Steve Rubell darts among the faithful, nodding, tapping a shoulder, scanning the crowd with his expert eye for “disco people,” selecting the fortunate ones who will be allowed into the inner sanctum tonight. Every evening it’s the same as up to 1,500 would-be patrons beg, literally
beg, for entrance into Studio 54, New York’s hottest new night spot. “I don't care who they are,” avows Rubell, one of the disco’s three owners. “If they’re not my kind of people, they don’t get in.”
In one brief year of existence. Studio 54 has managed to earn the sobriquet, “the world’s top celebrity disco.” Acceptance at Studio 54 is tantamount to the ritual annointment that accompanies a coronation. Six hours after jetting in from Europe.
Bianca Jagger is snuggling next to the designer Halston in their favorite Studio 54 banquette. She’s there “every night she’s in New York,” Rubell boasts. If you want to capture headlines, there’s no better place to begin your campaign.
Super model Cheryl Tiegs wants to change her image from just-anotherpretty-face to Farah Fawcett-Majors girlof-the-year; she’s taking pains to be seen at all the right Studio 54 spectaculars. Lisa, Liz, Cher, the real Farah. Margaux Hemingway and Margaret Trudeau. Jackie. Caroline and John. Warren Beatty. David Brenner. Mikhail Baryshnikov. David Bowie . . . the list goes on. from recluses Woody Allen and Christina Onassis to notso-publicity-shy Andy Warhol and Tru-
man Capote—they’re all drawn to Studio
The celebrities sweep right past the tumult at the door while the 34-year-old Rubell, all five-foot-four. 119 pounds of him, maintains his patrol, passing judgment, absorbing abuse—“Nazi Gestapo creep,” for instance—from disappointed pleasure seekers who can’t attract his nod. Once, he took a slug in the jaw from an irate millionaire carpet manufacturer. But Rubell is backed up by a small army of private security guards, including such awesome physical specimens as “Big George,” the sevenfoot bouncer who defends the front door with the grim determination of Cerberus at the gates of Hades.
When he’s not on his own turf, Rubell can’t be assured of such constant protection. A woman who had been turned away got her revenge while Rubell was dining in a Manhattan restaurant; she marched up and tossed a drink in his face.
Such anger leaves Rubell unfazed. The only people he wants in Studio 54 are “disco people”—for the rest of the world, he has not yet deigned to coin a term. “Disco people,” by his definition, are “fun people, attractive people.” You don’t absolutely have to be young or beautiful, but if genetics have blessed you with high cheekbones, you certainly have a natural advantage in gaining entrance to Studio 54. Outlandish dress and makeup also help. “Do up your lips well,” a regular advised someone seeking first time admission. “Good lip makeup will always get you in.”
Gays, either singly or in couples, are favored. “They add something to the mix,” Rubell explains. Observing a gay couple necking in the disco one night. Rubell is reported to have cracked: “I don’t care if it’s guys or girls that turn you on in here, as
long as you get turned on.” Straight singles, however, are anathema to Rubell. “1 don’t want just another East Side singles bar,” he says. “I wouldn’t let my own best friend in here if he was an East Side singles type.” But Rubell is not without a sense of charity. “I let in a certain number of bridge and tunnel people. You know, suburban types,” he says with the gravity that befits his role as New' York’s newest arbiter of social standing.
Of course, the easiest way to get into Studio 54 is to have a big name. “It’s all the celebrities. You have to have them first. They draw business in,” Rubell says. How did a kid from Brooklyn, the son of a postal worker turned tennis pro, manage to lure the biggest names in international celebritydom to his club? Rubell turned to Peruvian-born. jet-set public relations whiz Carmen D’Alessio. “They love Carmen, the celebrities,” he says, not quite able to erase the awe from his voice. Then, with the sharp business acumen of a man who knows he earns his living on other people’s notoriety, he adds, “and, she really has a list of names.”
D’Alessio agrees with Rubell’s estimate of her effectiveness. “I know everybody. The beautiful, the rich, they are all my friends,” she says modestly, waving a list she claims has “8,000 of the best names in the world.” Explains D’Alessio: “I brought them to Studio 54, all the important names. I made it in the beginning for them. Who knew Steve Rubell?” But, she adds triumphantly, “they all knew me.” Her triumph is all the more succulent since D’Alessio had not only to draw her glittering crowd to Studio 54 but also to lure them away from Régine’s, New York’s most highly touted watering hole until Stu-
dio 54 came along. “Nobody goes to Régine’s anymore,” says a former employee of New York’s second-place disco. “What I mean is, only out-of-towners go, businessmen. None of the real crowd.”
Régine was reportedly so furious over the turn of events that she refused to speak to those who deserted to Studio 54. “But she had to give that up,” laughs Rubell, “because otherwise she’d have nobody to talk to.” D’Alessio herself is savoring her triumph with some attempt at tact. “I am not going to say anything about Régine. When I am on top, I don’t want to say anything about anybody.” But temptation in the end proves too great. “I think 1 have succeeded in upsetting her. Régine’s very French, you know, very possessive about people. So you can see why it might hurt when they come to Studio 54.” Supressing a giggle, D’Alessio adds: “I think there is enough business in New York for both of us.”
Still, D’Alessio is not about to rest on her laurels. She knows the fickle tastes of the people she caters to. “With celebrities, you have to pamper them, to make them feel special,” she says. At the moment, she is concerned that Studio 54 might not be giving its nearest and dearest enough tender, loving care. When applications for membership at $150 per person went out (members get an automatic admittance and a $3 discount on the $10 entrance fee), Studio 54 received 18,000 completed forms. Rubell admits no one has been able to sort out the confusion so far. He himself is not sure who is a member and who isn’t. “We’re working on it right now, trying to untangle everything.”
There is more to keeping celebrities happy, as D’Alessio well knows, than caring for their creature comforts. Their souls must be nurtured as well. “It must be amusing for them,” she explains. “New faces, new people, not just the same old crowd. When Valentino or Giancarlo Giannini are in town, I bring them. What I want is a good mix—beautiful people, artists, young people, whoever I say will get in can come.” To illustrate her life and death power over the guest list, she writes “OK Carmen” on a small yellow card. “With this, you will never have a problem at the door,” she says.
D’Alessio doesn’t stop at providing new faces. She also stages the spectacular parties which have been an important ingredient of Studio 54’s phenomenal success. It was a birthday party Mick Jagger threw for wife Bianca, in fact, that put Studio 54 on the map. Bianca entered riding on a white horse as flocks of doves were released into the air. “Just like the Olympics,” says D’Alessio with pride. After the doves, the celebrities flocked in like true birds of a feather. Her own favorite bash was entitled “Follies Extravaganza” and featured men clad only in jock straps zooming into the disco on huge Harley Davidson motorcycles as a bevy of young girls was lowered on wires from the ceiling.
At the moment, D’Alessio, recently back from Brazil, is dreaming of staging a Riostyle carnival. “You know, lots of confetti, wild music and a transvestite contest like the one they have in Rio,” she says. If all goes according to plan, the contest winner, himself or herself, will receive a round trip to Rio as a prize.
A recent headline grabber at Studio 54 was Liz Taylor’s 46th birthday party. (The event gained special distinction when Alyce Kaiser, widow of wealthy industrialist Henry Kaiser, had a $500,000 necklace snatched by thieves as she returned to her apartment from the bash.) Luminaries in attendance included Lauren Bacall,
media mogul Kay Graham, Truman Capote, Nixon’s literary agent Irving (Swifty) Lazar, and naturally, the reigning royalty of Studio 54, Halston, Warhol, Bianca and Margaret Trudeau. (In a move which shows more sanity than the American press has credited him with, Taylor’s present husband. Senate aspirant John Warner, did not appear.)
Why do the big names migrate to Studio 54 with such lemming-like regularity? “Why not?” whispers Warhol. “I think it’s quite amusing,” says Capote. “You don’t want to spend too much time in a place like this, but I think it’s fun for a while,” opines Margaret. Nobody was able to determine
quite what Taylor, surrounded by Studio 54’s guards, thought of the whole affair. “You can’t really speak to her,” confides one member of her entourage apologetically. “They’ve been drinking big and I think she’s really too high.”
On the dance floor, a onetime opera house later converted into a CBS studio, disco music blares out unceasingly from huge speakers. Perched in a booth high above the action, a special coordinator directs the 500 special lighting and scenery effects, modeled, says Rubell, “after overproduced television shows like Donny and Marie." There are 11,000 flashing light bulbs, the most spectacular a cascading shower of red and yellow lights that descend from the ceiling on 16 moving vertical poles. A curtain with stripes of silvery Mylar floating in an artificial breeze is periodically raised and lowered. Another popular backdrop features gauzy representations of the pyramids. The crowd’s favorite is “The Moon and the Spoon,” a crescent-shaped man in the moon taking a snort from an oversized coke spoon. (“Drugs?” laughs Rubell. “What can I tell you? We look the other way. Anyway, so many people are taking pills these days how do I know if it’s an aspirin or something else?”)
In the crowd, a young black wearing a ribbon-decorated lace wedding veil which falls from his head to his ankles dances with no one in particular. An elderly gay with short, dyed blonde hair, one earring and a Hawaiian muu-muu surveys the proceedings with detached amusement. Young waiters clad in black tights, satin trunks and tank tops, dart through the crowd carrying drinks, $2.50 apiece. Busboys, who jive to the music as they sweep up, wear only bright satin gym shorts. Dress ranges from jeans and punk to evening clothes. There are banquettes for exhausted dancers to sprawl on but the best place to view the action is from the 500seat balcony that overhangs the dance floor.
At the climactic moment of the Taylor party, two movie screens are lowered and stills of Taylor in all her famous pictures, from National Velvet to the just-released A Little Night Music, flash before the audience. When a shot ofTaylor as Cleopatra appears, one young waiter can restrain himself no longer. “I love you, you’re wonderful,” he shouts into the din. Rockettes with two-foot sparklers surround a platform with a huge birthday cake highlighted by an icing picture of Liz. As the firecrackers burn out, Halston and Liz, in blue sequin pants and top that reveal none of her famous cleavage but show all of her excess poundage, mount the platform and gyrate to the heavy beat of the music. Rubell, in a tuxedo, rushes about more frantically than any waiter, getting drinks for Liz and entourage. “Isn’t it great?” he asks breathlessly.
Rubell, who couldn’t have borrowed a dime from Halston a year ago, now flies to
Barbados with the designer and Bianca Jagger for weekends. But, despite compulsive name-dropping, he professes to be unimpressed by his new celebrity status. “Look, all these big names, they had to come from somewhere too,” he says. Others, however, teil a different story. “This trip has really gone to Steve’s head,” says one friend. “He’s star-struck. He’s like a kid with a new toy.”
As a matter of fact, Rubell can afford quite a lot of new toys this year. While he won’t discuss profits, reliable estimates put Studio 54’s first-year profits somewhere in the neighborhood of $800,000. “The profits are astronomical,” he admits happily. “Only the Mafia does better.”
Over a breakfast of pound cake and Coca-Cola at 4:30 in the afternoon (Rubell claims he sleeps for only about four hours every morning), he ponders the appeal of Studio 54. “It’s like an adult Disney World. We really give people a chance to get off on their fantasies. 1 think the theatre atmosphere has a lot to do with it. Everybody secretly likes to be on stage and here we give them a huge space to do it all on. You know, we have 5,400 square feet of dancing space here.”
In the discoworld. clubs growas rapidly as spring mushrooms and fade with equal rapidity, but Rubell says he is not worried about Studio 54’s staying power. “We’re already an institution, a New York tourist attraction. I get letters from people saying
they’re coming to New York just for Studio 54.”
With partners lan Schraeger and Jack Dushey, Rubell plans to open a London branch next fall and another in Japan later.
But despite the phenomenal success, Rubell has no plans to expand the existing Studio 54. That, however, doesn’t keep some of his associates from dreaming bigger dreams. One, in fact, has a plan to preserve a threatened New York landmark. “Can’t you see it,” the young schemer says with shiny eyes, “Radio City Music Hall as a discotheque.”1^?
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