Docs: “Studio One Forever” – LA’s Once Proud Dance Nirvana
Studio 54 will forever be embraced as one of the premiere dance clubs the world has ever encountered. Opened during the height of the disco era, the iconic club was more than just music. It was a congregation where decadence met celebrity, all under the pulsing beats of the hottest hits of the day. But New York wasn’t the only major metropolis to have housed such a sanctuary to party.
Taking a quick geographical world tour, one could easily have found the same dynamic at Space in Ibiza, Berghain in Berlin, Zouk in Singapore, Trouw in Amsterdam and Elrow in Barcelona. But for those who happened to be searching for sweat and sin in the City of Angels, there was only one club that sent out such a clear invitation.
Located in West Hollywood, just south of the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and La Peer Drive, Studio One, which was open from 1974 to 1993, became the cathedral of indulgence for the young men who made up the club’s clientele. Noted for the very discerning ‘door policy,’ the club’s overseers were very stringent in who they let into the club. They wanted a certain look to reflect the attitude inside, but soon the community fought back against their overt exclusion of not only Blacks and Hispanics but women as well.
As policies changed, so did celebrity embrace to the facility where the nightclub portion of the venue, dubbed the Backlot, was populated over the years by such luminaries as Cary Grant, Barbra Streisand, Liza Minnelli, Burt Reynolds, Chita Rivera, Rock Hudson, Bette Davis, Elton John and Tina Turner.
Much of the legacy of the club has been left to memory. That is until Marc Saltarelli, a filmmaker with both narrative and documentary films under his belt, including 2018’s I Knew Andy Warhol, turned his lens to the club. The result is the documentary Studio One: Forever, which will have its premiere at the 2023 Outfest Film Festival.
The HFPA sat down with Saltarelli, as well as noted comedy writer Bruce Vilanch, to talk about their recollections and insight into what made this dance hall not only a slice of hedonistic heaven but an important cultural landmark.
Marc, as you navigate professionally between narrative and documentary, was there any consideration to make this story a feature film rather than a documentary? Was there an advantage for you choosing this form?
The Factory building was about to be demolished to make way for an upscale hotel and restaurant. That is what triggered the idea to make a documentary while the building was still there. I won’t say what ended up being the result. For that, you should watch the movie. In the process, I always thought what an amazing narrative series this would be. There are hundreds of thousands of stories. That club housed a thousand sweaty men every night.
Many times in historical documentaries, it can be a challenge to have the actual voices of those who lived and breathed the experience. Bruce, you mentioned that if anyone claims they were there and remembers it, then they really weren’t there – alluding to the hallucinatory culture of the club. How much of the Studio One experience still lingers with you?
I was not as chemically altered as many. I can embroider my decade. I am still here. There was usage of various substances so many people had hazy, sketchy memories of what was going on. Mine are clearer than those are. You could also apply that to the 1960s. Another generation had acid rock and Woodstock. People who were at Woodstock could rarely tell you what they did at Woodstock. Studio One was a party in every sense of that noun and verb.
Woodstock had the advantage of film cameras to document that experience. Studio One did not. If you were to do this same documentary about a present-day club, one can only fathom the footage that would be available, considering we live in a self-taping age. How challenging was it, Marc, to find visuals to illustrate the club back in the 1970s?
Obviously, it was a real challenge. Studio One started in 1974 and was there till 1993. During the 70s and 80s, people were primarily in the closet so they didn’t want to be photographed. As you said, they didn’t have a phone in their pocket. We did uncover people who had some video. Originally the only video footage we had was from Halloween when people were in costume and didn’t mind if their identity was concealed. Fortunately, I had the luxury of time as we started this right before the pandemic at the final reunion. During the lockdown, I had time to nurture the story. The first cut was 3 ½ hours long and Bruce was so supportive. He gave so much wisdom. Slowly, I found the story and the reason.
What was that?
Chita Rivera performed at the Backlot. All of the golden stars of that era, from Jimmy Stewart to Bette Davis, you name it, they came to this gay disco. I think that is the most fascinating and most important part. It merged the Hollywood elite with gay culture for the first time. I feel that exposure trickled down into their creative works and that went out to the world. It brought acceptance to our culture.
Bruce, one of the big surprises of the documentary was the attendance by Hollywood’s royalty at that time to the Backlot. Do you have a great run-in moment with any big star of the time? Weren’t you just starting your career at that point?
For me, it wasn’t that overwhelming because I was writing for most of them. I had met them at one point or another along the way already. It was pretty awesome for people who were just there. You had a guy who just got off the bus from Iowa and was dancing shirtless as Liza Minnelli goes by. That was pretty overwhelming for them. It made them realize that they were in Hollywood, baby. Most of the stars came in to see the shows at the Backlot, the nightclub at the back of the disco. In between were the restrooms where everybody met [laughs]. People like Jimmy Stewart did not come up the front stairs to get his wrist stamped and go to the disco. He had to climb the back stairs. The place couldn’t exist anymore because they would have to install elevators for everything. It was a flagrant violation of all laws. It was really Hollywood in the ’70s. You felt like you were at the scene.
That scene might not be as accepted today because of the club’s notorious door policy, which is quite a jolt to today’s sensibilities. Marc, how surprised were you at how exclusive the club was considering it was trying to be inclusive?
Scott Forbes, who was the founder, wanted to make a club that was exclusively for gay, white men. The door policy was so egregious. No open-toed shoes for women was just an excuse to keep them out. People of color were discouraged. There was an actual protest and a boycott but it wasn’t until the late 80’s that he loosened his restrictions. It was what the times were like. Right, Bruce?
Yeah. Everyone was aware of it. Women just wanted to come in and dance with the guys and not be hit on. What was ironic was that his [Forbes’] partner was a Black man named Ernie. It was a commercial decision on his part. I was unaware of it, I presume, due to my white privilege but I was at the same time aware of it but didn’t know what could be done about it at the time. We tried to tell him this was wrong.
Maybe as a last question, Bruce, can you talk about the writers’ strike and why does the industry, which desperately proclaims the importance of a good script, seem to not want to economically recognize that? Will there be a reconciliation?
Everyone will have to go back to work eventually or there will be no business. Generally, when the actors strike, everything that hasn’t already shut down will shut down. This is strike number six for me. The difference with this one is the sister unions came aboard early to show their support, especially IATSE. The only thing left shooting is the Kardashians and reality television. Now they will announce the fall schedule of three hours a night of The Amazing Race. They don’t want that. They want to get back to scripted series. They need to talk shows to go back on the air because as we saw with some summer films, they didn’t have that pre-sell that they normally have. They postponed the release of Strays because they couldn’t put the cast on television. How do you sell an NC 17-rated comedy if not on a talk show where people are already in the mood for a dirty joke? If the actors go out, they will have to come back to the table and it won’t be too long after that. That is what my experience tells me.
Let’s end on the music. As the documentary shows, music played such an important role in this club culture. So what song resonates with you as the epitome of this era?
My guess would be “Last Dance.” It doesn’t go away. It is the last song that every disco plays when they are clearing the club out.
And Marc, for you?
Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel.” I was there in the 80s, so Madonna was more the music.