For a nightclub that only lasted a few years and closed more than four decades ago, the strength of Studio 54’s sustained cultural influence astonishes me. In 2021 alone, it reared its glittery head in Halston, as the site where the eponymous designer (allegedly) railed cocaine in a booth and lit a fur coat on fire. It caught the eye of FX guy Ryan Murphy, who plans to spotlight its demise in the next season of American Crime Story. It serves as a hook for House of Gucci, Lady Gaga–as–Patrizia Reggiani shimmying under the club’s strobing lights in the trailers. This scene somehow did not make it into the movie’s 157-minute early press screening — too bad, considering how well the setting would match Patrizia’s own preference for extravagance and luxury. (“Synonymous with wealth, style, power,” to borrow from Gaga.) Still, the impact of Gaga’s sequined going-out top endures, a little disco lure to reel butts into seats.
Perhaps Studio 54’s aura of fascination remains because it didn’t last very long (the golden-age version closing due to tax evasion after about three years), or maybe because of the legions of slinky celebs who passed through its doors ( Liz Taylor seated on the dance floor, eating a cake with her face on it; Bianca Jagger riding that horse; Grace Jones all the time everywhere), or maybe because of a ’70s revival pushing people back to flares and curtain bangs. Or maybe because it really was that good, though as a person who will only ever experience Studio 54 in facsimile, I don’t have any idea about that. I can only wonder, as I ogle all the reproductions from my dumb little couch: Is this sufficiently swinging? Are we getting it?
I brought these questions to Robert “Bobby” Sheridan, who worked the door at Studio 54, alongside Marc Benecke, from just after its opening to around the time of the bust, in 1979. To underscore the Studio 54 doormen’s influence: Andy Warhol once described their reign over the entrance as a “dictatorship,” while Benecke says the New York Times once called him “the most socially powerful person” in the city. Now 39 years sober, Sheridan is in private practice as a psychotherapist in Providence, Rhode Island; he is also the father of one of my best friends, which is how I know about his past life as a “disco lounge lizard,” as he put it in our recent interview.
“54 was just electric,” he told me, “this carnival atmosphere where people felt free to just be absolutely who they wanted to be inside. And where it was okay, where it was welcomed.” It was a short window of excess, wedged in just before the AIDS epidemic took hold. “Last call for a very wild and open time in New York City,” he explains. “It wasn’t a barroom, it wasn’t a discotheque, it was a cultural moment.”
Okay, yes, incredible — how do I get in? (This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.)
How’d you start working at Studio 54?
I was tending bar at Jim McMullen’s on Third Avenue, a very hot restaurant owned by the male model. I was trying to get acting work, doing the occasional Off Broadway play. Steve and Ian, the owners of Studio 54, came in looking for another doorman, a preppy doorman, to help out Marc. They saw me behind the bar, and they asked Jim McMullen about me. My style was … preppy with a bit of an edge. I went down to 54 to meet with Steve. We went up to the balcony and just sat and talked, I told him about my background. It’s really just about personality, I’ve always been very outgoing. It was an easy interview, it didn’t go into too much depth, it probably lasted for half an hour and then he offered me the job. I had been going there a lot, I wasn’t getting any work acting and I was getting a little tired of tending bar, and this seemed like a very exciting thing to do. So I was hired, and I was paid $625 a week.
I’m not even going to attempt to convert that to 2021 dollars, but was that a lot of money for the industry and the job?
No not really, I was making more working at McMullen’s. The bartenders at McMullens were making $800 or $900 a week, because it was so successful. But I was excited to do it. We negotiated for a week or two and then one night, at 10 o’clock, I put on my black velvet pants and my white Capezio jazz shoes and an old double-breasted dinner jacket. I knocked on the backdoor on 53rd Street, and it all began.
I learned the door from Marc. It was six nights a week, from 10 at night until 4 in the morning. We became very good friends. I brought the preppy thing to Studio 54, Marc enjoyed that about me, so we would talk in exaggerated, WASP-y accents. He gave us nicknames: his was Biff, and my nickname was Bunky. The head of security was Chuck Garelick, he became Uncle Chuck — Uncle Chuck, Uncle Biff, Uncle Bunky. We had kind of a language at the door, certain words we used to describe who was approaching, that kind of thing.
What does it feel like looking out at that crowd?
Well, it’s overwhelming, but you feel safe because you’ve got a lot of security. And it’s very interesting, I mean, it was fascinating. You met amazing people … you knew that you were at the epicenter of something really remarkable. It wasn’t just a nightclub. It was kind of a celebration of people from the arts, dance, fashion, music, theater, entertainment, the gay world; this incredible mix of Manhattanites in the late ’70s, before the AIDS epidemic basically wiped out at least half of the creative people in New York. You had to be very protective of who was inside. On any given evening, you’d have, you know, Rudolph Nureyev, you’d have Chuck Berry, Keith Richards. There was a lot of media, especially on nights when there were parties, like when Dolly Parton showed up — we had decorated the inside of the club like a barnyard, there were animals, bales of hay.
How do you decide who gets in? Are there dress-code tips, tricks?
People ask this all the time, who got in, what was it? There wasn’t a line of people and you went to each person and turned them away. It was like a big boxing ring with ropes all around, and you had three or four bodyguards around you, and people would just walk up. You never said anything, you’re not supposed to talk, you’re supposed to walk up and be recognized. It wasn’t exclusive, really, it was inclusive of people who were of that moment in Manhattan, with an appreciation for diversity, with an eye for fashion. There was an etiquette to Studio 54. You never asked anybody to dance, that was rule number one. You got up and you danced, and you might end up dancing with Catherine Deneuve or anybody, but there was a sense that different rules applied. So you didn’t want to let anybody in who you thought might approach a celebrity, might hassle gay people, anything like that. People would come from out of town to come to the club, and it just wasn’t necessarily a good fit.
Steve wanted a “salad of people,” is what I keep reading.
A lot of wealthy people were there and a lot of celebrities, but there were a lot of kids who were busboys at restaurants in the Village who had a great look. They’d get in. There were a lot of ordinary people eking out a living in Manhattan, going out to have fun, but they knew what the club was about and they knew it was about acceptance and celebration.
Did people try to bribe you to get in?
Yeah, sure, people offered money, but you would never accept that, because if you did, then they’d show up the next night with all of their friends, everybody who’d been in their wedding. And it wasn’t about that. You couldn’t buy your way in, you know? Now, people used to tip us occasionally on the way out, and my tips often came in cocaine and quaaludes. People would slip me vials of coke, you know, people who were regulars. I was friends with them.
How much cocaine are we talking?
Cocaine was ubiquitous. The Upper East Side socialites were doing cocaine. The restaurant people were all doing cocaine. The stockbrokers were all doing cocaine. Cocaine was the marijuana of the disco era. I think about 54 as the end of the ’60s, in a way. In terms of the drugs, people had moved from looking inward to just straight up partying. It was a drug that kept you up and dancing for hours and hours, and made you very chatty. Everybody did cocaine in the ladies’ room because the ladies’ room was vast. There’d be a couple of Upper East Siders in black-tie, doing coke with a drag queen. People would do amyl nitrate on the dance floor, poppers, and also quaaludes. People did quaaludes because quaaludes were aphrodisiacs, and there was a lot of sex at Studio 54.
I have heard that, yes! So what was the wildest thing you ever saw at Studio?
The wildest thing was happening every night in the balcony. People would dance, get to know each other, do a little coke, and then go up to the balcony — because it was an old theater, you could hardly see up there — and hook up. Anything went, as long as no one got hurt. I remember there was a couple who came and one of them would be on a leash, and I think the woman was topless. There was a fair amount of nudity. Women would dance, showing their breasts, and guys would wear assless chaps, right? Like Halston’s boyfriend, Victor Hugo, often wore backless chaps. Are you getting a good picture? You wanna hear some stories about what happened at the door?
I do! In just a minute, I want to go back to the secret language at the door.
Well, we would identify certain people that we wouldn’t let in, like we would say, “BBQ house party” if, say, eight straight white guys dressed like John Travolta showed up at the door. We’d see them coming a half a block away and they already were not going to get in.
One night, it was late and I was out at the door alone, and this guy walked up to the rope, bell bottoms, vast amounts of gold chain and a long shag haircut. It just wasn’t gonna work. It was the ultimate disco but people didn’t dance like you saw in Saturday Night Fever, it wasn’t about that; it was about an individual look. So this guy’s standing out there for probably half an hour, Steve comes out and he looked at me and he said, “I think that might be one of the Bee Gees.” I said, “Really, you think so?” And he said, “That’s how they dress.” He walks up and he says, “Are you one of the Bee Gees?” And he goes, “Yeah I’m Barry Gibb.”
Oh no, he’s the Bee Gee! [Editor’s note: There are two other Bee Gees, Robin and Maurice Gibb; respect to these Bee Gees.]
I kept Barry Gibb waiting for half an hour. Of course, we took him inside, gave him the royal treatment, made up for it a little bit.
Would any celebrity get in if they just walked up?
Well, not necessarily. If somebody came up and they were really drunk and acting obnoxious, no they wouldn’t get in. But most celebrities knew there would be paparazzi there, and they could be on “Page Six” the next day. So they were on pretty good behavior. They might be very high on coke when they arrived, but they were on pretty good behavior.
The most exciting night for me was when Michael Jackson showed up, right after his album Off the Wall came out. I let him in, and I followed him into the club while Marc stayed at the door. I was right behind him, and he got on the floor and they put his album on. He started dancing, and the whole floor cleared out, and he danced to a couple of songs from that album. That remains in my mind as a real crystalline memory of that time. Everybody was in awe. It was the hottest nightclub in the world, this is the greatest performer in the world, performing music that everybody loved.
Are there maybe, let’s say, surprising celebrity interactions that stick out in your mind?
Yeah. Steve introduced me to Andy Warhol, and Andy wouldn’t let go of my hand. He was standing by the bar, and Steve said, “Andy, this is Bobby Sheridan, he’s our new doorman.” I said, “How do you do?” I shook his hand, and he just wouldn’t let it go. It was my 15 minutes with Andy Warhol, I guess.
What did you talk about?
Nothing! I was nervous. I didn’t know what to make of it, really. Nothing was said, it was just, I’m Andy Warhol, I’m holding your hand, you’re here with me, enjoy. But the moment that really explains how the door worked, the moment that stands out in my mind is, I was out at the rope and there were three straight couples, very well-dressed and obviously monied, who wanted to get in. They were offering me money, and they were getting a little annoyed with me. One of my favorite people was a guy named Rollerena, I think he was a stockbroker but he dressed like a fairy queen with a tiara, and he had a wand, and he was on roller skates. He was a regular. So while these people were giving me, you know, guff, he rolled up and he said, “Hi Bobby!” I let him right in, he gave me a kiss on the cheek. And the people looked at each other and they said, “Oh, it’s that kind of a place.” At that moment, Rod Stewart walked in right behind Rollerena, in an orange suit with pink shoes. I said, “Hi, Rod,” and he walked in. Those people just looked at me and turned and walked away.
I know you’ve watched Halston, and I’m wondering — with Studio 54 showing up in TV and movies a lot these days — what do you think of those interpretations?
It was a bacchanal in New York in those days. It was sex all over the place with various people, and it was full-tilt boogie: work, pleasure, cocaine. Anything went, everybody was cool with everything, and all I know is that he was always impeccably dressed, a gentleman, I never saw him do any drugs, though everybody knows that he did. Everybody was pretty toasted. But he wouldn’t sit on a banquette and do coke in front of people.
Are you glad you quit the higher-paying job at Jim McMullen to do Studio?
Oh, well, yeah. Jim McMullen, he’d come down three or four nights a week with about 20 people from the restaurant. He’d show up with Cheryl Tiegs and Christie Brinkley, and all the models of the day, and I let them all in for free.
On any given evening, it was an extraordinary event. On a Wednesday night, packed with people. Everybody just immediately went onto the dance floor and started dancing. You were drawn to it, like a vortex of pleasure. You were welcomed in. It was a festival of light and music, and the effects were incredible. There was a Man in the Moon that would come down and a coke spoon that would go up, and the tip of the moon’s nose would light up. You walked in and you were hit with this wall of sound, and you’d look out there and there’d be Diana Ross dancing to her own song. Or Michael Jackson, or there’s Mick Jagger. There are a bunch of gay guys in Day-Glo construction helmets, dancing with Bianca Jagger. You’re there, you’re there at a private party in the South of France, you’re there in Vegas, you’re in L.A., you’re seeing all these people that you read about. It was like watching a movie.