On the night of Saturday, Nov. 9, West Hollywood bid a bittersweet farewell to a big piece of its history, when an enthusiastic crowd gathered in the space now known as The Robertson, but that was once the site of what was arguably gay LA’s most iconic disco, Studio One.
The revelers were there to attend the official good-bye party for the storied club – “Back to the Backlot: A Studio One Celebration and Farewell.” A show and dance party thrown by Faring Capital, the West Hollywood-based real estate and development company that owns the building, it was hosted by Emmy-winner Bruce Vilanch, with entertainment for the evening provided by Thelma Houston, Freda Payne, Billy Masters, and an assortment of other performers and musicians – hearkening back to the club’s glory days, when celebrities like Joan Rivers, Bernadette Peters, and Wayland Flowers (with Madame, of course), performed there.
That the event should warrant the participation of big-name talent is no surprise, considering Studio One’s long legacy. The building, originally a bombsight facility from WWII, became The Factory, a late-60s style disco that was a popular nightspot for celebrities. When that club closed in the early ‘70s, Studio One was born. Though it later became The Axis, and then The Factory again, for LGBT Angelenos of a certain age, it would always be Studio One.
There are plenty of important reasons why the legacy of the beloved disco deserves to be preserved– from 1974-1994, the club saw the rise of the gay rights movement, the rise and fall of disco and the darkest days of the AIDS crisis, when it became ground zero for AIDS activism. But for many of the generation or so of former patrons for whom Studio One was an important touchstone, the most profound reasons are their own memories.
For instance, West Hollywood councilman John Jude Duran, who on the day of the farewell party, posted on social media that he had “[m]ixed emotions of sadness, loss, sweet love, kinship and deep gratitude.”
The former Weho mayor wrote, “Walking into Studio One that first time I found my Tribe. Confused teen. Fake ID. Circled that block around Robertson and La Peer for a long time until I summoned the courage to walk up those stairs… [b]ut then I walked through the double doors into the STUDIO ONE. Shirtless beautiful Marlboro men with mustaches. Hyper masculinity. The beat of the bass and dance. Threw myself into the unbridled joy on that dance floor and never looked back… until now.”
There was also Marc Saltarelli, a filmmaker who was at the farewell celebration to capture it for an upcoming documentary he has in the works, titled “Studio One Forever.” When asked by the Blade what he felt about the club on a personal level, he said, “I remember going to Studio One when I moved here from Illinois in 1983… it took a few circles around the block to get up the courage to walk in. All of my internalized homophobia seemed to be lifted once I got inside. It didn’t feel wrong to be there — it felt like Disneyland. I couldn’t have known that so many years later I would be documenting the club’s history. The AIDS crisis was just beginning to creep into consciousness. For a moment I had unfettered joy and freedom.”
These wistful reminiscences are of a kind with those of other former Studio One regulars who spoke with the Blade. Some offered brief, potent memories that instantly spring to their mind on mention of the club – such as Kevin, who remembers “the nicest bartender in the front… I can’t remember his name… he was in his 30s, muscular, blond – a very sexy man,” or Mitch, who admits, I know I had a lot of fun times there in the early 80’s but the details are sketchy” – though he does add, “I used to see Paul Lynde and Wayland Flowers there, too.”
Others had more detail to share, and stories that illustrated the role Studio One played in the lives of the young LGBT people for whom it became an oasis. Anthony, who used to make the drive from Long Beach every week for a night of dancing in Weho, still has awe in his voice as he talks about his experiences there.
“My Studio One days began in the early 80s. By that time, it was well known as an institution of gay nightlife…. Studio One was revered as a full-on club, one of maybe three then – the others being the Odyssey and Probe – that were worth going to for a blissed-out night of dedicated dancing.
“Inside, the place was vast and had a stellar sound system. What I remember most is the fog machine that would turn the vastness into a hazy, insulated dancehall and added a sense of mystery to what was around the corner… what hottie was lurking just ahead.
You’d see partiers from all walks of life – models hob-nobbing with preppies, fashion execs judging your clothes… and then you’d turn to the dance floor and see jocks dancing with leather men amid a sea of fan dancers… though I may be mixing that up with the Beach House or something. It’s hard to remember… thank you, drugs!”
Another former patron, Marvin, paints a vivid, impressionistic portrait of his time there toward the end of its heyday. “The year was 1992-93. The music was electronic, techno mixes, 90’s dance stuff… I remember beepers glowing. It was foggy, It was loud and I don’t remember being able to talk to anyone. We all glowed because of the fog machines and lights… and I remember my best friend would get hit on by older men, they would want to photograph him naked or buy us a drink.”
“I felt like I was in a place that I belonged,” he continues. “These were my people. Because of its location in Weho, I self-identified as a gay young man coming of age, and Studio One allowed me to live that for that one night of the week.”
That last sentence gets to the heart of why Studio One was a touchstone for the people who congregated there in their youth, and why its passing could not go unacknowledged. It was a place where they could be exactly who they were – at least for the night – without fear of judgment from the “real” world in which they lived for the rest of the week.
The world has changed since the glory days of Studio One, and acceptance is much easier to find for the LGBT community – at least in urban centers like Los Angeles – but there are few, if any, places today that offer a taste of freedom quite so sweet. For that reason, in years to come, as they drive past the luxury hotel that Faring plans to erect on the property, many gay Angelenos will always feel a twinge of sadness.