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30th Anniversary Issue / Ian Schrager: ‘In’-Keeper

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We opened Enchanted Garden in December 1976. It didn’t take very much to get into it, so we just decided, “Hey, let’s try and do a nightclub.” At the end of 1976, Steve Rubell and I saw an old TV studio on West 54th Street; it was called Studio 52. I think the rent was $50,000 a year. Which at that time seemed like an unbelievable amount of money, but we went ahead and signed a lease, and we opened up in April 1977. At that time, there were a number of great nightclubs in New York City. There was 12 West, there was Flamingo, there was Le Jardin. Going to discotheques had just sort of taken the world by storm. And so there was great anticipation. The night Studio 54 opened, it was like lightning striking. The thing just took off from the first day that it opened.

Basically a club is an adult theme park, and you’re always trying to find new and exciting outlets for people, trying to discover new places within the nightclub, and that’s the way the VIP-room thing evolved. It started out in the back, and then it moved into the dishwasher room, and then it went to the balcony, and then it went downstairs into the basement. We would just find another nook or corner where people could sit down and Steve could take care of his friends. I look back, and I think that we got intoxicated with the success. What we were trying to do was have a party and exercise the same discretion and judgment people exercise when they have a party in their home. We thought it was quite innocent, but it almost destroyed me. At the time, it was all we could do to keep our arms around what was happening, it was moving so fast.

Hotels are very similar to nightclubs. They both have the same goal in mind, or they should: looking after people, making sure they have fun, trying to razzle-dazzle them. I really consider myself in the entertainment business, so whether I express myself through a restaurant, through a hotel, through a club, it’s all with basically the same thing in mind: to look after your guests, lift their spirits, excite them. That’s my approach in the hotel business, and it was the same approach we had in the nightclub business -- except that in the hotel business, I actually have a product that people need. I have a bed. In the nightclub, I had no product.

As long as I have something to say, and I think I can make a contribution and do something that’s distinctive and original and fresh and on the edge -- not falling over but right there balancing on the edge -- I’ll continue to do hotels. As long as I can keep it small, and keep my arms around all the important details, I’ll continue to do hotels. The minute that stops, I’m going to get out of the business, because I’m not interested in doing institutional or generic things.

We’ve now consolidated into one strategic company under one umbrella, with one management, and really put this in a position to take our show on the road. I probably didn’t have to work another day before this transaction in which Schrager sold a controlling interest in his properties. But really, if you do it for the money, it’s a perversion of the process. I need to express myself. I’m fortunate: I happen to be doing something I love. Money is just sort of a way of keeping score; the real test is when somebody walks into your hotel, and a smile creeps across his face, and his spirits are lifted because he sees something he hasn’t seen before. That, to me, is the payoff -- not the money.

Interviewed by Beth Landman Keil


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