We know you’ve heard of Studio 54, the iconic New York City dance club that became almost synonymous with the hedonistic lifestyle of the 1970s disco scene, but before it ever opened its doors there was already Studio One, and if you’ve heard of that one, you’re probably from Los Angeles.
Founded in 1974 by part-owner Scott Forbes in the upstairs space above a furniture store, the West Hollywood nightclub was a hotspot in LA during through the peak of the disco years until its closing in 1993. Explicitly conceived as a haven for gay men, it was known for its youthful clientele, celebrity patrons, and notoriously hedonistic vibe; it became even more of a draw with the opening of “The Backlot,” an adjacent performance venue that featured some of the biggest “A-list” acts of the era.
The story of Studio One has long been buried and neglected, overshadowed and out-excessed by the scandal-ridden saga of its more famous Manhattan cousin, but thanks to filmmaker Marc Saltarelli, it’s finally getting its due as a seminal part of queer cultural history. His film – “Studio One Forever,” a documentary that chronicles the nightclub’s decadent reign as the queen of queer nightlife in LA and follows the effort to preserve the building that housed it – has its world premiere screening at LA’s OutFest on July 18, and while it might not yet be available to a wider audience, it’s bound to draw attention as an important document of an era when queer culture was bursting – through the phenomenon of disco – into the mainstream.
Framed by the modern-day story of former patrons, now local community leaders, spearheading the campaign to save the club’s historic building from demolition, it’s a widely scoped exploration of the Studio One legacy that draws heavily on archival material, personal reminiscences, and hindsight, unearthing a history that took place mostly in secret – or as much so as was possible for a nightclub frequented by some of Hollywood’s biggest stars, both new and old. It’s an engrossing watch, full of interviews with Studio One-adjacent celebs like Bruce Vilanch, Chita Rivera, Thelma Houston, Melissa Rivers, Julie Budd and more, and loaded with anecdotal tidbits alongside the corroborative testimony that gives them the weight of lived experience; more than that it offers a microcosmic look at queer life from the giddy freedom of the sexually liberated 1970s through the decimation of the AIDS era and beyond, into an age when survivors of that time have empowered themselves to reclaim their own history – something that becomes nearly visceral by the extensive photographic record of life inside the club itself, much of it made possible through a chance discovery, covered in the film, which we won’t spoil.
Speaking to Saltarelli before his movie’s debut, we learned that although he had been to Studio One after moving to Los Angeles in 1984, his interest in making a film about it began in 2018, when a friend and former Backlot producer told him about a reunion party for the club that was planned to help drum up support for a “Save the Factory” campaign, in hopes of persuading West Hollywood city officials that the space that once housed the legendary club was worth saving. It was suggested to him that the story would make a good documentary.
“I had been to the club when I was 19, after I had moved from Illinois, and I had those memories – but I had no idea what had happened before I got there, or after,” Saltarelli tells us. “So, I started doing the research, and the women who started ‘Save the Factory’ had put together a 30-or-40-page, detailed, historical document – it actually got official ‘historical preservation status’ – where they interviewed a lot of people that I would end up interviewing later. When I read that, I was like, ‘Wow, there’s an amazing story here that not many people know about.’ I certainly didn’t.”
There were funding challenges, of course, and other logistical obstacles that had to be worked out before he could start the project, but thanks to a postponement of the planned reunion, the filmmaker was able to get things together in time to film that occasion, including extensive interviews with former patrons waiting in line to get in – just like in the old days.
He also gained access to film inside the building, giving him the opportunity to gather a core group of former Studio One regulars – including John Jude Duran, a West Hollywood City Council member and veteran of multiple terms as the town’s mayor – to reminisce on camera within the space in which they had spent so many hours of their younger lives.
“We were able to film the club’s front bartender, Michael Koth, at his old station,” he says, “which was really amazing.” Koth, who used to put lines of complementary cocaine on the bar for patrons, is now a respected health and wellness practitioner.
The flagrant encouragement of drug use at Studio One is just one of the less-than-savory aspects that Saltarelli includes in his documentary, though it takes nothing away from the joyous nostalgia that infuses it. Another is the inevitable discussion of the club’s well-documented racist-and-classist admission policies, which led to controversy and protest even in the “pre-woke” environment of the 1970s and ‘80s.
“Scott Forbes’ vision was to have a place for gay white men only,” Saltarelli tells us. “He didn’t come right out and say it, but he had this ‘no open-toed shoes’ policy as a way of keeping women out, and he didn’t want people of color to be a part of it. They had to have three forms of ID, sometimes, it was just ridiculous.
“Scott had his flaws. I don’t believe he was racist, but he was a businessman, and it was a business decision – and the times were different. It’s not to trash Scott, but I didn’t want to gloss over it, it’s the way it was. Some people deny it, but frankly, that’s because they’re white and they never saw it happening.”
Though “Studio One Forever” has an inherently local focus, Saltarelli has been pleased to find enthusiasm for his project coming from all across the country – and he believes he understands why it strikes a chord for so many people who never set foot in the club itself.
“It’s a universal story for our queer community,” he muses. “It represents our youth, our coming-of-age, it resonates not only with incredibly happy times but also the tragedy of the eighties that still lives with us. All those emotions and memories come back, and most of the people in these photographs, unfortunately, aren’t with us anymore.
“I also like to think it’s a way of honoring those people, who gave so much. They didn’t ask to die, but because of them we were mobilized as a community and that’s why we’ve been able to attain further rights – even though some people are trying to erase those now.”
In truth, queer safe spaces like Studio One are also being erased, even in the LGBTQ+ mecca of West Hollywood – which makes the history related by Saltarelli’s movie even more valuable.
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