Brooklyn exhibit showcases Studio 54's shimmering heyday

New York (AFP) –


As sanitized elbow bumps replace hugs and handshakes, the Brooklyn Museum is reminding New Yorkers of the sweaty days of 1970s disco, when everyone who was anyone got down at Studio 54.

Bumps back then packed a far stronger punch -- cocaine was the era's party drug -- and the iconic Manhattan club that hosted the likes of Diana Ross and Andy Warhol became a liberating space of open sexuality, glittering fashion and wildly influential music and dance.

"Studio 54: Night Magic," a new exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum opening Friday, takes visitors past the famously guarded velvet rope of the glam, louche nightclub on Midtown Manhattan's 54th street, highlighting the venue's sociocultural impact along with its platform boots, slinky lame dresses and electric basslines.

"Studio 54 was absolutely the most glorious and fun place in the world," said Richard Williamson, a photographer and designer who played a key role in creating the club's sets, dance floor and visuals.

- 'Social revolution' -

Founded by Brooklynites Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell, the exclusive dancehall in a former opera house was open just three years -- from April 26, 1977 until February 2, 1980 -- but its impact on art, music, nightlife and culture continues to resonate today.

"At a time of economic crisis, Studio 54 helped New York City to rebrand its image, and set the new gold standard for a dynamic night out," said curator Matthew Yokobosky.

"Today, the nightclub continues to be a model for social revolution, gender fluidity and sexual freedom."

The exhibit showcases Studio 54's exuberant parties that included legendary moments like a 3am performance from Grace Jones at the 1978 New Year's Eve party, and Bianca Jagger mounting a white horse on the dance floor.

Rose Hartman -- the photographer behind the iconic image of Jagger in an off-the-shoulder dress atop a snow-white horse -- recalls hurriedly dragging her camera out of bag to snap the photo now on display in Brooklyn.

"I couldn't dance with cameras," Hartman laughed. "And not to brag, but I was really a good dancer."

- Young and beautiful -

The show includes a number of looks from Halston, the American designer whose aesthetic defined the era's club fashion -- think deep V-necks, drapey halter tops and accordion pleats in luxurious fabrics like silk and chiffon.

"Imagine a dance floor full of young, hot people -- I mean they were really hot-looking -- wearing almost nothing," said Sandy Linter, 72, a makeup artist who was a club regular and painted the faces of stars including Ross and model Jerry Hall.

"People were very friendly -- and sexy."

Rubell famously controlled the club's velvet rope, which hopefuls clamored behind to get in as A-listers like Cher, Elizabeth Taylor, Farrah Fawcett, Liza Minnelli, Michael Jackson, Truman Capote, Diane von Furstenberg and Yves Saint Laurent breezed past.

Disco trends have returned in recent years, including jumpsuits, metallics, hoop earrings and "Saturday Night Fever"-esque wide pointed collars -- but there's one trend Linter hopes is dead for good.

"The guys, the waiters, at night wearing little gym shorts -- that's never going to come back," she said.

- 'Total joy' -

Founded in a moment when Black and Latinx dance culture as well as underground gay clubs were taking off, Studio 54 became a countercultural beacon that lionized a new kind of lifestyle favoring creative expression and sexual freedom.

Open drug use and public sex were the norm inside the ballroom, as music from artists including Donna Summer -- famous for hits like "I Feel Love," which laid the foundations for today's electronic dance music -- blared.

"It was pumping," said Linter. "It can probably never happen again -- I mean this was pre-AIDs."

"Today, we're elbow-bumping and everything."

The party at Studio 54 came to a sudden close with a final bash after authorities cracked down on the club owners for tax evasion.

But the hotspot's lore looms large over pop culture, a history the Brooklyn Museum show, open until July 5, seeks to trace.

The last days of disco are long gone, but Williamson said its spirit lives on: "that liberated, gleeful, total joy sensation that you felt when you were there at the club or on the dance floor."

"It was a very special experience -- almost indescribable."