In the 1970s, Studio 54 was the epicenter of New York nightlife. With wildly theatrical sets, a guest list of celebs, and jet-setters that included everyone from Andy Warhol to Grace Jones, and a pulsating disco beat, the nightclub helped define the Me Decade. But its reign was short lived. In 1980, founders Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager were convicted of tax evasion after skimming nearly $2.5 million in unreported income.
The club and Rubell and Schrager’s rise to the top of the Manhattan social ladder are documented in Matt Tyrnauer’s acclaimed new documentary, “Studio 54.” Rubell died of complications from AIDS in 1989, but the film boasts in-depth interviews with Schrager, who has been hesitant in the past to publicly reflect on that heady time.
It’s easy to see why he’d be wary of revisiting the more painful parts of his past. Schrager successfully reinvented himself, helping to popularize the concept of the boutique hotel by creating the Paramount Hotel and the Royalton Hotel. He’s a family man now, the father of five children, with a penthouse apartment in Chelsea that boasts 360 degree views of the city. And he has a clean slate, having received a presidential pardon in 2017. But he felt the need to, in his words, “set the record straight.” Schrager sat down with Variety recently to reflect on the club’s legacy, to open up about his decision to talk to Tyrnauer, and to share his unvarnished opinion of that other Studio 54 movie.
Why did you participate in the documentary?
I read something in [Motown Records founder] Berry Gordy’s autobiography in which he said if the hunter doesn’t tell the story, the lion will.
It’s been 40 years. I wanted my kids to get an idea of what really happened, and I wanted to set the record straight. There were a lot of revisionists out there. I thought it would be an opportunity to correct that. In Wikipedia, I’d read about a whole bunch of partners that I’d never had. There was a cottage industry of people that didn’t do all that much, but were claiming they played very important roles. When I was quiet and not responding to anything, people took that as an opportunity to say whatever they wanted.
You’ve only given a few interviews about Studio 54 over the years. Why were you so reticent to talk about it?
I was ashamed. It’s always been a source of embarrassment for me. It was the beginning of everything, but almost the end of everything as well.
I had the trademark for Studio, and I let it lapse. I didn’t want anything to do with it. I had ambivalent feelings about it. The pride in the achievement was buried by the shame of it. It still affects me with the people I aspire to do business with. It never goes away entirely. It’s always a scar. I’ve become calloused with it. I was going into a bank the other day and I saw the head of the bank. I looked at him, he looked at me. I get a call the next day from the bank and they say from the highest levels, we can’t do it.
We are several generations removed from Studio 54’s heyday. Why are people still talking about the club?
There are very few times in life where people can experience something close to an absolute freedom where anything goes. There was a complete diversity of people. There were celebrities all over the place, but nobody cared. Nobody gawked. Nobody went up asking for autographs. There was sex all over the place. Nobody cared. That level of freedom, it’s the human condition to desire that. It was a seminal cultural event.
At the time, did you feel like you were doing something enduring?
No. All that we wanted to do was make the best nightclub in New York. It was historically there were a lot of things going for it that acted as a catalyst. There was a lot unrest in Europe, so a lot of people there rolled into New York. It was New York’s time then. Like London was in the 60’s. It was also the worst time for New York in a lot of ways. The infrastructure was crumbling. It was unsafe in lots of areas. But it was also the last time New York was the center of the world. Globalization has changed that.
It could happen again. From Sodom and Gommorah through the Roaring Twenties, it’s happened.
What was the secret to your partnership with Steve Rubell?
We each filled a void in the other. He was an outgoing guy, and I’m not. He was a very people-oriented person, and I’m not. There was a genuine trust between us. When he was getting all the credit for a lot of the work that I was doing, I didn’t care. He wasn’t taking anything from me. We complemented each other. I’m not a networker. Somebody once said if we weren’t partners, we both would have been successful, but we were more successful together.
You also didn’t seem to like to be front-and-center as much as Steve did. Is it true you left early during Bianca Jagger’s infamous birthday party at Studio 54?
When the white horse came out and the birthday cake got presented, I left. Steve stayed until the very end.
Watching the documentary “Studio 54,” I couldn’t help but shake the feeling that I was watching the last gasp of something. It’s impossible not to think about the fact that the AIDS crisis was looming.
It’s very sad. AIDS was a really sad thing because so many people died and nobody knew what it was at first. You have sort of a pit in your stomach about that. I don’t think of it as a last gasp. It was a last gasp before there were repercussions.
In the film, it’s very clear that Steve’s death remains a source of pain for you.
You never get over that kind of loss. It’s a scar. It gets better. But you always have it. It still brings a sadness when I think about it. I’ll never have another friend like that, and I’ll certainly never have another business partner like that.
Watching the movie, I also want to shake you. Studio 54 is a phenomenon and you get caught skimming off the top. Why did you risk everything?
I don’t know. I ask myself that. We got carried away. The aura of invincibility was very intoxicating, which is even more dangerous when you don’t realize it. We didn’t think the rules applied to us. We thought we could bend them and be clever and get around them. We almost destroyed ourselves. Liz Smith said Studio was a Frankenstein monster that almost killed its creators.
Did you ever feel like you were doing something wrong?
It wasn’t a rational thing. It was completely out of control. Everybody in the city of New York knew what was going on. It was the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. I look back now and I can’t explain it. We didn’t come from money. We were two middle class guys who were really hungry for success.
If we hadn’t tried to protect Studio none of this stuff would have happened. Nobody had ever been given jail time for a one-year tax evasion. Nobody had even been prosecuted for a one-year tax evasion. Nobody. This was too sexy for the prosecutors to resist. If we’d pled guilty to a felony, we would have lost the liquor license and we would have lost our beloved Studio. We couldn’t do that. We should have realized our lives were at risk and our families were at risk.
Did you watch the movie “54” with Ryan Phillippe and Mike Myers?
That was junk. Really junk. It was a complete exploitation.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.