It was a bad idea, poorly executed, and north Phoenix was the perfect setting. Land of franchised illusions, where on Saturday, December 4, Phoenix Studio 54 celebrated its grand opening in a strip mall on Bell Road.
It's an epoch away from the west side of Manhattan -- 254 West 54th Street, specifically -- where 20 years ago the original Studio 54 served as the mother ship of disco culture.
Phoenix Studio 54 served as the mother ship of wack.
Promoted for six weeks in advance through advertisements and invitations bearing a counterfeit of the stylized Studio 54 logo and the slogan "The Legend Is Here," the club's debut (it's to be open on Saturdays only) was jammed with retro culture enthusiasts from this city's northern nether region. They had been encouraged to "Dress to the 9's [sic] or Dress Outrageous and Wild!"
The result was a lot of big women in small outfits mixing with mullet-cut desert rats looking to jump on the Boogie Nights bandwagon two years too late. Plus a few curiosity seekers and a flock of strippers who got in free.
The cover charge -- $10 -- was more than it costs to get into Scottsdale's trendiest dance clubs, and a virtual mugging for the nightlife equivalent of a fake Rolex. For the record: Phoenix Studio 54 has no licensing agreement or any other affiliation with the owners of the real Studio 54. The project's mastermind, veteran Valley promoter Johnny Dee, says he got the idea to open Phoenix Studio 54 earlier this year from 54, a fictional Hollywood documentary starring Mike Myers as Studio 54's flamboyant impresario Steve Rubell.
"I wanted to do sort of a '70s thing, and when I saw that movie, I was just like, 'Wow, what a good time!'" says Dee. "You could say the movie solidified the concept."
I asked Dee if this concept could be described as fraud.
"No, because we're not trying to be Studio 54," he explained. "We're trying to be like Studio 54."
Thus the K-Tel disco soundtrack to Phoenix Studio 54's opening. Thus the Saturday Night Fever posters on the walls. Thus the red velvet ropes outside. Thus the muscled, naked-to-the-waist, tuxedo-collared bartenders. Thus the one-tenth-scale replica of Studio 54's decor trademark, a moving sculpture of a man on the moon, snorting cocaine from a giant spoon, which, alas, did not move or light up or spew mist or do anything but hang over the dance floor by a string.
Thus all the evidence of Dee's dedicated efforts to re-create the very epicenter of global disco culture.
In a strip mall.
In north Phoenix.
With no legal permission to do so.
"We're aware of it, we've been monitoring the ads for about a month, we just couldn't believe they'd actually go through with it," says Mike Milner, director of operations for the company that three years ago purchased the rights to the Studio 54 logo and name, then opened an exact replica of the original Studio 54 in Las Vegas' MGM Grand Hotel and Casino. (The original Studio 54 is still open in its original location as a for-rent performance and party space; currently it's hosting an off-Broadway production of Cabaret.)
"Are they going to hear from our lawyers?" says Milner. "What, are you kidding me? Yes, they're going to hear from our lawyers. Either that or I'm going to walk down the street, open up a hamburger place, put up some golden arches and call it 'Las Vegas McDonald's.' Come on. You just can't do that."
Well, Dee did. And his ads in this newspaper helped.
A pivotal moment in my interview with Dee last week arrived when I laid the official Studio 54 logo side-by-side with the logo for Phoenix Studio 54, then asked him if he saw any problem with blatantly appropriating a widely known, legally protected icon.
I expected Dee to look angry or defensive at this question. Instead, he looked confused.
"I don't understand," he said. "You guys helped me design this."
"You guys" meaning New Times. "This" meaning the copycat logo.
As I didn't know whether Dee was telling the truth, I let the question drop.
The next morning, I began checking into his claim by asking questions of my colleagues in this paper's retail advertising department. Although there is a church/state relationship between the editorial and advertising departments, we're all in the same building. So New Times was investigating New Times. What I turned up is this:
Dee contacted this paper's advertising department in mid-October and expressed an interest in advertising the grand opening of Phoenix Studio 54. A New Times account executive faxed Dee a "spec," or mockup, of what his ad could look like. This spec ad featured the copyrighted Studio 54 logo, which the account executive had taken from the Web site for Studio 54 Las Vegas, along with a crowd shot photographed inside the original Studio 54 by paparazzo Felice Quinto.
Dee hired an outside graphic artist to slightly alter the Studio 54 logo. Dee then submitted this altered logo to New Times for use in his advertisements. Shortly before the altered logo was first published, Dee asked that a New Times designer type the word "prop" in small print in the lower section of the "4" in Studio 54.
"That's to let whoever wants to know that, hey, we're not claiming this as our own, we're using it as a prop, like in a movie," says Dee.
Over the ensuing weeks, five quarter-page advertisements featuring the Phoenix Studio 54 logo and a barely recognizable excerpt of the crowd shot appeared in New Times. Upon learning from me that Dee does not have a licensing agreement with Studio 54, New Times ad executives pulled his ad from the current issue. Those same executives refused to say what would have happened if Dee had wanted to use the trademark logo sent to him in the spec ad.
"We take all ads on good faith," said New Times clubs and music sales manager Kurtis Barton, who was directed by his superiors not to answer any of my questions.
In other words, New Times didn't ask if Dee had a licensing agreement and Dee certainly didn't tell. (The contract Dee signed places all responsibility for any copyright infringement, fraud and misrepresentation squarely upon the advertiser.)
Milner says there have been nearly a dozen instances of knockoff Studio 54s since his company acquired the rights to the legacy. Most have been one-night-only theme parties that slide beneath the radar of legal action. "Never have we had anything so blatant as this [Phoenix Studio 54]," he says. "The only one that came close was a place earlier this year in Shreveport, Louisiana."
Phoenix Studio 54's second Saturday of operation (December 11) was slow compared to the opening week's full house. A buxom blonde in a nurse's outfit roamed the sparse crowd, serving multicolored shots in plastic syringes.
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"All I was trying to do was bring something really cool to an area of town that rarely gets a chance to have something like a Studio 54-type experience," says Dee. "You know, I wanted to bring together all the different colors of people in all their different wild clothes, and see them dancing and having a good time, in a place that tries to roll back the atmosphere. Where else can you find that?"
I'm thinking Las Vegas.
Contact David Holthouse at his online address: email@example.com