There were few obvious reasons to celebrate in the New York City of the 1970s, an era defined more by grime and crime than glitz or glamour in the crowded hub. Every day seemed to bring new challenges as the city’s anxious residents slogged away; the Bronx was burning, violence was escalating, and everyone from cops and firefighters to garbage men were disgusted with conditions and life amidst the graffiti-scarred, litter-laced streets.
Despite that, however – or perhaps because of it – the weekends brought out a different New York. Manhattan and its clubs transformed into a hedonistic mecca, the promise of drugs, disco and dancing luring jaded workers looking to splash their hard-earned money on a nightlife marked by escape and fantasy. By the mid-1970s, the US had pulled out of Vietnam, and the devastating specter of HIV and AIDS had not yet terrified the public consciousness.
Saturday night ‘fever’ – destined to become a cult classic film of the same name – was a reality in the 1970s, a beacon shining amidst the fetid despair of a struggling and claustrophobic town. Clubs like Studio 54 flourished, as celebrities and average-Joe patrons let down their hair and dressed up their outfits.
And there to document the decadence was photographer Meryl Meisler, whose images capture a unique time in American history – along with the wild, free-wheeling antics of the people lucky enough to witness it firsthand.
Three’s company: Two men and a woman shake their stuff on the dance floor at Studio 54 in July 1977, the year it was opened
Get down: Studio 54 (pictured in July 1977) became world-famous for its celebrity guests and its very restrictive entrance policy. Wannabe patrons who didn’t look that part had no chance of getting past the nightclub’s bouncers
Spin those wheels of steel: Meisler noted that a lot of the parties during the time period were themed and people dressed accordingly for the night, which led to a lot of women and men sporting some very risqué outfits. Pictured above is a woman standing behind the DJ booth at 4am inside Studio 54 in August 1977
Saturday night fever: The 1970s was an era defined more by grime and crime than glitz or glamour – but the weekends brought out a different New York when workers hit the club scene and danced their cares away
‘I was a young woman who was going out and having a really good time, staying out late at night,’ Meisler tells DailyMail.com – adding that her presence on the scene even gave her glimpses of pop culture icons.
‘The Village People were around a lot and performing a lot,’ she says. ‘They opened a lot of clubs in the city and one of the nights I saw them, they were opening this club called Xenon.’
‘They were just getting ready to go in there, and I just walked right up to them in the hallway and asked if I could take your picture – and they said sure, no problem.’
Meisler notes that many Seventies parties were themed, prompting people to dress outrageously – further fueling the hedonistic vibe.
Studio 54 was perhaps the most iconic venue, enforcing strict regulations and ruthless admissions policies – but Meisler was a regular, along with more famous names and faces like Andy Warhol and Grace Jones.
Speaking to DailyMail.com, Meisler , who is a New York native, said: ‘I was a young woman who was going out and having a really good time staying out late at night,’ she jokingly laughed. Meisler captured the photo above in October 1978 showing people being rejected from Studio 54 thanks to their infamous entry policy
Strike a pose: Everyone dressed to impress in August 1977 at the Infinity nightclub in New York, the first to be neon-lit. The dance floor is said to have been a block-long. The club burned down in 1979
Work it: A group of revelers pose for Meryl Meisler’s camera at Hurrah in April 1978. Hurrah was a Midtown Manhattan nightclub that ran from 1976 until 1980 and was known for having a punk vibe rather than the traditional disco. Sid Vicious was jailed for two months at Rikers Island after getting into a fight with Patti Smith’s brother Todd at Hurrah in late 1978
‘They were like regular people,’ she says. ‘You know, once you got into Studio 54 and other clubs as well, celebrities were normal. A lot of nights out it was a mix; regular people happened to be in the club and so everyone was mingling.
‘Andy Warhol was just there, he was out a lot. He was really out and about.’
While Meisler skillfully pointed her lens and captured fabulous shots, she never fawned over the more well-known club patrons and would never ‘run and attack’ celebrities, she says.
‘I would get get a kick when I would see someone who’s famous, but they weren’t my focus,’ Meisler tells DailyMail.com.
‘I’m not someone who just, like, would run up and attack them. It was more interesting for me to see the regular people, who are just equally fantastic.’
It’s fun to stay at the Y.M.C.A: The iconic group, The Village People, were one of the most popular acts to come out of the disco period in the 1970s. Acclaimed photographer Meryl Meisler captured the above image of Leatherman Glenn Hughes performing on stage at club Xenon in June 1978
During one of her infamous nights out in the Big Apple, Meisler stumbled across legendary group The Village People. ‘The Village People were around a lot and performing a lot. They opened a lot of clubs in the city and one of the nights I saw them, they were opening this club called Xenon,’ Meisler recalled of the image above showing Felipe Rose known as Red Indian of the Village People
Party animal: Meisler was a regular in the iconic Studio 54 club, which had strict regulations when it came to admitting people for parties, and partied alongside A-listers like Andy Warhol and Grace Jones. Meisler captured the image above showing Warhol center with one of her friends named Judith (left) inside Studio 54 in July 1979
And her images expertly showcase that ‘fantastic’ factor, capturing the frenetic atmosphere, flamboyant fashion and social diversity. She has preserved for history all of those elements, publishing books that reveal the various sides and stages of New York. A Tale of Two Cities: Disco Era Bushwick features disco images and accounts from historians, educators and disco divas; similarly, her book Purgatory & Paradise: Sassy 70s Suburbia & the City includes photos from Fire Island, Studio 54 and the Lower East Side.
The books – along with her other images – paint a vivid portrait of a risqué, wild time in a city both struggling and evolving but all the while, in keeping with its reputation, never sleeping. The photos leap off the pages – and, four decades later, still stir up the ‘fever’ as it was in its heyday.