Studio 54's First Month Was Nearly a Disaster
Nicky Siano recalls how the fledging club struggled to fill its dancefloor despite a fabulous opening night.
Studio 54 is, without a doubt, one of the most successful clubs in New York nightlife. But as Nicky Siano—one of its resident DJs—recalls, the club initially struggled to take off, and celebrities would often party in a lounge below an empty dancefloor. Below, Siano shares his memories of the club's opening night, and the weeks where its future seemed uncertain.
I met Studio 54 co-owner Steve Rubell through Billy Smith, who was at the time the promotion man of 20th Century Fox Records. Billy and I had become good friends, and one night, I invited him to my house and gave him a glass of water, which I forgot was spiked with LSD. Now, I know that sounds like a horrible thing, but back then it was something that happened often, especially if you hung around with me.
I gave Billy the water, but the real problem was the fact that I didn't take any and went to bed. When I woke up, Billy was on his hands and knees cleaning my apartment. I thanked him, but he was mad as hell, and we didn't speak for a while. Anyway, I digress.
After we made up, Billy took me to dinner at the Douglastan Gold Course Country Club, the building that [Studio 54 owners] Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager had procured to open a new club called The Enchanted Gardens. We used to call it "The Enchanted Hellhole," just for a laughs—it was actually a superb venue. (We had names for all the old clubs; The Limelight was "The Slimelight," The Ginza was "The Gay Ginza"... I'll give you a list one day.)
When arriving at dinner, we were greeted by Steve and a few waiters, who led us into a glimmering dining room with a fine steak and lobster menu, and I could clearly see the New York City skyline at a distance.
At that time, Steve and Ian owned a chain of restaurants called Steak Loft. Initially, they thought the venue would be a fabulous restaurant with a disco after-hours for extra money. It turned out just the opposite. The restaurant started to bleed money immediately, while the club earned the seed money for what became Studio 54.
How I wish I had a partner like Ian Schrager to make money with. I would be sitting pretty today...(Ian if you're reading this, I have a great idea for a club).
At the end of dinner, Billy said to me, "Why don't you play [at The Enchanted Gardens]?" Steve added eagerly, "Would you?" while looking at me like an excited puppy—he was quite cute back then. At the time, I was on a salary at Gallery, which paid me $350 a week. That was actually enough to live on, believe it or not, but I was always looking for some extra cash.
Still, I had to put up a little resistance for the sake of not looking too easy. "Who did the sound? Richard Long?" I asked, referring to the legendary sound designer. They said yes. "Oh, OK, I'll do it," I replied. Then Steve drove me home, and somehow ended up in my bed. I still can't remember how! After about nine months playing at Enchanted Gardens every Tuesday night, I decided to leave the club. Steve, Ian and I had a very amicable parting of the ways.
When I left The Enchanted Gardens, I remember exactly what I said to Steve on my last night: "If you ever open a club in the city"—meaning, Manhattan—"call me, I would love to work with you again."
About one year later, the phone rang, and it was Steve. "Nicky, we're opening a place in the city, why don't you come down and see it, the address is 254 West 54th Street," he said.
A few days later, when I walked into one of the largest spaces I have ever seen mounted as a club, I was told that this theatre was an old CBS studio called CBS Studio 52, where TV shows like The Price is Right were produced. I was impressed.
But there were workers running everywhere, the carpets weren't installed yet, and the floor was concrete, which wasn't great to dance on. Much of the scenery that was to become the light show when mounted was sitting against the back wall. There was sawdust on everything.
Steve and Ian were standing in the center of the what was to be the dancefloor, bent over architectural plans. Despite the mess, they had giant smiles on their faces, like they were so proud of their baby. Looking back, no wonder they had those smiles: they saw millions of dollars in that sawdust!
Still, I was kind of horrified. The space looked too big and was unfinished. So I asked the first question that came to my mind: "When are you opening?"
"Two weeks," was Steve's quick reply.
I looked around slowly and asked, "Are you going to make it?"
"Oh yes we are! And you're going to play Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday, Richie Kaczor will play Friday and Saturday. Are you interested?" Steve asked.
"Sure," I said.
I got the opening night invitation a few days later in the mail. It was a thick envelope, 8x10. Inside, folded four ways, was a 16x20 color poster.
In 1977, this was unheard of. Club owners were still sending out xeroxed sheets as invitations. We had surpassed that at the Gallery, sending out a collage by our resident artist for my birthday, which blew everything else away. Now there was this whole new generation of clubs like New York, New York and Xenon, and the way they thought about creating a buzz around themselves was impressive.
On opening night, I put on my finest Fiorucci jeans and a silk Fiourcci shirt (very popular at the time), grabbed my friend Louis, and off we went to the club. As we turned the corner, I could see the club's marquee with the iconic 54 numbers tilted and shining, but I couldn't see the front door since a sea of people were in the way.
I was stupefied. I was used to dealing with crowds, but this was something else. People were screaming, "Are you going to honor these invitations?" and debris was being thrown at the door attendants. I heard a bottle crash against the pavement. I was afraid.
Then I saw Steve step up on a small fire department spigot against the wall, looking over the crowed. I waved to him, finally catching his attention. He pointed to me, and several large bouncers grabbed Louis and I, pulling us through this sea of humanity.
I heard Steve say "CENTER DOORS" as we were whisked past everyone and into the club. Inside was very different. It was calm and welcoming—still a sea of people, but exactly what I was used to. Faces I knew, everyone smiling and dancing.
I slowly made my way to the DJ booth, and got in behind Richie Kaczor, who Steve had chosen to play opening night. "WOW," I said. The lighting, the number of people, and how the club looked—everything was spectacular.
Then, as the crescendo in the song approached, I heard my light man Robert De Silva say "three, two, one" into a headset, and bam! Right on cue, the congo break in the music, and a giant shredded Mylar curtain came wavering and flickering very quickly downward, reaching just over the dancers, who reached to grab a piece before it went quickly back up again.
I heard Robert hit something, there was a pop, and I could see the sparkle of confetti slowly falling down on people's heads below. "WOW!" I repeated more enthusiastically. I was hooked.
Robert leaned into my ear. "Have you been downstairs? There's a private lounge below the dance floor." Well, no one of importance was down there yet.
Despite the extraordinary opening, the club was nearly empty the next night, with less than 400 people—an amount not suitable for a room the size of which Studio 54. It looked empty. It was such a large space, making it work every night of the week would require 1000 people per night, AT THE VERY LEAST; that was a difficult goal.
People had slowed down visiting clubs on a nightly basis—the weekdays were reserved for small clubs like Limelight, or the Hollywood, which held 300 to 400 people.
Seeing the problems with attendance on the off nights, Steve, Ian and Carmen quickly began meeting daily, strategizing how they would lure the throngs of dancers they KNEW would love Studio 54 the moment they stepped inside. As a DJ, the lack of business was obvious; we would often close early with less then 200 people in the club at 2AM.
Steve came in during the day, doing everything he could to publicize the club. He invited photographers from major papers on the weekends, when he knew celebrity guests would be present, and the club would be full, a shining success in the centerfold of the New York Daily News. Word was spreading, people were saying, "I WANT TO GO HERE," no matter what was happening during the week. Steve maximized those packed weekends, to spread the legend of STUDIO 54. He adopted a habit of calling everyone he knew, especially stars and people in the public eye, and asking them to come by, promising them star treatment, a table and cocktails for "you and your friends." Often, only on the weekends.
Then, about 5 weeks into operation, Steve got the break he needed. It was Bianca Jagger's birthday, and he would throw her birthday party, STUDIO 54 STYLE!
Steve knew celebrities would be a draw for the cameras—he wanted the place to be known as a home for celebrities.
When they told me I would be playing for Bianca Jagger's birthday celebration, I didn't know what to expect. But everything changed that night. Her friends, who were the most famous people on the planet, like Liza Minelli and Mic Jagger, were there. So were 23 reporters from every major newspaper, who would take the iconic picture of Bianca on a white horse; a picture that circled the globe by morning, and bang, the legend of 54 was cemented.
Crowds began flocking to the doors in record numbers, and nightlife itself started to change: people began going out every night of the week again, but now not to just dance—this time the spectacular events would draw the crowds. Studio 54 did that. But I'll never forget those three weeks, when they were scrambling to make it all work…
As told to Michelle Lhooq.
Nicky Siano & Rebecca Lynn present the next Native New Yorker Party at The Good Room Friday August 25th. Tickets will be on sale in July here.