WEST PALM BEACH -- The record albums may have been vinyl and the photos Polaroid, but the prices at Saturday’s auction of memorabilia from the storied 1970s New York disco Studio 54 were strictly the stuff of naughty-oughty hedge funds and real-estate bubbles, as Sal DeFalco learned to his sorrow. DeFalco, who was a bartender at Studio 54 back in the good (or bad — we’ll get to that later) old days, was prepared to spend as much as $400 for a photo of his 19-year-old self partying with Diana Ross back in the day.
“I really, really want it,” he confided minutes before the photo hit the auction block. “The auction booklet says the expected price is between $300 and $600, but I can’t really go beyond $400. I’ve been a bartender my whole life. I’m not a rich man.”
Alas, he was surrounded by people who were. When the $1,000 opening bid for DeFalco’s photo (yeah, some people would refer to it as Ross’s photo, but they aren’t writing this story) was called out, the room was silent except for the sound of a heart cracking in two.
Even auctioneer Rico Baca was moved by DeFalco’s plight. “Don’t you think he should buy it?” Baca beseeched the crowd. But in a battle between Compassion and Cash, you can probably guess who won. An anonymous Internet bidder eventually got the photo for $1,500. This story may eventually have a happy ending, though. DeFalco held onto a lot of his own Studio 54 memorabilia — you can see some of it at the monthly Studio 54 parties at Club Boom in Wilton Manors, where he pours drinks — and he could probably stage his own auction. “My employee jacket alone is worth thousands,” he whispered, slightly in awe of his own clothes.
Inflated prices were the rule of the day at the auction of thousands of items from the estate of former Studio 54 co-owner Steve Rubell. Most of them went for sums well over the price range suggest by Baca’s auction house Modernauctions. A Polaroid of Rubell and disco diva Grace Jones snapped by Andy Warhol? $10,000. An invitation to the club’s 1981 New Years Eve party? $1,500. (To be fair, it came with a complimentary drink ticket.) A collection of six record albums from the Studio 54 deejay booth? $450, which impressed even Baca. “Who has one of those turntables at home?” he wondered aloud.
The prices were driven in part by photographic collectors, beguiled by a Hall of Fame of 1970s glam-trash celebrity snapshots that ran from Cher to Stallone, from Bianca to Belmondo, from Kennedy kids to Capote.
“This is actually pretty inexpensive,” said Tommy Morrison, a 31-year-old Palm Beach collector who spent $7,000 on photos in the first hour just warming up for his real target, a shot of Rubell, Warhol, Brooke Shields and Calvin Klein inside the club. “These are classic images you can’t find anywhere else. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
How the classic images themselves would feel about Morrison’s plans for them — he’s going to decorate a bathroom with the photos — is debatable. In any event, he landed his prized photo for $1,800, a little bit less than he expected to pay.
But it wasn’t a shutterbug who bought the Studio 54 guestbook (full of lists of which celebrities got in free, which ones had to pay a cover, which ones didn’t get in at all, and other red-hot 1978 gossip) for $6,000. (“Somebody wants to burn this book,” Baca cracked.) Or Rubell’s old phone book (complete with numbers on which to call Jackie Onassis and numerous other dead celebrities) for $6,500..
Many of the 400 people who attended the auction — their number triples when bidders following by telephone or the Internet — were still in a disco daze over disco days.
“We’re here for sentimental reasons,” said Jackie Friedman of Miami Beach, who spent countless nights on the Studio 54 dance floor with her husband, Stanley. “We’re here to reinvent the past.”
Studio 54 open in 1977 in a cavernous old CBS television studio from which Captain Kangaroo once instructed baby boomer kids on the importance of vegetables and toothbrushes. At Studio 54, the now-grown-up kids learned about Bee Gees, blow, and the joy of promiscuous sex in a pre-AIDS world.
“There was sex in the balconies and basement, and there was cocaine just about everywhere,” said DeFalco. “I was young and naïve when I went to work there, and then I was thrown into this scene of celebrities and drugs and sex. But I was 20 years old and willing to do anything.”
Everybody who was anybody went to Studio 54, and anybody who went there was instantly somebody. Merely getting through the door past the infamously discriminating Rubell — he once refused admission to the king of Cyrus “because he looked like somebody from Queens” — conferred celebrity status.
“Much more glamorous than actually being in the place was getting in,” said the cross-dressing Fort Lauderdale artist Electra, a veteran of Studio 54 first as a partier and later as a performer, doing celebrity imitations. She was working as an auction hostess Saturday, wearing a kianna jumpsuit, a white afro wig and her classic 1974 roller-disco skates.
“Seeing and being seen was so much a part of that era,” she recalled. “Once you were inside, a lot of it was just like any other club. But you were inside.”
It was clear that a lot of people wanted to get back inside Saturday as bidders mercilessly ran up prices on old Studio 54 programs, posters and even birthday-cake candles. None was more acquisitive than an on-line bidder known only as No. 975, who in the first hour and a half grabbed dozens of items at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars.
The buzz grew steadily. Was some disco icon like John Travolta or Rod Stewart trying to reassemble the artifacts of his youth? The truth turned out to be more prosaic: 975 was the number assigned to all Internet bids. “It’s not just one greedy person,” Baca said. The sigh that swept the room might have been relief, but it sounded more like disappointment.
The number of antiquarian disco ducks at the auction didn’t surprise Baca, who worked desperately to get the consignment of Studio 54 memorabilia from one of Rubell’s old boyfriends. (Rubell died in 1989.)
“This is where the disco ball dropped,” Baca said. “All those people who went to Studio 54, they didn’t move to San Diego. They came to Palm Beach.