Inside Studio 54: ‘It was like being in an artfully lit Sodom and Gomorrah.’

We speak to one of the regulars at the most iconic nightclub in history.

Very few nightclubs of days gone by still live on in eminence, or, dare we say, only one truly does. Studio 54. The name has become synonymous with pink smoked evenings of snorting cocaine from glittered table tops, celebrity in unequivocal quantities and a platinum-gilded sense of reckless abandon. To this day the club has a prestige beyond any other, an embodiment of the sexual revolution of the late 70’s drawing luminaries from across the globe to bask in its debaucherous glow. How could a place ever live up to such a reputation? One of the blessed few who rode the mirrored tide through the doors of Studio 54 in the late ‘70s was one Nicky Silver, now an expat living in London. He welcomed us to his Strand apartment to reminisce about his time at the immortal night spot.

So you arrive in NY what year?

January of 1977 – I had just turned 17. I moved for NYU.

How were those first few days after landing?


They were fabulous. I was too stupid and young to be nervous about anything. I was anxious to get out into the world and I don’t think I said the sentence “I’m gay” until I moved to New York City. That was part of it because I wanted to claim my identity. 

Was there a community there waiting for you?

It was very apparent; I didn’t have to go looking for it. Right away I got a job at an ice cream parlour restaurant. We sold hamburgers and hot dogs, right in the village across the street from a store called Reminiscence. At the time it was the trendiest shop in New York City. There would be a line around the block to get into the shop. I became friendly with the people who worked in there and they took me to Studio 54. I went out to discos all the time. I went out two or three nights a week. I had my classes, I had my part-time job, and I still managed to go out dancing two or three nights a week, and you’d stay out until 5 or 6 in the morning somehow when you’re 17 years old. By the way, completely illegal for me to be in them. I didn’t drink, and I still don’t really drink. It doesn’t mean that I didn’t do other things. I did recreational drugs, but didn’t drink. 

So back then, did it have that reputation? Did everyone know about Studio 54?

By the time I got there, yes. It opened in 1977, I think. From the time I got there the first time, I became a regular and went every Thursday and every Saturday for probably eight months. Before I went I had heard of it. The minute it opened it was a known thing – there were crowds outside trying to get in. I don’t know of any place that does it today the way that they did it then. There wasn’t a line to get in, there’d be a mob. Marc Benecke was the doorman. He would come out and point at people and say “YOU”, and you’d have to force your way through the crowd. Sometimes he’d split people up. I was a regular and I never had to wait, but I used to go with my friend Philip, and once we brought a friend of his who was visiting and he wouldn’t let the friend in. If you weren’t let in immediately you were never going to be let in. You could wait there until hell froze over. If you didn’t walk up and you weren’t ushered in, waiting wasn’t going to do you any good. Nowadays it’s a lot more democratic. For Studio 54 they were putting a crowd together that they thought would make a good night in their club. 

How did one get into Studio 54?

You got into Studio 54 because you were one of several things: You were either very, very physically beautiful by the generally accepted standards in the culture – more men than women. It pretty much meant young and beautiful, if you were very famous, or if you were very creative. I don’t really think that being rich got you in, unless you were so rich that you were also famous for being rich. I was not particularly beautiful, I was certainly not famous, but I was very creative. Philip was very beautiful, but as a pair I was the creative one and he was the beautiful one. I remember going to studio 54 with Phil and he was wearing red corduroys and a white t-shirt and I would have to wear a twister board with the centre hole cut out with my head stuck through it, and the spinner as a hat. 

Your first time ever stepping through those doors was with these friends from the boutique. How did that night play out?

You always got to Studio 54 around 11:30pm. I knew that they were regulars already, Tim and Jim. That was their names. One was white and from the south, the other was black, and they were both exquisite looking people, and without trying at all they could just look like models. I adored them. I was like a kid, they were much more sophisticated than me. I was in awe of them. That they allowed me to come with them was a big boost to my ego.   

Walking in, what do you see?

You would elbow your way through the crowd, then walk into a vestibule where you paid. Halfway up the stairs, there were lounge areas with sofas outside where people had sex. It was the first place I ever had any sexual activity with another human being. Nobody cared, you just walk past. Then you walk up to the ‘dress circle’ and the seats had all been ripped out, replaced by mattresses. People sat up there and did drugs, and people laid up there and had sex quite out in the open, and nobody noticed or cared. It was like being in an artfully lit Sodom and Gomorrah. The staff were all male, they all wore gym shorts and had fantastic bodies. There was a VIP downstairs area that I knew existed, but I never went because I wasn’t VIP enough. 

So every Saturday Night and Thursday Night…

Generally. Unless there was an event or a holiday. If it was Valentines Day you’d go to Studio 54. One year the whole lounge area had been completely covered in those candy-message hearts, which looked fun but was very messy. I was there the night that Bianca Jagger was led in on a horse, and I was there that Diana Ross sang sitting on the ledge of the DJ booth, which was suspended over the dance floor so she could have plunged to her death.

You’re just dancing on the dance floor an in walks a horse?

Yes. In walks a horse. People weren’t confused. People knew who Bianca Jagger was, it might have been her birthday. You saw many surprising things at Studio 54. The horse didn’t phase anyone. It was just like Cinderella. There I was – 17 living in a dorm – and I’d be dancing and sharing a drink with Liza Minelli and Rod Stewart and Andy Warhol, and I’d leave at 5 in the morning, and would walk to the subway, sometimes through the snow in my jazz shoes – my feet would be so cold and wet – and go back to my dorm. Quite the double life.

Who else did you know there?

Aside from the regular celebrities, there were Studio 54 celebrities. There was Rollerena, and Kevin and Arthur. The rumour was that Rollerena was a very important stockbroker with a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, in his 40s, and he dressed in pale cream Scarlet O’Hara-esque antebellum drag, and wore roller-skates, and a wig, and rhinestoned bejewelled glasses. I also remember him having a Mardi Gras mask on a stick occasionally. Then Kevin and Arthur; Arthur was bald as an egg, and Kevin had a long face. Neither of them wore wigs, but they dressed in period drag. They’d turn up in glamorous Escada gowns like they were going to the Oscars. That doesn’t sound like such an event today, but that was 1977. The first time you saw it, it was quite an unusual thing to see. Then there was Disco Sally who appeared to be in her late-80s, certainly the oldest one in the room, and she seemed to be there every night. Towards the tail end of Studio 54, I remember people with disabilities being led in, in a way that was quite nauseating, as if they were a novelty. 

What would you say was the most depraved thing you witnessed at Studio 54?

I didn’t think any of it was depraved. You saw men having sex in trios and duos. You didn’t see many lesbians. You saw a lot of heterosexual sex, as much as gay sex because it wasn’t a gay disco. It was completely libidinous and hedonistic. The idea was let’s put people the management thought were fabulous in a room, let’s make sure they were doing drugs so they’d lose their inhibitions. You’d see group sex sometimes, but never more than three or four. This is very shortly after the birth of sexual liberation – women hadn’t had the pill for very long, gay rights had just started to be a thing we were fighting for. The Stonewall rights were ten years later, but culturally that’s the blink of an eye. This was an explosion of sexual freedom. That’s also why it ended. 

You stopped going after eight months. Was it you that ended with it, or it that ended with you?

When Steve Rubell (the owner) was arrested for tax fraud, it closed for a few nights and then it re-opened, but it wasn’t the same. There was a big welcome back party for him, but shortly after that it closed. The spirit shifted when Steve was arrested, but it really shifted because of AIDS. All of New York nightlife slowly shut down and never recovered. 

And the very last time you headed over to Studio 54…

I don’t remember, which is very sad. I probably didn’t know it was the last time. It would’ve been nice to be able to cement the moments in my memory a little more. People were trying to keep New York nightlife going, but by then people had started dying. Philip died in 1982, so even though it wasn’t even called AIDS, there was something killing gay men by 1980. The spirit of New York changed very drastically, very quickly. The fights over promiscuity took over. 

The studio has garnered a folkloric reputation. Would you say it lives up to the lore?

One hundred per cent. Completely deserved. It was a fantastic experience, and I feel very lucky that I got there in time to be a part of it. A bad night at Studio 54 would be a spectacular night anywhere else. It deserved its reputation, a spectacular fall of the Roman Empire kind of place. 

Would you say that a place like Studio 54 could exist today?

No, for a couple of reasons. One would be the joy of that sexual explosion that only happens when it’s new. Now we’ve been through so much sexually as a culture that it wouldn’t happen. Also we’re more evolved, beauty is still the planet’s most valuable currency, but we’re not supposed to admit that. We would never have a club that only allowed beautiful in. We wouldn’t support it as a culture. Everybody hated the people that went to Studio 54, resented it terribly and EVERYBODY wanted to be one of them. 

Words by Ifan Llewelyn