A Night in Sunset with Ian Schrager and DJ Harvey
The nightlife icons discuss what makes the perfect party, and yes, Studio 54.
Chaka Khan performs at the opening party of the West Hollywood EDITION Hotel.
On Tuesday night, full moon blazing, I was folded up in the corner of the tiny speakeasy side room of Sunset, a basement club located in the new West Hollywood EDITION Hotel, holding three to seven martinis, and trying to take on the affected languor of Kate Beckinsale in The Last Days of Disco. When I told the jovial man in a tank top to my left that I was there to write about some of the most iconic of the club people, he drawled, “How is your article gonna start: ‘At a nightclub where the LA intelligencia and glitterati coalesce in the inner sanctum of Ian Schrager’s pipe dream?’” I said, “Yeah, that sounds right.”
Later in the evening, Chaka Khan would give a surprise performance by the dance floor under a ceiling packed densely with disco balls for a crowd that included all the kind of people you would want at a party, like Janelle Monae, Ru Paul, Lenny Kravitz, Samantha Ronson, and New York’s party icon, Susanne Bartsch. Beautiful people all shouting, “He-he-hello!” to each other, or so I imagined. I spent more time dancing than peering at faces.
Just a few hours before, I sat in the penthouse of the hotel with DJ Harvey, lovable rapscallion of the global disc jockey scene, self-affirmed vibrationalist, and permanent LA expat as he conversed with Ian Schrager, renowned club owner and hotelier with exacting taste, qualifications that span six decades, and a wealth of stories from the opulent and fabled parties where disco and dancing culture reached their frenzied apogee. Schrager seems to prefer evolution over formula while also knowing exactly when not to mess with a good thing. They discussed their experiences in the disco era, the perfect night out, Schrager’s newest project, and how you will always be able to find magic––maybe even immortality––on the dance floor.
ON STUDIO 54 AND BEYOND
DJ Harvey: I played the opening [at the Sanderson Hotel in London]…and I remember distinctly where you went up in my esteem because you stopped the security guards from stopping the last track halfway through. And I was like, "That guy knows what time it is." Because you never stop the DJ halfway through the last record… So I'm like, ‘He knows how to run a nightclub’... And obviously people, when they think of you, ground zero is Studio 54, but you must have had a life before that?
Ian Schrager: I was a lawyer. I didn't know what I really wanted to do, so I thought becoming a lawyer was a good thing to try, delivering papers to the court and so on and so forth. And that was just about the time that all the Baby Boomers were living in New York. Everybody was going to nightclubs, driving around seeing people waiting in line to take abuse from the nightclubs. I thought, ‘that, that's a good business for me.’ And I gave up the law, and went into the first nightclub.
So was Steve always your partner from day one?
I was Steve's lawyer. He had gone into the restaurant business. For $5.95 you could have steak and a salad and all the sangria you could drink. He was under-capitalized, so I was keeping the creditors off his back. Steve was going to let his restaurants be used as the nightclubs after they closed. We opened up our first club in Boston [15 Lansdowne Street]. We were doing four at one time. I always had the habit of biting off more than I could chew.
How much did it cost to get in to Studio 54?
We started low. I think it was $5 during the week. And $7 on the weekend. But we went up to 20 pretty quick.
Who chose Richie Kaczor as the resident DJ?
He was playing at a place called Hollywood. And he was really good. At that time, Richie got $75 a night. The biggest DJ was a guy called Tom Savarese. He played down at this club, 12 West. New York was great then. I mean at night there was an electricity in the air...
And this of course is pre-HIV.
Yes. Nothing you couldn't do that night that you couldn't get up and walk away from the next day.
After alienating the two biggest criminal enterprises in the country––the IRS and the Mob––How long did it take you from getting out of jail to opening your first hotel?
Studio 54 set the bar for us... We took a hotel over in 1982, and we opened up in 1984. Morgan's was a hotel with no liquor license, no room service. It just goes to show you when the product is right…if you have a club that is the club, it doesn't matter if you spit on the customer coming in, they have to be there. And then we did another nightclub in 1985, the Palladium.
I attended the Palladium. I would go in the bathroom, and people would light the joints with the money, because the match smelled of sulfur. So you would get a match to light a dollar bill and light your joint with a dollar bill. I'd never seen that, it blew my mind. I remember...people throwing money. People would throw... what do you call it when you have a stack of ones? A hundred ones. Kentucky Wedge? Kentucky Wedgie? And people would throw these hundred dollar stacks of ones and it would rain money in the club and people would go wild. Including me. The decadence. Palladium had stuff that came down from the ceiling as well?
We called them video arrays. And it was the first time. We put up 24 televisions and one image would be spread out over all 24. That was the first time that was done. The Palladium was a technological achievement, but it wasn't a new idea. Studio was the new idea. This was just more. Studio cost $400,000. Palladium cost $10 million.
ON WORKING UNTIL YOU DIE
Why are you still at it?
I love it.
Which is brilliant. That gives me hope. I can't retire, all I can do is put records on. I can't. I'll work until the day I die.
Me too. Work until the day you die, or you're not good at it any more.
I've in some respects been in the music business for 40 years. I live in the realm of art, which I believe you do as well. And if you have a heart for such things, that will save your life and will give you something to live for.
And keep you young.
Yeah, if you can still shuffle a little bit, you can have a little dance, and that's celebrating life.
ON CREATING THE BEST DISCO CLUB AND THE SUNSET STRIP
There's no rule, there's no map. It's something instinctive, trying to create a place the way people move through it and interact. It either works or it doesn't work. I've been in it a long time, and I feel what works.
Also I feel that night clubs particularly, back in the day before social media, were places to meet people, to socialize… People actually want that human interaction again instead of just through an app or whatever…Like I went to go see Bauhaus the other day at the Palladium. Fantastic. Original lineup, Pete Murphy killed it. But [I loved] just to share it with all those people, when I could have been like, "Oh, we'll just download it later.”
Now the fashion will change, but you can't stop that urge to socialize, and you just got to find out what the new vehicle is. When we did that documentary on Studio, the guy that did it, who's a very smart guy and a good friend of mine, doesn't think that Studio 54 could be recreated, and I think it can. Not in the same way. Updated. So you see it in the clubs in East Berlin, Ibiza, Burning Man. Why can't it? We wanted [Sunset] to feel like you were dancing in a sound stage. That's another sweet spot, because it's small...
Well I think with a smaller room you can get that intimacy and that house party atmosphere, where I'm not on a pedestal, I'm actually bouncing off the crowd, we're getting feedback both ways…
This hotel is on hallowed ground. It used to be a restaurant here called Scandia, where the Rat Pack, Frank Sinatra, used to hang out. Next door was Asylum Records with David Geffen. And Neil Young. Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Buffalo Springfield. Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt. The Mamas and the Papas. All those people that created the soundtrack of our generation. The streets were packed with kids from all over. And the cars were bumper to bumper, and there was music blaring out of the cars, and as you walked down you heard different music coming out of each of the clubs. We wanted to recapture what happened in the golden age of Sunset Strip. And so that club downstairs, Sunset, is an homage to that, which they don't have here anymore.
But the heart’s still here. And the Chateau's still here.
Yeah, the Chateau is still here. It's so funny, I passed up on that.
There was nothing I could do to improve it.