Steve Rubell, 1943-1989
Story by Irwin M. Rappaport and Matt Tyrnauer
Recording by Matt Tyrnauer
Steve Rubell was the guy you had to impress with your looks, your style, or your celebrity if you wanted to get through the door at Studio 54, the most famous nightclub of the disco era. I’m Matt Tyrnauer and I directed the documentary film Studio 54.
In April 1977, Rubell and his longtime friend Ian Schrager opened Studio 54 in a former opera house turned CBS studio on 54th Street in Manhattan where TV shows such as What’s My Line?, The $64,000 Question, and Captain Kangaroo had been produced.
Studio 54 was a theatrical extravaganza, using its theater and TV studio roots to create movable sets and lighting. The furniture was modular, for maximum flexibility in creating the mood for the moment.
The club was a who’s-who pageant and a playpen of debauchery, where the biggest stars of film, TV, stage, music, fashion, art, politics, and sports would dance, do drugs, and even have sex in the shadows. Studio 54 defined the emerging age of celebrity. But signs of trouble emerged early. Only one month after opening, the club was temporarily closed by the state liquor authority, because the owners only had only daily catering permits.
Rubell’s flair for self-promotion became his downfall when he bragged in print about the $7 million the club had made in its first year. Studio 54’s tax returns told a different story. Rubell and Schrager were convicted for tax evasion following an IRS raid in which a second set of books were found hidden in the ceiling tiles of their office.
A final party in February of 1980 included Diana Ross and Liza Minelli singing a tribute to Rubell and Schrager, while guests such as Jack Nicholson, Richard Gere, Farrah Fawcett, Bianca Jagger, and Mariel Hemingway looked on. Rubell and Schrager went to prison and suddenly, it seemed, the glory days of disco were over.
After serving most of the 3½ year sentence and living in a halfway house for a few months, Rubell and Schrager next moved into the hotel business, and again, had spectacular success, opening Morgans on Madison Avenue, the Royalton on West 44th Street, and the Paramount near Times Square. They also opened a new club, Palladium, where the art of Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Kenny Scharf adorned the walls.
Rubell — whose sexuality was an open secret but who never publicly came out as gay — tested positive for HIV in 1985. He died in 1989 at the age of 45.