Studio 54: the ultimate temple of hedonism

At the end of September 1978, on the first stop of a year-long trip around the world, I arrived in New York for the first time in my life. A year of adventure began for me at the age of 22.

I had friends in the Big Apple. Among them were the Spanish designer Juanjo Rocafort, who lived in a spectacular penthouse in the Olympic Tower on 5th Avenue, the designer Mimi Trujillos, who was a close friend of Andy Warhol, Irma Rolon and some other key figures of the New York scene of those fabulous years at the end of the 1970s.


My memory of my first meeting with Carmen D’Alessio is hazy due to the passage of time, but it was during the first days of my arrival in New York. It was thanks to her that the doors of the mythical Studio 54 were opened to me. I spent every night there in October 1978. I will never forget the memories of that month of total disinhibition. I was witness to the history of New York. It was an era that will never come back. An unrepeatable era.

Carmen D’Alessio photographed by Bill King

There is a very good chance, dear readers, that you may not have any idea who Carmen D’Alessio is. Allow me to introduce her to you. I assure you that you will be delighted to meet her. Carmen was born in Lima and has been a New York night czarina for decades. Her reputation for public relations knows no bounds. She has the ability to summon celebrities and financiers and surround them with beautiful people. Carmen is an alchemist who knows the exact formula for creating unique atmospheres. With a captivating smile, she is an extraordinary woman. Her strength and energy are indescribable, and her overwhelming personality captivates all who have the honour of meeting her. She is undoubtedly Studio 54’s mastermind. She has come to live and breathe a unique era in New York.

Carmen D’alessio birthday coming out of the cake dressed by Norma Kamali

The divine Carmen knew Steve Rubell and Ian Shrager from the suburbs across the Hudson River and brought them to Manhattan. She was the one who found the old theatre converted from a former CBS television studio at 254 West 54th Street (between Broadway and 8th Avenue) and convinced them to rent it. For the pre-opening dinner, she bought them both Armani suits at Barneys and introduced them to Andy Warhol and designers Halston and Calvin Klein. The rest is history.


Carmen put Studio on the map by throwing the most extraordinary parties, such as the one where Bianca Jagger celebrated her 30th birthday by riding into the room on a white horse, Valentino played circus tamer with live animals and Armani was honoured with a ballet of drag queens. Carmen knew very well that celebrities are not always rich, and the rich are not always handsome or fabulous, but when you put rich, famous and handsome in the same big room, you create magic, and people are fascinated by magic. That was the big secret of Studio 54’s success. People danced and cavorted under the iconic coke-snorting crescent moon sculpture. I don’t think there’s ever been a freer place, not counting the bacchanalian parties of the Greeks and Romans, than Studio 54.

Studio54 (Pinterest)

Salvador Dali, Betty Ford, John Travolta, John Lennon with Yoko Ono, Bianca Jagger, Marisa Berenson, Liza Minnelli, Michael Jackson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jacqueline Bisset, Jackie Kennedy, Princess Grace of Monaco, Liz Taylor, Robert Redford, Carrie Fisher, Mary Taylor-Moore, Mick Jagger, Jerry Hall, Lauren Hutton, Madonna, Prince Egon and Diane von Furstenberg, Truman Capote, Keith Richards, Sylvester Stallone, John Travolta, Margaret Trudeau, David Bowie, Elton John, Elio Fiorucci, Cher, Deborah Harris, Alana and Rod Stewart, Kris Kristofferson, Rita Coolidge, John McEnroe, Halston, Andy Warhol, Calvin Klein, Rudolf Nureyev, Barbara Streisand and even Donald Trump all came to Studio 54,

Once you crossed the threshold and walked through what was called the Corridor of Joy, which housed the cloakroom and was the antechamber to the dance floor, the rules ceased to exist. Freedom was total and absolute. All passions and fantasies could be given free rein.  Jersey mechanics, Bronx waiters and Harlem students mingled with European aristocrats, Hollywood stars, financiers, politicians, pop stars, designers, models, and athletes. Whether you were from Jersey, the Bronx or Harlem, there was only one thing you had to do. You had to look good. Once inside, everyone was treated the same.  There was no obsessing over how to look. Not once did I ever see anyone at Studio 54 asking for an autograph or anything.

Every night was magical and full of surprises. There were live performances by divas like Grace Jones, Donna Summers, Amy Stewart, Diana Ross, Thelma Houston, and Gloria Gaynor.

Steve Rubell and friends. (Pinterest)

Legend has it that a huge crowd gathered outside the club, hoping to gain entry to what would become the global epicentre of disco madness and the world’s most famous nightclub, on its opening day on 26 April 1977. Studio 54 reigned alone as the most famous discotheque in the world, the Olympus of the Golden Age, for 33 months.

By the time of my encounter with Studio 54, it was already a statue of debauchery. Every night the who’s who of the beau monde gathered there, and if your name wasn’t on the list, it didn’t matter who you were. Admission depended solely on the mood of Marc Bennecke, the doorman, who was one of the most powerful people in New York nightlife. People would offer him anything to get in. But they never got in. Steve Rubell would also appear regularly to bless whoever he wanted to bless. There has been more than one celebrity refusal of entry! It’s rumoured that Warren Beatty was refused entry one night, and it’s known to have happened to Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, who went home in a huff and wrote the famous song “Le Freak”!  Andy Warhol said: “The door is a real dictatorship, and the dance floor is a democracy!

In an interview with Steve Rubell, Bob Colacello, editor of Andy Warhol’s legendary magazine Interview, said: “He’s bisexual. Very bisexual. Very, very, very, very bisexual. And that’s how we choose the people who come in. In other words, we want the people to have a good time and we want them to be very beautiful.

Source Pinterest

Rollerina, a gentleman dressed as a fairy with a magic wand who skated around on roller skates and was said to be a top Wall Street financier by day, and a lovely octogenarian grandmother they called Disco Sally, who danced and danced and danced until she died on the dance floor one night, were among the people I hung out with almost every night of the month I spent in New York. Nights at Studio were the height of performance art. It was foggy, windy and snowy. The sun rose and set inside the club, literally experiencing the sunrise and sunset!

The waiters of STudio 54 © Allan Tannenbaum – Zeitgeist Films

Steve Rubell was, along with Carmen, the heart and soul of Studio. During the three years of the dream, Carmen organised the extraordinary parties and Steve, the great showman, directed the performance. And the two of them were the perfect masters of ceremonies.  They were a consummate pair. There was a theatrical quality to Studio 54 that clubbers had never seen before. It appealed to all the senses and left you wanting more.  I saw people doing the same thing every night for the month I was there. Studio 54 in and of itself was like a drug. You had to be there. You never got tired of it, you just wanted more.


In the upper boxes of the former theatre, people disappeared into the darkness. I’ll leave it to the reader’s imagination what happened next. I will only add that the Studio was known as the Palace of Bacchanals for a reason! And for the VIPs there was the basement. It was a small, ramshackle room with low ceilings where you could indulge your every whim without worrying about prying eyes.  I was invited to the basement one night by Steve Rubell and I’ll cherish those memories! We were all young and cool!

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On the dance floor, poppers were being snorted to enhance the dancing experience, the trendy pills of the moment called Quaaludes were being taken and, of course, most of the audience had access to the best coke! In the lounge, the gorgeous waiters were all Adonis, hand-picked by Steve for their beauty. All were bare-chested as part of the visceral spectacle. One was a very young Alec Baldwin.


Every dream comes to an end. Studio 54 couldn’t last forever. After three epic years, Steve Rubell and Ian Shrager were accused of tax evasion and illegal cocaine sales. After a media trial, they were sentenced to three and a half years in prison. It was the end of the temple of hedonism and the disco era.

Rollerina (Pinterest)

On the 4th of February 1980, Steve and Ian’s Studio 54 closed its doors with one last party, “The End of the Gomorrah of the Modern Era”, hosted by Steve, Carmen, and Ian. The party took place two days before the couple went to prison, where they would spend a year and a half. Diana Ross took to the DJ booth and sang to the delight of the 2000 guests.

Grace Jones (Pinterest)

They were released from prison on 17 April 1981. They opened the Morgan Hotel on Madison Avenue.  Ian Shrager became an accomplished hotelier. Steve Rubell and Peter Gatien later opened the Palladium, a large nightclub famous for exhibiting the work of Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol, which became the centre of New York nightlife in the 1980s.  Steve Rubell died of AIDS-related causes in 1989. Donald Trump attended his funeral and all the Studio 54 faithful.


In 1998, Miramax released Mark Christopher’s 54: a sanitised and superficial vision, with 45 minutes cut from the gay theme (an essential part of what Studio! was). As one critic once said, “downplaying the gay aspect of a film about Studio 54 is like downplaying Hinduism in a film about India”. 

Man in the moon (Pinterest)

Mark Christopher had the opportunity to present his director’s cut at the Berlin Film Festival in 2015. It was very well received. At long last, the film did justice to itself. Last year saw the release of an interesting documentary, Studio 54, directed by Matt Tyrnauer and available on Amazon Prime, which focuses more on Schrager’s greed than Bianca Jagger on the back of a white horse and other extraordinary moments from the famous parties that created the 54 legend. Sadly, Carmen’s role is barely mentioned in this documentary. A serious and unjust omission.

Liz Taylor filled Studio 54 with fresh gardenias for her birthday. IN the photo with

The Brooklyn Museum in New York had an exhibition called Studio 54: Night Magic, which was a big hit in the Big Apple.

Studio 54 was open until 1986. But it was never the same. It closed its doors forever in full decadence. But its legend will always live on because it is part of a generation’s history.

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