STUDIO 54 – THE FIRST FIVE MINUTES

Studio was a rare moment in time. Words don't do it justice.

Studio 54 was a rare moment in time. Words don’t do it justice. In the photo: Bethann, Halston, Bianca, Liza, Andy, Putassa.

CHAPTER 5

STUDIO 54 – THE FIRST FIVE MINUTES

It was “the only” time, and for sure, the best years of my life. Though it’s still not clear when or how, but at some point, I began running with the Beautiful People (BPs). I knew this to be true because only the most beautiful and interesting people sashayed passed the velvet ropes of Studio 54 in New York City—circa 1977. As did I.

The infamous Marc Benneke was the doorman, standing on a drainpipe under the black deco marquis, swathed head-to-toe in Aryan arrogance, emotionless, avoiding eye contact with anyone. He hovered over the swarm of bees—the wanna-bees, that is—heat-seeking for the lucky few that would be granted entrée through the pearly gates of what we all considered heaven here on earth. Cindy and I maneuvered through the chaotic throng of disco devotees wearing our new groovy outfits purchased at Screaming Mimi’s on Upper Broadway earlier in the day. “Marc!” she called over the hundreds of pleading pleaders being noticed at once. It was hard not to notice Cindy because she was tall, ravishing, and blonde—with the latest Coupe Sauvage hair cut by Didier. She had piercing, luminous green eyes, and cheekbones that could cut you. She wore a black patent leather trench coat, collar up, and 5 inch Charles Jourdan stilettos. Marc motioned to the bouncer to help her maneuver the throng on hopefuls. She reached over the people’s heads and grabbed the bouncer’s hand, and with her other hand then my arm. Marc noticed me in my silver Lurex, ribbed-knit, turtleneck sweater sporting a hint of black eyeliner and nodded to the bouncer that I was good to go as well. Not everyone was allowed entry with their plus one. Steve Rubell, the club’s Quaalude-addicted owner, was notorious for—among many other things—splitting couples up, letting one in and not the other, which led to several divorces and many ruined friendships. Getting into Studio was everything. Love, friendship…well…you do the math. Or perhaps such foundations of human relationship would make good questions for the Jeopardy category: Things You CAN live without, especially when getting into Studio 54 with the Beautiful People was at stake.

Breezing through the throngs of people.

Breezing through the throngs of people.

We bulldozed through the pack of never-wases, bound for the Promised Land. Next stop: Utopia. Once through the velvet ropes, bright lights rained down on us under the theater marquis so the onlookers could get a glimpse of who was getting in, seeing that most were not going to be one of the fortunate few. Being ogled with jealousy by strangers triggered a strange sensation for me and, each time I stepped through the looking glass, it felt like reliving my very first minute of fame all over again. Like that first dose of opiate, or first time losing my virginity. Being in with the “in crowd” was a fait accompli, considering where I had come from. My left hand was in the pocket of my skintight, black 501 Levi’s as we were whisked through the VIP entrance, bypassing the cash register. COMP Baby. In my left pocket was a vial of cocaine and in my right were four Quaaludes. I was in for a fantastic evening. Next stop: Euphoria.

Cindy and I were best friends and, more specifically, drug buddies. No one could keep up with us. We were proud of our stamina and our unofficial official titles: Studio 54 Club Kids. We were fixtures on the scene and part of an exclusive group of loyal followers of “It Boy” fashion designer, Stephen Burrows, called The Burrowettes. We were always in amazing company. On any given night we would be dancing with Liza, smoking cigarettes with Andy Warhol, eating birthday cake with Liz Taylor. There’s a photo of La Liz on her fortieth birthday party held at Studio, clad in a skin-tight, purple sequence number that Halston sausaged her heaviest-of-all-time, porky body into. She was married to Senator John Warner at the time and was doing anything not to spend time with him in friggen Virginia. The photo went around the world and if you look closely, that’s my shit-eating grin in the background.

Liza, Lia & Betty. This image is all sorts of shades of future yikes.

Liza, Lia & Betty. This image is all sorts of shades of future yikes.

Cindy and I met years earlier at Englewood Cliffs Middle School on a historic day, The Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam in Washington on November 15, 1969. The youth culture of America at that time was deeply, politically aware and committed to ending the war. A wave of solidarity swept the nation where high school and college students were boycotting their schools in support of the Moratorium to end the senseless war that innocent young men were being drafted into. Our brothers, boyfriends of our older sisters, uncles, and cousins were coming back from Vietnam in body bags from a conflict that no one believed in. The song War…What Is It Good For…Absolutely Nothing was our anthem. My oldest sister was in college at that time and was participating in the Moratorium To End The War In Vietnam along with thousands of Hippies and peaceniks. I was proud to be related to an insurgent, and I spontaneously chose to rally my fellow sixth, seventh and eighth-grade classmates to stand with me in solidarity to boycott homeroom. Chaos ensued, and students that had already entered the school came rushing out to join the cause. This would be a life-changing moment for me. We felt like we were on the cusp of changing the world. The Englewood Cliffs Police showed up in minutes, because, outside of getting coffee and donuts, there was nothing for them to do in our tiny manicured hamlet chock full of bleeding heart liberals. The cops effectively shooed the kids back into the school.

Not one to be deterred, instead of heading back into the school, I ran towards the football field, which abutted a small patch of woods. As I ran, a feeling of escaping the Nazis crossed my mind, but let’s face it…there’s no comparison. As I continued to the far end of the football field I noticed another person, a girl, running as well and we veered into the woods and stood next to one another…breathless. I was chubby, so gasping might be a more suitable verb here. We were the last holdouts, on the lam just like Bonnie and Clyde. Cindy slipped on a wet pile of leaves and fell backward, and I ran to her, lifting her head, cradling it in my arms. We locked eyes, those piercing green eyes that would one day help get us immediately into Studio 54, and smiled, “I’m Cindy. Guess we’re gonna get suspended.” I froze looking at that face and gently stroked her forehead, separating her overgrown bangs and mustered up the slightest grin, whispering, “Let’s lay low for a while. Don’t move.” I hoped that that “while” would last forever. “Are you OK?” I smiled, slowly helping her up. “I guess. What are we going to do now?”, she wondered aloud. “We are going to be proud of what we did today, and we’ll go back and take the heat”, I said having fallen completely, helplessly, utterly, entirely and madly in love for the very first time in my life.

There was no chance in hell that a romance between Cindy and I would ever see the light of day, or the forest from the tress, in this case. We made our way back to the school at the behest of two Englewood Cliffs policemen that waddled their way across the field to retrieve us. Fat boys like me never got the girl. They befriended the girl, became the girl’s confidant, and advised the girl in matters of the heart. And maybe occasionally got to dance with the girl at house parties.

Sadly, even that was not to be the case for us. Once the two Englewood Cliffs policemen that waddled their way across the field retrieved us and dragged us into the principal’s office, parents got involved. It was all over. Cindy’s parents decided that this transgression was a clear sign she needed a more disciplined environment, and the next day packed her up and sent her off to private school in another county. Even though we lived in the same hometown, I never even got her phone number so there was no chance to cultivate a friendship, let alone a loving relationship. Watching the back of Cindy’s head as she sulked out of the principal’s office, I craved for one last look at her angelic face and her startling green eyes. But that wouldn’t happen for many years—for eight years, six months, two days, eleven hours and thirty-seven minutes—to be precise. And I never stopped thinking about her angelic face or her incandescent green eyes.

By this time, years later, I had become slender and attractive, with long curly hair past my shoulders, and I wore contact lenses. Since it was the seventies, sex with men and women was a constant, and one night I had a date with a woman who lived on East 38th Street and Park Avenue. It was one of those prewar, stately buildings with a big, brass revolving door. As I pushed slowly on the right side entrance I noticed a woman leaving the building pushing into the revolving door exactly opposite me. I glanced over at her on the other side of the turnstile and noticed piercing green eyes as she slipped past me and out of the building. Instead of stepping out into the lobby, I stayed in the door’s swooping turn and exited onto the street to catch up with her. Could it be? “Cindy?” No response. “It’s me, Abe, Cindy?” She looked at me cross-eyed, but not because she was, but rather, just because she was shit faced, even blotto. She swayed standing on stiletto heels wearing a fur coat that covered her silk, 1930’s slip dress. She tried to focus on who was talking to her and almost fell over, held onto the side of the building. She tilted backward, and just as I once had on our renegade romp in those far-away suburban woods, I caught her in my arms.

“Who’s that?”, she mumbled, still trying to focus her blurry eyesight.

“It’s me, Abe”.

“Do I know you?”

“Well, ish”, I said. “We met years ago at Upper School in Englewood Cliffs that day when we ran away to protest the Vietnam War.”

War?

Cindy was my Winnie Cooper.

Cindy was my Winnie Cooper from Wonder Years.

This non-dialogue went on for a bit before I decided to offer her a bump of cocaine. I held a spoonful of white powder up to her nose, and she snorted gratefully, almost spilling the entire contents of the vile. I held the coke spoon up to my own nose next, and within seconds she snapped into alertness, and we were reminiscing about that day in the woods. She kept saying, “You look so different”. Which I took as a compliment. In hindsight, you could say that Cindy was to me what Winnie Cooper was to Kevin Arnold from The Wonder Years television series that ran in the 1990s. Many boys had a Winnie Cooper sprinkled through their puberty. Boys became men when they experienced their first girl crush, unlocking the wonders manhood and exploring their sexuality. But the Winnie Cooper effect didn’t necessarily make boys act like men. Just think like them—alone in their bedrooms masturbating under the sheets. Still, standing in front of the building where my date was no doubt doing last looks, Cindy asked what I was doing that evening. “Nothing really,” I blurted, lying.

“Come with me to Studio 54. I got cash and some Quaaludes…how much blow do you have?”
“Plenty,” I said not skipping a beat. My date who lived in that lovely prewar building awaiting my arrival, probably doing last looks in the mirror, excited that she would be getting laid at the end of the evening, was never to see me again. Who knows, maybe she did get laid that evening anyway…it was the 70’s after all.

As for Cindy and I, from that night on we become as thick as thieves, inseparable party buddies, but not much else. And that was fine since technically I was gay. At least we got to dance away many nights at Studio 54, which sure beats basement house parties in the New Jersey suburbs.

Within weeks of our reunion, Cindy moved into the Sheffield, a luxury high rise building on West 57th Street three blocks away from Studio. I was living on the Upper West Side at the time but spent just about every evening at her place since we partied hard at Studio and it was easier to crash there. One of the Burrowettes, Stephen Burrows’ boyfriend of the moment, Sal De Falco became our third partner in crime.

As soon as we entered Studio 54 that night, I noticed Sal by the coat check talking to Stephen Burrows. Sal DeFalco was knighted the most beautiful boy in New York City by everyone who was anyone. He had thick, long, straight, shiny chestnut brown hair and chestnut brown eyes to match. His olive complexion and chiseled features made him look like the statue of David, a perfect specimen of humanity we all agreed. Every powerful man in New York City made a play for Sal, and most of them succeeded, including other fashion designers, record company executives, movie producers, and movie stars. He was not a hustler, though. Sal was so beautiful that people just wanted to touch him like a piece of delicate porcelain. And shortly after feeling like an inanimate object rather than a person, Sal decided to take it all for what it was worth. And some nights it was worth plenty. Sal became a de facto hooker with a heart of gold, and every man who met him instantly fell in love—and showered him with trips, clothes, wads of cash, stashes of drugs—anything he wanted was his for the asking or taking. Sal named his price, and they paid it. On a few occasions, he insisted that we come along as his chaperone. Did that make us hookers adjacent?

Sal DeFalco, RIP xoxo

Sal DeFalco, RIP xoxo

Sal liked to share his fortune. Several times he would ask Mr. Thingie’s chauffeur to take him to Newark where he grew up and would lavish his Social Security mother with expensive leather goods and designer frocks, never stopping to think that her life was utterly devoid of occasions on which to wear them. On the contrary, she would sell off those expensive pieces of clothing minutes after he left to head back to New York City.

What was most delicious about Sal, from Cindy’s and my own perspective, was that he loved sharing his good fortune with us. Cindy and I adopted him—Sal felt most wanted around us—and the feeling was mutual. We were all the same age and taking New York City by storm. We were the Three Musketeers of Studio 54. I had the mouth, they had the looks—and whatever we needed we got, which was mostly drugs and alcohol, but at that time, that was all we ever wanted.

“Hi doll,” Sal said wrapping his arm around my neck. “You know Stephen.” “Of course, hi there,” I grazed his cheeks, barely moving. Stephen, or any other one of Sal’s paramours, was always cold to any male friend that dared come near their precious catch of the day. Cindy chimed in “Hey, boys”, and gave Stephen a big kiss. Fashion designers just love pretty women. We danced and slurred the night away on pills, booze, and blow. The ladies’ bathroom at Studio was the best place to hang out. People gathered there in flocks fixing their lipstick and powdering their noses. Banal blather or coke talk bounced off the mirrored walls and you’d end up in several conversations sharing their vials of snow…that sometimes when it was really fresh and not stepped on, actually did smell like freshly fallen snow.

I noticed another friend from Englewood Cliffs chatting in the lounge outside the ladies’ bathroom and went over to say hello. Audrey Nizen, who we realized also lived in The Sheffield, had just been hired to launch a French denim brand called Sasson Jeans. Remember Ooh-La-La-Sasson? You’re welcome. By the end of the evening, we decided to produce the introductory fashion show there at Studio 54. Sal arranged for the club, Cindy and I started casting, and within a couple of months, that became my first major project outside of losing weight and avoiding sobriety. I had officially begun my tenth minute of fame.

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