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The Magic of Studio 54

Willa:  This week Joie and I are very happy to be joined by our friend, Eleanor Bowman. Eleanor joined us a few weeks ago for a fascinating look at Michael Jackson’s environmental works, and how she believes he’s challenging our notions of a mind/body split as well as reconfiguring our relationship with nature. Since then, Eleanor has been researching what she sees as an important but largely overlooked period in Michael Jackson’s artistic development: the late 1970s, when he and La Toya Jackson were living in New York, he was working on The Wiz, and he was spending a lot of time at Studio 54. Eleanor, thanks so much for joining us!

Eleanor:  Hi Willa. Thanks to you and Joie for inviting me.

Joie:  We’re excited to have you.

Willa:  So Eleanor, I love the interview you shared of Michael Jackson at Studio 54, talking with Jane Pauley about what made Studio 54 special and different from any other club:

Eleanor:  Isn’t that interview great!  His innocence and sweetness and kindness and sincerity are so “out there.” Probably one of the last unguarded interviews he ever did.

Willa:  He seems so earnest, doesn’t he? Like he’s trying really hard to explain to Jane Pauley how he sees things and feels about things, but she isn’t quite getting it.

Eleanor:  Right. One of the funny things about this interview is that Pauley seems amazed at MJ’s seemingly innocent enjoyment of Studio 54, which was notorious for sex and drugs – but he just wasn’t “going there” in the interview. He wanted to focus on other things – on the magic and fun and the freedom. I think Pauley didn’t really understand that Michael’s childhood touring experiences – sharing rooms with his older, sexually active brothers and opening for strip shows – had pretty much inured him to being shocked by anything (except, of course, cruelty and hate). I think she couldn’t understand that the innocent he appeared to be could take what he wanted and needed from the Studio 54 experience and leave the rest alone.

Joie:  Why don’t you explain Studio 54, Eleanor, for those who aren’t aware of what it was exactly.

Eleanor:  I’d be happy to, Joie. Studio 54 was a legendary Manhattan disco – the brainchild of a couple of young guys, Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager. It was so famous that it defined New York night life in the late 70’s and early 80’s. People came from all over the world to join the crowds outside its doors, hoping to get in. Rubell and Schrager apparently had hit on the perfect recipe for providing a place where the glamorous – celebrities and non-celebrities alike – could mix and mingle and dance, and live out their fantasies (which for some meant being able to openly indulge in sex and drugs). And, it was probably the last place I would expect to find the shy, retiring Michael Jackson. Yet, there he was, along with Diana Ross, Liza Minnelli, Elizabeth Taylor, Andy Warhol, Cher, Brooke Shields, Richard Pryor, Woody Allen, Mick Jagger, Bianca Jagger, Steven Tyler, Caroline Kennedy, Maria Shriver, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Tatum O’Neil. Here are some pictures:

Studio 54Studio 54 pic 3Studio 54 pic 1

He was even rumored to DJ with Truman Capote….

Willa:  Wow, Michael Jackson and Truman Capote DJing together? Wouldn’t you love to know what they played? And how they decided? And what they said into the mic? And what they said to each other?

Eleanor:  I can’t even begin to imagine it – talk about an odd couple. But, from the number of times Michael shows up in photos of Studio 54 and the enthusiasm he displays in the Pauley interview, I think he must have been having a good time. This is one of the few periods in his life where we can see him relaxed and enjoying himself in a social situation. After his megastardom kicked in, this type of experience was no longer available to him.

Joie:  It’s interesting to think of it that way, isn’t it? And it is almost strange, as a fan, to see him so relaxed in a social setting because we didn’t see that very many times during his life.

Eleanor:  Yes, I know. But I’m so happy that at least he had that brief window of time where he could enjoy a relatively normal life – normal at least for MJ.

Willa:  So why do you see this as such an important time period for him? And how does Studio 54 figure into that?

Eleanor:  Well, this was the time (1977-79) when Michael was not only entering adulthood, but also transitioning from the lead singer of the Jackson 5 and The Jacksons to Michael Jackson, megastar. During this time his physical appearance and personal style also were undergoing a significant change, which I think mirrored the psychological changes he was going through and which are reflected in the photos and video clips taken of him at Studio 54. Right before your eyes you can see the excited wide-eyed nineteen-year-old Michael Jackson with the big ‘fro in the interview with Jane Pauley morph into the sophisticated young man in sports jacket, ascot, and Jheri curl, celebrating his 21st birthday.

Studio 54 - 21st birthday

I think he had a very clear idea of who he was and what he was capable of. As I was working on this post, I came across this interesting piece of information:  in 1979, when Michael was 21, he wrote a note to himself, declaring exactly how he intended to transform himself – from the child star that he had been to the adult megastar he would become. He declared that he wanted to be magic:

“MJ will be my new name,” he wrote. “No more Michael Jackson. I want a whole new character, a whole new look. I should be a totally different person. People should never think of me as the kid who sang ABC, I Want You Back.’ I should be a new, incredible actor/singer/dancer that will shock the world. I will do no interviews. I will be magic. I will be a perfectionist, a researcher, a trainer, a masterer. I will be better than every great actor roped into one.”

He knew where he was going, but he needed a vision.  And along came Studio 54 – at just the right time. At Studio 54 it was all laid out in front of him, to pick and choose what he could use. I think Studio 54 gave him permission – and the tools – to act out his fantasies in terms of his appearance and his art – influencing his music videos, his creation of Neverland, and his live performances. He not only wanted to be the best – at everything – he wanted to be spectacular. He wanted to be magic – and he had seen magic and fantasy worlds created before his eyes at Studio 54.

Willa:  This idea of creating “magic” and “fantasy worlds,” as you call it, Eleanor, sounds very Michael Jackson, doesn’t it? I can see how that would capture his imagination, and it really doesn’t seem to be the nightclub scene that he was after. As he says in the interview, “I’ve been to a lot of discotheques and I don’t like them,” but he says “I like the atmosphere at Studio 54.” And when Jane Pauley questions him about why Studio 54 seems different, he says, “I don’t know – the feeling, the excitement, the props coming down, the balcony. It’s just exciting, honestly.” So it does seem to be that feeling of magic and fantasy that he was after.

How did Studio 54 create that sense of “magic”?

Eleanor:  Well, for one thing Rubell and Schrager hired Broadway set designers to create moveable sets, and they spent up to $20,000 a night to transform the cavernous space of Studio 54 into different fantasy worlds. For a New Year’s Eve party, four tons of glitter were dumped in a four-inch layer on the floor. Schrager described the experience as like “standing on stardust.” The lavish set-like decorations invited guests to dress up in costumes and become part of the show.

Michael saw how much people – even celebrities – seemed to hunger and long for escape – how they came night after night to escape into the magical world Rubell and Shrager created. He saw how people – through costumes and make up – could create incredible illusions; how transvestite men could become extravagantly beautiful women. Adding all this to his experience doing The Wiz, with its own elaborate sets (The World Trade Center was the set for the Emerald City. Isn’t that fascinating!), Studio 54 opened his eyes not only to the techniques of creating fantasy, but to how much people craved it.

It is this theatricality, this magic, that Michael focuses on in the Jane Pauley interview – and his description of how he experiences Studio 54 really got my attention. It reminded me so much of what Michael said, 30 years later, at the conclusion of This Is It when he tells the young singers and dancers that the show is a great adventure: “we just want to give them experiences, escapism, take them to places they’ve never been before, show them talent like they’ve never seen before.” And, it was Schrager’s and Rubell’s ability to do just that that contributed to Studio 54’s incredible success.

Joie:  Eleanor, I think that’s fascinating! Honestly, I had never wondered where Michael first fell in love with this sense of magic and theatricality that was always so present in his solo work but, you are probably absolutely correct in saying that it most likely began with Studio 54 and the time he spent there. Amazing! And how many times throughout his career did we hear him talk about that escapism that people craved so much. He said it over and over, that he just wanted to make people happy and give them that escapism that they desired.

Eleanor:  Right, Joie. And maybe it had something to do with that period of time when he came of age. You know, the Manhattan of the 70’s was very different from the Manhattan of today. Like most inner cities of that time, it was crumbling and crime ridden – a place where it was not just the rich and famous who craved escapism and found it in music. At night, the parks were filled with young people – mainly black – dancing to music pulsating from boomboxes wired up to lamp posts – and orchestrated by neighborhood DJ’s. Here’s a link to a short video about those times:

No matter where Michael Jackson looked, people rich and poor, white and black were looking for magic, for escape and finding it in music and dance – often his. Whether he was traveling the black streets of Manhattan and Queens (where The Wiz production studios were) or enjoying the privileged white world of Studio 54, he saw the power of music and dance – especially the power it had to provide not only an escape, but an ecstatic experience. But, he also saw the desperation in this need for escape, a desperation which often degenerated into sex and drugs (and sometimes violence) – whether in the parks or the disco. And he watched as excess quickly destroyed Studio 54 – its drugged-out proprietors stuffing walls and ceiling with cash until they were finally hauled off to jail for tax evasion – and the magic ended.

As Willa points out in M Poetica, I think he was coming to see music and dance as an alternative and safer means of escape  – an alternative to indiscriminate sex and drugs and street violence. As a member of the Jackson 5 and the Jacksons, he knew his music could make people happy, bring joy to their lives. I love seeing video clips of him as a teenager engaging with the audience, getting them to sing along. But I think as he matured and became more and more aware of the terrible problems in the world, he also wanted to be an agent of change – and his experience at Studio 54 and in 70’s NYC not only deepened this desire, but provided him with both the psychological insights and the technical know-how to achieve his goals.

Willa:  That’s a really interesting way to look at that, Eleanor, because for many people, Studio 54 didn’t represent fantasy and theatricality so much as the epitome of 70s excess, especially indiscriminate sex and drug use. So Studio 54 was kind of like a huge circus tent of human desire, in many different forms – from sex and drugs to escapism and magic. And it’s interesting to think of a young Michael Jackson wandering around in there, observing what humans desire most, how it expresses itself, and what the implications and consequences are of indulging those desires.

Eleanor:  “A huge circus tent of human desire.” What a great image.  And I love to think of him there, enjoying himself, yet detached. Soaking it all up, taking it all in, absorbing it, to be transformed into his own unique creations by his astonishing and awesome artistic vision. He truly was a magician. He was magic.

Willa:  Oh, he was definitely a magician!  I think we all can agree about that.

So thank you again for joining us, Eleanor. We really enjoyed it. Joie and I also wanted to announce that we won’t be publishing new posts from June 25th to August 29th. (It’s like our own 10-week version of Lent.) However, like last year we’ll be be posting summer reruns each week of some of our favorite posts. We hope this will give us a chance to revisit some of those posts and talk about them in more depth, and maybe explore areas we didn’t discuss the first time around. We’re also hoping to use this time to update the Reading Room, so if you have any suggestions for articles we should add, please let us know.