For the 33 months that followed, Studio 54 was the center of the universe. Schrager, Rubell and their team would combine their unlimited imagination with hard work and execution to create that magic night after night. There were countless legendary moments: Bianca Jagger riding into the club on a white horse for her birthday celebration; a 19-year-old Michael Jackson on the dance floor with Andy Warhol, Liza Minelli, Steven Tyler, Brooke Shields and the Village People; elaborate themed parties celebrating everyone from Karl Lagerfeld to Elizabeth Taylor. The regulars at 54 included Halston, Mick Jagger, Jerry Hall, Debbie Harry, Grace Jones, Calvin Klein, Elton John, Tina Turner, Divine, Margaret Trudeau, Francesco Scavullo, Truman Capote, Margaux Hemingway, Freddie Mercury, Tommy Hilfiger, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Diana Ross, Al Pacino, Cher, Bruce Jenner, David Bowie, Iman, Salvador Dali, Diana Vreeland, John Travolta, Beverly Johnson, Lauren Hutton, Andre Leon Talley, Diane von Furstenberg and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Studio 54 was surreal. It became more than a place—it was a moment etched in time, capturing the energy of the sexual revolution in unbridled freedom and hedonism. Studio 54 was the apogee of escapism.
Schrager and Rubell weren’t ready for the sudden explosion of energy and material success and let it inflate their egos. In December 1978, Steve was quoted in a newspaper saying that Studio 54 had made $7 million in its first year of operation and “only the Mafia made more money.” Shortly thereafter, the nightclub was raided by police and Steve and Schrager were arrested for skimming $2.5 million without paying taxes. Charged with tax evasion, obstruction of justice and conspiracy, they were sentenced to three and a half years in prison.
After prison, Rubell and Schrager were motivated to regain what they’d lost. They opened another nightclub, Palladium, in Manhattan’s historic Academy of Music building. Schrager enlisted world-renowned Japanese architect Arata Isozaki to reimagine the space, and they made art the focal point of the experience, with installations by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Julian Schnabel, Kenny Scharf, Keith Haring and Francesco Clemente. It was another legendary success. While Steve was passionate about recapturing the days of 54, Schrager saw another club as repeating themselves. “If you repeat yourself,” he stated in Works, “there isn’t any point. I’m always looking for something else—trying to pull a rabbit out of a hat.” To him, Palladium was a stopover on the way to the duo’s next big challenge: Hotels.
With their nightclubs, Schrager and Steve had to create something out of nothing. While people love nightclubs, there’s no practical need a club fulfills. Going to one is an act of desire, a want, for escape or social validation—it’s all emotional. On the other hand, people need hotels; they need a place to stay, so there’s a practical value. Now, instead pulling a rabbit out of the nightclub hat every night, Schrager and Steve had to figure out how to reinvent the hotel experience by adding emotional elements. “Hotels,” Schrager said in The Last Party: Studio 54, Disco, and the Culture of the Night, “are in certain important ways, nightclubs for grown-ups… So when Steve and I went into the hotel business, where we had a real commodity that people wanted, we didn’t rely on that. Our approach wasn’t, well, we have a bed. Our approach was, we want to make it something magical.”