Messed Up Things That Happened At Studio 54

There were few places in history crazier than Studio 54. Maybe the most bacchanalian parties of the Greeks or Romans could give the club a run for its money, but that's about it. In a relatively small space were some of the most beautiful and richest people who ever lived. They were out of their minds on drugs and indulging in their dirtiest fantasies. It was completely normal to see people walking around naked. A cheetah might be sitting at the bar. And, of course, disco music was blaring.

We still don't know even half of what went on behind those hallowed walls, but some people have been willing to spill a few details in interviews or memoirs. The picture that forms is that you had to see it to believe it. But we can still try to piece together some of the most messed up stuff that ever happened at Studio 54.

On opening night, even waiting to get in was a party

Studio 54 started as it meant to go on. There was no need for word of mouth to grow this into a hot club; people were desperate to get in from the first night it opened. Oddly, one of the first people ever in the club was Donald Trump. According to the Daily Beast, he and his friends had no problem getting in because they showed up unfashionably early and were basically first in line. But soon the crowd started to build to ridiculous proportions.

Hindsight is 20/20, but people who were there swear they knew they were part of something historic. So they were willing to wait and hope to get noticed and invited past the velvet rope keeping them away from all the fun inside. Not that they actually waited to get inside for the fun to start. By midnight, the huge group in the street had become "Sodom and Gomorrah." It was "madness."

A doctor had thoughtfully brought a giant box of Quaaludes with him. (Quaaludes, a prescription sedative with hypnotic effects, were huge in the '70s and classily known as "panty droppers.") He handed them out to a few dozen people around him and they waited the 15-20 minutes for them to kick in. Once they did, a "mad sexual orgy" started. Men and women whipped out their private parts and everyone started feeling up complete strangers. Again, this is in a huge crowd of people on a street in Manhattan. Studio 54 had arrived.

People tried absolutely everything to get in

Getting into Studio 54 could be impossible. There didn't seem to be any rhyme or reason for who gained entrance and who didn't. The owner, Steve Rubell, saw it as "casting a play," and getting the perfect mix of people was key.

This meant the doormen had huge amounts of power. The head guy, Marc Benecke, was just 19, but his position made him one of the most important people in New York. According to Rolling Stone, people would offer him anything to get in. Sometimes thousands of dollars changed hands. The Independent says others took a different tack, offering their bodies instead. Benecke says he "sometimes" took them up on it.

When sex and money didn't work, people would get violent. Nearby trash cans always had to be emptied of bottles and other things that could become dangerous projectiles. One night a rejected hopeful came back and brandished a gun. The doormen regularly had to be escorted home at the end of the night for their safety. Still others would try to be sneaky. It wasn't that unusual for people to rappel down the neighboring building using full climbing gear, trying to get into the courtyard over a 10-foot wall with barbed wire on top. One guy fell and had to be stretchered away. The most tragically desperate individual was found in an air vent in black tie attire, dead. He'd gotten stuck and no one knew he was there until it was far too late.

Being famous didn't mean you got in

While the club wanted to attract as many celebrities as possible, just being famous didn't necessarily guarantee you entrance. They were known to turn away some seriously well-known people. Henry Winkler, who had been playing the Fonz on smash hit Happy Days for years at that point, was summarily rejected one night. There is mixed reporting on whether notorious lady-killer Warren Beatty was told to leave or if he gave up on his own.

But two people we know were flat-out rejected were disco legends Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of the band Chic. It was all down to a misunderstanding; they'd been invited personally to a New Year's Eve party there by Grace Jones, but the guest list hadn't been updated. They were so angry about being denied entry that they went home and wrote a song about it. Once they replaced the profanity, it would become their smash hit "Le Freak."

The people who did gain entry were just as bizarre. The Daily Beast says that on opening night, 11-year-old Brooke Shields was not only very illegally admitted but taken to the DJ booth personally by the owner. There is a famous picture of former first lady Betty Ford (who had quit drinking and prescription drugs just a year before) hanging out with the stars while her Secret Service detail stands behind her. A 77-year-old widow who became known as "Disco Sally" was a regular and was always allowed in when she showed up.

People got up to the worst stuff in private areas

The packed dance floor was the place to see and be seen, but not everything people got up to at Studio 54 was necessarily intended for an audience. Fortunately, there were places they could go to do the most extreme stuff.

Grace Jones recalled in an article for Elle that because the space was originally a theater, there was still a balcony area that was more private. There, "you could disappear into the shadows and get up to whatever." But if that wasn't enough, above the balcony was the "Rubber Room." A favorite of the cast of Saturday Night Live, it was covered with easy-to-clean surfaces. Bodily fluids and coke dust can be hard to remove under normal circumstances. When the builders were asked if they were making a "sex pit," the answer was simply, yes. (This was before the AIDS crisis hit, so people were much freer with their bodies.) One journalist who was there frequently said, "Even if you weren't having sex with someone every night, you felt like you could."

But if you were really famous, there was the basement. A kind of unofficial VIP area in an already VIP club, it was where big celebrities went for their private trysts. According to the Guardian, the owners helpfully supplied mattresses and everything. Many of the celebs who were there are still alive, so other than vague rumors, we don't know the worst of what went down.

Drugs were absolutely everywhere

To dodge strict rules about serving alcohol, the club didn't actually have a permanent liquor license for a long time. Instead, they would just apply for a temporary one every day they were open. Amazingly, this worked, until it didn't. According to a New York Times article from the time, one night they were finally figured out and told they couldn't serve booze. They put up signs apologizing, and everyone enjoyed juice instead.

Not having alcohol wasn't a problem, of course, because this was the 1970s. Alcohol was not the main thing people were after. It wasn't subtle: Hung from the roof of Studio 54, dangling over the dance floor, was a giant crescent moon with a face, a cocaine spoon moving to and from its nose.

MSN called the drug-taking "endemic." It was just as much a part of the Studio 54 experience as the dancing. People openly took poppers on the dance floor, and less openly shot up heroin in dark corners. Not only was this accepted, but one of the biggest suppliers was the co-owner Steve Rubell. He infamously walked around wearing a padded coat that hid his stash of cocaine, Quaaludes, and poppers. If he liked you enough, he'd give you a little something. The owners knew they needed celebrities to keep coming, and they knew celebrities liked free drugs. So they would send limos to pick them up, making sure there was plenty of cocaine in them first.

The bartenders were part of the entertainment

Co-owner Steve Rubell was gay, which could explain why instead of the busty women you might expect, the bartenders at the club were all hunky guys. (A young Alec Baldwin was a busboy, and legend says he quit because he was too turned on by all the intimacy he witnessed.) Their uniform was a tiny pair of shorts and nothing else. They also didn't do very much work.

New York Magazine interviewed former employees, including bartender Scott Taylor. Taylor basically just showed up opening night and offered to work. According to him he actually took the trash out and swept up while his co-workers partied. This made him extremely popular, and they demanded Taylor stay when Rubell wanted to fire him.

Another employee, "Lenny 54," was open about the fact he wasn't going to just serve drinks. He told Rubell outright that his uniform was ridiculous for working, and instead he was going to hang out and entertain the celebrities. He was supplied with drugs and given a regular paycheck. Sometimes entertainment went further. Rubell liked to tell a story about a countess who took a fancy to one unnamed bartender and had him handcuff her to a pipe in the basement before having sex with her. The employee, stoned out of his mind, forgot to unlock her and went back to work.

One bartender co-wrote a novel in 1980 about a Studio 54-like club that was so close to reality, Andy Warhol wondered how he didn't get sued.

No, really, the parties were completely over the top

If a regular night at Studio 54 was crazy, it was the special parties that were totally unacceptable. The owners were always trying to top themselves, and it led to some ridiculous events.

One of the most famous pictures ever taken at the club was of Mick Jagger's then-wife Bianca (pictured above at a different event with John Travolta) atop a white horse being led around the dance floor by a naked man covered in glitter (and sporting a fabulous '70s mustache). Now an animal rights advocate, Bianca told the Financial Times (via the Guardian) that she didn't show up on the horse. Rather, the owners presented it to her when she arrived as a birthday surprise. She called getting on it and riding around a "foolish decision."

Rolling Stone reported that when Dolly Parton came to town for a concert, the owners decided the best way to make a country singer feel comfortable was to turn the club into a farm. There were "horses and donkeys and mules running through the club," as well as chickens in a pen. Parton ended up being less than amused and sat quietly most of the night.

It wasn't just animals that were taken advantage of. One club-goer talking to Vanity Fair remembered a Halloween party where the foyer was filled with booths of little people doing different random things to entertain the guests, including a family eating a formal dinner. All very un-PC.

The owners were eventually busted for so much illegal stuff

Studio 54 had an epic few years, but that was it. It wasn't that disco was dying or the club became uncool, it was that the owners were complete crooks. And they were not quiet about it. According to the Independent, in 1978 co-owner Steve Rubell bragged openly in an interview about how well things were going, saying "only the Mafia made more money" the year before. Comparing yourself to organized crime is not the best idea if you have something to hide, which they did. It got the attention of the IRS, and the club was raided on suspicion of tax evasion.

Unlike most businesses who are fiddling the books, Studio 54 kept detailed records of their illegality. The owners were skimming millions, up to 80 percent of their profits. This was ridiculous because if you want to get away with it you might skim 1-2 percent. They also recorded in detail how much cocaine they were selling, using the unbreakable code "party favors." The IRS was not fooled.

Even when they were under investigation for tax evasion and obstruction of justice, the owners renovated the club. After they were found guilty and sentenced to three and a half years each, they threw one last huge party the night before they went to prison. Diana Ross and Liza Minnelli both performed. It was the end of an era.