display in film and literature
University of Potsdam  (Philosophisches Institut)
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Studio, Admission, York, Proseminar
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Lars Dittmer (Author), 2006, Studio 54: Admission policies as a form of individualism in New York seventies’ most famous disco and its display in film and literature, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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