On April 26, 1977, hundreds of the world’s cultural elite had gathered outside 254 West 54th Street, desperate to get into the event of the year: opening night at Studio 54. Those in the know snuck in through the 55th Street side of the former CBS TV studio turned nightclub, while icons like Frank Sinatra and Warren Beatty had no such luck. Failing to get the red carpet treatment, they left — missing out on all the fun.
In a scene out of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, future TV host Robin Leach escorted preteen superstar Brooke Shields through a crowd that included grand dame Diana Vreeland, country music star Dolly Parton, fashion designer Halston, socialite Bianca Jagger, actress Margaux Hemingway, and pop star Cher. The celebrated Alvin Ailey dancers, clad in costumes designed by Antonio Lopez, turned the party out with a live show. As Anthony Haden-Guest reported in his book, The Last Party, a doctor opened a massive bottle of Quaaludes, sharing the pills far and wide. After the hypnotic drugs kicked in, an orgy broke out. It was Sodom and Gomorrah in gold lame and peach chiffon, white suits and satin gowns.
In the mix was native New Yorker, Rose Hartman, a substitute English teacher turned celebrity and fashion photographer at the outset of her career, chronicled the 2017 documentary film, The Incomparable Rose Hartman. “The name ‘Studio 54’ has always evoked the image of a glamorously wild party, and that was no exaggeration. Tons of artists, fashion designers, models, photographers, singers, and the jet set spent time there,” Harman says, sharing memories and photographs included in the major traveling museum exhibition, Studio 54: Night Magic and accompanying catalogue.
Studio 54: The Training Grounds
Over a period of 33 months, Studio 54 became the most legendary nightclub in New York history, transforming itself into a place of magic and myth. With a strict door policy, only the most glamorous were allowed in the door — but once inside, the spirit of inclusivity reigned supreme. In this den of iniquity, Hartman honed her talent for the candid shot, creating an archive of icons living their best lives.
Hers was a natural gift that suited her temperament, a fierce sense of determination honed on the streets of New York. Hailing from the Lower East Side long before it was gentrified, Hartman attended Hunter College Junior High and Hunter High School, the city’s most exclusive public schools. Hartman’s savvy, intellect, and ambition conspired to create a photographer who fearlessly conquered what she calls “the chiffon jungle.”
“What made Studio so special was the mix of the famous and unknown gathered in an Aladdin’s Cave tucked amid the porn palaces of Midtown, with a sound system that was the loudest in the world,” Hartman says. “I spent hours there dancing the night away, with my cameras hidden in oversized speakers ready to grab when a stylish celeb passed by. I was always interested in capturing my subjects when they dropped their public personas and revealed themselves — even a little bit of their souls.”
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, and websites including Time, Vogue, Artsy, Aperture, Dazed, and Vice, among others.
The Incomparable Rose Hartman Documentary
Now streaming on Amazon Prime and iTunes
Studio 54: Night Magic
The Art Gallery of Ontario, 317 Dundas Street West, Toronto, Ontario M5T 1G4, Canada
Opening Soon, Date TBC. On view through April 2021
Studio 54: Night Magic by Matthew Yokobosky