It was late evening, as just about everything was at Studio 54. I can’t remember who got me the interview, somebody I met in Cahoots, I think, the Upper West Side gay bar where they had little paper pads that said “Who were you in Cahoots with?” so you could write down your number for someone you wanted to meet up with some other time. Personally, I always thought that was the gayest (as in coolest) thing in the world, that tagline, because who wouldn’t want to be in cahoots with a hot guy you liked? That was the best part of being gay, wasn’t it, back in the late 70s and early 80s when not everybody was out and being gay was a novelty, sometimes even a dangerous one? Partners in crime. Our little secret. All that.
Anyway, there we all were, about fifteen of us, lined up in the balcony seats overlooking the dance floor, wearing jeans and t-shirts as previously instructed. Steve Rubell and Mark Benecke, the now famous (or infamous) owner and doormen, respectively, were chatting up someone in a suit, when Steve, with his back to us, finally turned around and said, “OK,” running his eyes from one end of the row to the other, “I’m just going to ask you all some questions.” He was short, meek, and seemed almost apologetic when he spoke, but I could tell this was his show.
“Everybody here has had previous bartending experience, right?” We all nodded. “And nobody’s got a problem taking their shirt off, right? Or working late hours?” We all nodded again. “OK, I’m going to start here,” he gestured to the guy standing closest to him, “and eventually I’ll get to you all.”
And that’s the way it went. I was somewhere in the middle, dreaming of two hundred dollar nights that would help me pay my way me through Columbia Business School, where I was in my first term, never mind that I might get to know at least one or two of the guys sitting in those seats, every one of which I thought was a god and what the hell was I doing there? When he got to me, Steve asked about my experience. “Bartender at a restaurant/jazz club in Walt Disney World,” I replied (although I’d really only been a waiter—my first professional white lie) and whether I was cool working until 3 or 4 a.m. “Not a problem! “ I replied (I used to get up at 5 a.m. for swim practice. I liked the nighttime). Then he asked, “How would you treat a celebrity who got out of line?” “Same as anyone, just like they taught me at Disney,” I said. “The guest is not always right, but he should always be treated as your guest” and so on. By this point, I was shirtless, at his request, which was uncomfortable, mostly because it was so cold in there. I guess he liked me. I got the job.
I started later that week and the routine soon became clear. Bartenders showed up at 9:30 p.m., set up the bars, and the doors opened at 10 p.m., though no one really ever showed up until at least 1 a.m. The entrance was themed differently every night. The crowd, the energy, the lights, and the music all grew more intense by the hour until 2 a.m., when it got so noisy I had to lean over the bar to hear every order.
The main bar, leading directly onto the dance floor, was where the action was, while the upstairs bar was a bit quieter, and I sometimes had time to speak with the customers. That was also the best place from which to watch the action on the dance floor. The movable catwalk above the dance floor was always filled with people dancing, except when a featured performer, like Grace Jones, was performing there.
Every night was somehow different—the music, the light show, the pace, the celebrities who showed up, the fashion, and the costumes. That kept me going until 4 a.m. three nights each week for a few months.
It was an amazing and crazy time! People in custom-designed outfits with $5,000 purses and mascara streaming down their faces knocking back shots of bourbon. Bikers ordering Shirley Temples. Celebs sticking their tongues down their partner’s through—both guys and girls—while waiting for their drinks to be made. I snorted coke with Steve and Calvin and Halston and Bianca. One night in the upstairs bar, I met Sandy Gallin, of Hollywood “Gay Mafia” fame, who, after my shift took me back to his client, Dolly Parton’s, apartment on Fifth Avenue, ostensibly to pick something up before we went to a five a.m. party he promised would be awesome. Instead, he tried to seduce me, but I wasn’t interested. We got to the party, though not without a little “Really, I’m flattered, but no thanks!” He never spoke to me again, and, now that I’m older, I realize that guys like me must have been a dime a dozen to someone like him.
The coolest thing about being a bartender at Studio 54 while being a business school student at Columbia was when I was at dinner parties in Manhattan or out with a group and people would ask what I did. I’d just say I was getting my MBA at Columbia. Later in the evening, when the group asked “What should we do now?” I’d say “Let’s go to Studio” Everyone liked the idea, but no one ever thought we’d be able to get in. I’d persuade them not to worry about it and off we’d go. We’d show up at the entrance, Mark would see me and wave me in with all my friends, whose collective jaws would drop as we hustled into the club. My social currency rose in the eyes of all my friends whenever that happened.
I lasted a few months there, which was all I could handle. Working until 4 a.m. and having to go to class at 9 a.m, the sleep deprivation became too much, so I quit. Being twenty-four and gay, in the midst of New York’s famous disco era, was fun, although I always felt I was on the fringe. I never landed one of those hot bartenders who I worked with. I’m not in touch anymore with a single soul I ever met, danced with, or snorted coke with at Studio.
Even though I only worked at Studio a few months, it has been good practice for the rest of my life. I gained a bit of self-confidence—chutzpah as you would call it in New York City. “If I can get a job as a bartender at Studio 54, I can get a job on the trading desk at Goldman Sachs,” I told myself, and so I did. It was not as exciting or glamourous as bartending at Studio had been, but I was able to return to a more normal life, though I’ll never forget my time at Studio.