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Iconic mega-club Studio 54 set to say farewell after 14 years

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Pamela Anderson hosts the final New Year’s Eve at Studio 54 in MGM Grand on Dec. 31, 2011.
Photo: Bryan Steffy/WireImage

When a nightclub in Las Vegas makes it past one year, it’s considered a success. Five years? Consider it middle-aged. Ten years is almost unheard of, which makes it all the more remarkable that Studio 54 has managed to reign as the matriarch of the Las Vegas club scene for more than 14 years.

The iconic nightclub was one of the first, if not the first, mega-clubs to emerge as a hub of decadence and entertainment that today defines nightlife along the Strip. But come Saturday, the glitter and strobe lights of Studio 54 are going dark.

It’s a moment that MGM Grand Director of Entertainment Barry Morgan calls bittersweet and inevitable.

“So much of the staff has been here for almost the entire 14 years, it’s really like a family,” says Morgan, who, having helped open the club as its entertainment manager in 1997, is among them. “It’s sad to see that part of it go. But then again, change is always good.”

2012 Tropic Beauty World Finals at Studio 54

MGM Grand announced the club’s closure in November as part of a broader renovation the resort is currently undergoing. Studio 54 is expected to reopen as a new nightclub and restaurant at the end of this year. However, its legacy still lingers in the numerous other clubs it has influenced over the years.

Morgan credits Studio 54’s success to its branding, modeled off the storied Studio 54 of New York, which closed in 1986; MGM then bought the rights to the club.

“If it had been called ‘The MGM Club,’ it wouldn’t have been successful. The old Studio 54 was iconic for being where you went when you wanted to be on the scene, and that was a good fit for where Vegas was heading in the late '90s, too,” he explains.

In its heyday, the Las Vegas Studio 54 of the 1990s and early 2000s was a vibrant dance destination that Morgan describes as “precocious and unpretentious.” When patrons walked into the 22,000-square-foot club, they entered an unprecedented sensory overload of Warholian hues, oversized Afro wigs, writhing go-go girls and mirror balls reflecting the aerial acrobatics being performed around them.

2011 NYE: Pamela Anderson at Studio 54

It was a club where Siegfried & Roy would mingle post-show on industry night and where Prince gave his legendary New Year’s 1999 performance; where New York mainstays like John Travolta and Hugh Hefner partied with the likes of Paris Hilton and Snoop Dogg; it was an experience drenched in lights and alcohol that cemented “over-the-top” as the new norm, forever changing the shape of Las Vegas nightlife.

But when the club launched in 1997, Morgan’s expectations for Studio 54 were decidedly grounded; the club was designed to be more of an entertainment destination than the hedonistic hotspot of its New York predecessor. He describes a small but committed crew of 12 dancers -- three men and nine women -- who would perform dance and comedy routines every half hour.

“Everyone who worked there was also an entertainer,” Morgan says. “We had a bartender who sang; the bar back was a juggler. Everyone got involved in the productions.”

That immersive experience gave rise to the trend, and now expectation, of the server-entertainer so common in Strip venues today.

For dancer and Las Vegas native Jenny Ammon, that was part of the appeal. Ammon has performed at the club five days a week for 12 years.

“Whatever you did, you had to have a talent,” she recalls. “When people come to Vegas, they want to be entertained, and they want that right in front of them.”

Halloween 2011: Holly Madison, Josh Strickland at Studio 54

Still, Ammon admits that Studio 54 got off to a slow start. It was the first nightclub to be housed inside a hotel rather than autonomously located near the Strip. As a result, the club spent its first few years struggling to attract patrons beyond convention center attendees and hangers-on of the original Studio 54.

Studio 54 rose into its prime with the launch of Erotically Delicious Entertainers’ Night (EDEN), the city’s first industry night.

Ammon says EDEN changed opportunities for both locals and performers. It helped catalyze the need for entertainment and entertainers in all facets of Strip life and unified the nightlife scene for locals and tourists alike.

“Before Studio 54, I wasn’t a big club person. I hung out at the dance studio, and then we’d go get drinks around Harmon and Koval, or if it was after a show, maybe Drai’s if it wasn’t crowded. But with EDEN, it was amazing to have somewhere to go after work, especially where we’d feel appreciated,” she says.

Ammon says that the combination of attracting tourists and the industry at a single destination was what made Studio 54 finally take off.

JWoww and Roger Mathews at Studio 54

Industry night wasn’t the club’s only innovation. Bottle service, a trend in Europe and New York that was still relatively unheard of in Vegas at the time, became an early staple at Studio 54. More theme nights cropped up. Aerial performances quickly became a mainstay.

But it didn’t take long for Studio 54’s lavish nightlife experience to catch on with the rest of the Strip; with it came Luxor’s Ra and Club Rio at the Rio; then there was GhostBar at the Palms, with its breathtaking view of the city, and Body English’s rock star decadence at the Hard Rock Hotel.

Soon enough, nearly every resort had its own nightclub, each with a new draw to trump the other. As clubgoers were increasingly forced to pick and choose among them, Morgan admits that there were times when Studio 54 struggled to maintain its competitive edge.

“Everyone had to outdo each other. It was difficult to stay the place to be when new clubs were opening with a lot more money than we had,” he says.

That forced the club to undergo several significant facelifts over the years, including a lavish remodeling of the entrance, an extension of the entry corridor, the addition of exclusive VIP areas and lounges and a general revamping of music and entertainment.

Recycled Percussion VIP Night at Studio54

Floyd Mayweather Jr. Celebrates at Studio 54

“Everything’s definitely gotten shorter,” Ammon says of her costumes, which have evolved from bellbottoms to lingerie over the years. “No more pants! There’s no hiding behind the costumes.”

But she says keeping Studio 54’s signature party features, like its balloon drop and confetti, were as essential to is prolonged success as its renovations. “Adults love to be kids,” she says.

Morgan ultimately credits the club’s longevity to its integrity. “We always stayed true to ourselves as being a destination for fun, easygoing dance and where crowds can be truly entertained.”

After Studio 54’s farewell bash Saturday, hosted by rapper/actor LL Cool J, the club will be shut down and dismantled in preparation for the new venue. Many of the old staff already have new opportunities lined up.

Morgan, who will be busying himself with MGM’s other entertainment venues, hopes that they would be able to return to the club that replaces Studio 54 in the winter. But older staffers, like Ammon, who started with Studio 54 when she was 21, are still weighing their options.

“This place has been like being in my own living room. It’s so comfortable, I get to see my friends every day. I even met my husband here,” she says. “I don’t think there’s another place I can go and get the same experience. But the good will keep coming. This never felt like a job.”

Follow Andrea Domanick on Twitter at @AndreaDomanick and fan her on Facebook at Facebook.com/AndreaDomanick.

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Andrea Domanick is a reporter covering arts, entertainment and the behind the scenes stories of life in Las Vegas. Before ...

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