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STUDIO 54 ROLODEX Works Biography

Studio 54 Background

By Michael Musto

The 1980s were all about largeness, even in usually small and subversive bohemia. The decade of big hair, protruding shoulder pads, and growing bank accounts cast its mark on the downtown club scene, which reflected the shiny bravado and generous cash flow of the moment. Avant-garde artistic types cavorted in expensive playpens and grabbed lots of publicity as “celebutantes”—flamboyant creatures who embraced an alternative lifestyle while simultaneously seeking fame and success from the mainstream media. They were yuppies in downtown clothing and managed to fuse an independent sprit with a nose for getting press and making connections, all while partying till closing time.

The brightest destination for all these flashy human dichotomies was the Palladium, the multilevel dance palace on East 14th Street that was one of the biggest things to ever happen to New York nightlife. In 1985, Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager—known for the legendary 1970s disco Studio 54–opened the club, a mammoth gamble with the capacity to hold 3000 people in its intricately designed variety of spaces. A former concert hall, the Palladium was an architectural marvel that had you running up and down lit-up stairs to various ambient areas, each with its own niche appeal and artistic allure.

Way down below was the Kenny Scharf Room, a psychedelic, cartoony wow of a love shack—a sort of Pee-wee’s Playhouse-style rec room by way of an

‘80s look back at the trippy ‘60s. The main dance floor was huge, glitzy, and studded with video screens–perfect for the swarms of bridge and tunnel people looking for an outré experience. And upstairs was the Mike Todd Room, the VIP area dotted with a large mirror, and murals by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, and Francesco Clemente—that moment’s trilogy of art-world edge-makers. (Basquiat was the Brooklyn-born ex graffiti artist who entered into ritual-drenched primitivism and became a media sensation. Haring went from chalk drawings to canvas with bright, poppy messages that made him world famous. Clemente, an Italian artist who dabbles in “the expanded consciousness,” still flourishes.)

This was basically Studio 54 for downtown, a place where celebs could coexist just yards away from brokers, wannabes, creative artists, and some assorted riffraff who actually paid to get in. Money was a familiar sight. In fact, while Studio 54 came alive in the middle of a bleak economic downturn, the Palladium did so in the midst of Reaganomics, which had the country believing prosperity and success were there for the taking and would last forever into the night. The corresponding nightlife was brash and confident—though as the AIDS epidemic kept mounting with a horrifying grimness, it added a loud note of panic that made partiers either want to drown their despair, swim into denial, or build up a wall of armor and go celibate. (The drag queens of the era were avant garde and forbidding looking creatures, almost as if to scare off potential customers.)

Similarly, Limelight and Danceteria were large Manhattan dance clubs with different venues inside them for various moods, and at the Tribeca dance barn called Area, every six weeks or so brought a new theme that changed the entire club’s décor from top to bottom. The new design was always carried off with an impressive artistic sensibility and great attention to detail, starting with the elaborately gimmicky invite—one time it was a capsule that dissolved in water, letting the invite magically pop out of it–right down to the witty execution of the club’s look. (For the Confinement theme, the house performer Zette was Anne Frank, trapped in the attic and exuding silent angst. For the Art theme, well, you really had to be there.) Area’s owners were primarily experimental artists who cared more about creating some kind of exalted environment than they were in making money hand over fist. It’s hard to imagine this now, when every penny counts, but at Area, quality actually came first, and the result was an aesthetic adventure of the type New York might not see again for decades.

In the same period, the East Village was booming as a center for up-and-coming art and performance, as outlandish entertainers like John Sex, Ann Magnuson, and Joey Arias worked out witty show biz parodies that became the go-to havens for those who read my Village Voice column or the style bible, Details magazine (before it was bought by Conde Nast and became a celeb-oriented mens’ glossy about shoes and stars).

At this point, the underground was a geographical place—generally 14th Street and below—not the state of mind it later became when it got appropriated by the mass media and indie culture took center stage. The ‘80s were a time before cell phones and the Internet changed the face of communication for all time, meaning that people actually had to go out to find a party, speaking to each other’s faces and getting the response in person. You couldn’t Facebook or tweet someone, so everyone kept a Rolodex full of little index cards that carried the contact information of those they cared about. (For serious partiers, a Roldoex became as important a status symbol as a Rolex.) Rubell’s Rolodex is a treasure trove of all the era’s glittery names, including Halston, Barykshnikov, Geffen, Jagger, and of course Andy Warhol, and though most of those icons were way more visible at 54 than at the Palladium, just the chance that they might still go out was enough to make this a Who’s Who of who we cared about at that instant.

In 1987, Warhol—the godfather of modern pop and a man who validated any experience simply by entering a room—died, leaving an unfillable hole in the culture and in the party circus. Basquiat was deeply haunted by that (and other things) and died of a drug overdose in 1988. And Haring—who promoted optimism and love–passed away from AIDS in 1990. That was the official end to the gleeful expression and hype of the ‘80s.

Along came the club kids—zany, irrepressible, underage, and often desperate party demons—to fill the void, but by 1994, Rudy Giuliani was the mayor and out to defang the nightlife in favor of catering to rich people and tourists looking for a “safer” urban experience. The ‘90s saw the advent of stultifying lounges and pricey bottle service–as well as general complacence, as clubs got increasingly blander–and the Internet took away a lot of the schmoozing business anyway. But while they lasted, the ‘80s were a sensational party—and the hair!

By the way, the Palladium was sold to NYU in 1998 and became one of their dorms a few years later. In the larger picture, that was tragic, though at least it’s now a resting ground for a new batch of kids who view clubbing as a night course. Cheers to them..

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