In February 1998, Elton John helped launch the two-month-old Studio 54 at the MGM Grand with a charity event that raised over $1 million for his namesake AIDS foundation. The nightclub was an authentic A-list destination before the celeb-spokesperson trend of today. But neither star-spotting nor 5,000 rooms overhead produced early success for the New York import. Studio 54 started slow.
“We had the No. 1 name in club history, but filling those shoes was not easy,” remembers Mike Milner, Studio 54’s general manager from 1998-2006. “Some nights celebs packed the house; the next night it was dead.”
On its final night last Saturday Studio 54 was slammed. LL Cool J walked the red carpet licking his lips and pausing for photos. He performed original and remixed hits and was briefly distracted by a woman who rushed the stage and jumped him, arms gripping his muscular neck and legs locked around his waist. It took three security guards to pry her off.
While Las Vegas-celeb-spotting has become ubiquitous, Studio 54 deserves some credit for the phenomenon. The nightclub booked Prince to party like it was 1999 on New Years Eve that year, and celebrities were part of a larger effort to infuse nightlife with entertainment.
“It started with balloons and confetti drops, but the goal was to create memories without stopping the music,” Milner explains. “The key was doing it up in the air. We started aerial acts, and it became a nightly part of the entertainment experience.”
Employees received cross-training so dancers could become acrobats. DJ Lisa Pittman, who played the closing set on Saturday, fondly recalls being hired as a percussionist, then getting trained to bartend and ultimately, launching her still-thriving DJ career at the club.
Celebrities and entertainment were building momentum when another nightlife innovation emerged. In an early effort to fill the club on slower nights, Studio 54 made an unprecedented move to target locals with the first industry night, EDEN (Erotically Delicious Entertainers’ Night).
“Nobody in the city wanted to touch Tuesday nights,” Milner remembers. “We made it a great night for locals to go out. We reached out to all the other hotels to get people in. It worked—the local draw got the tourists.”
The man behind the music from 1997-2008, Frankie Anobile returned to Studio 54 to DJ the closing party.
“I did the set that I used to do. The evolution of dance music, every night, from the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s ... a way to hear the biggest songs of all time in a few hours.
“Some places are famous for being the first, others are famous for being the best,” Anobile says. “Studio 54 wins on both cases, because it really set the bar for what’s happening today. The first nightclub on the Strip in a major hotel, the first to attract celebrities, do industry nights, broadcast live radio, offer ladies free and highlight the DJ front and center stage. It really did set the trend and opened the door for a lot of big-time operators to come in and make this a nightlife market.”
What a legacy.