It was February of 1988, and Ronald Reagan was winding down his final term in office. The AIDS crisis was still booming, as was the crack epidemic, and murders had hit an all-time high in New York City. Times Square was still gloriously sleazy, yet on West 54th Street and Broadway a small oasis of supposed purity had just opened in a once-depraved den.

“We’re packed every night. It’s incredible,” Marvin Ginsberg told The New York Times.

He was then running Studio 54, surely the most famous nightclub of all time — though now in a different incarnation, as a booze-free club for teenagers.

“[L]iquor or no liquor, people under the age of 21 want spectacular escapes, with soaring spaces, stellar light shows and pulsing music,” claimed The Times.

Studio 54 had burned brightly from 1977 to 1980 as a hotbed for celebrities, cocaine, and crime. Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager’s iconic nightclub courted controversy right from the start, however. Within a month of opening, the New York State Liquor Authority raided it for selling booze without a license. By 1979 the IRS had arrested the twosome for skimming $2.5 million in profits.

Felons can’t own liquor licenses and, thus, Studio 54’s license would expire on Feb. 29, 1980. Amusingly, on the following night, without any drinks to legally serve, the shirtless bartenders offered platters of fruit to guests. The thinking being, BYOD (bring your own drugs) would be enough to keep Studio 54 afloat for a while.

“But without alcohol, the numbers dwindled, and after five or so days the club closed,” writes Mark Fleischman in his book “Inside Studio 54.” He would buy the club from Rubell and Schrager — who were now in federal prison at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala. — and eventually let them stay on as unofficial consultants when Studio 54 reopened in September of 1981 (after long negotiations with the State Liquor Authority).

Fleischman would develop a coke and whippets addiction himself and sell the club to Frank Cashman, who kept Studio 54 running on fumes until he defaulted on payments and the club seemingly closed for good in the spring of 1986.

After years of such ownership reshuffling — along with tax issues, drug abuse, and angry community boards and city planning departments — the Studio 54 space lacked a liquor license, and it was said that it would cost over $1 million in insurance claims to get it back.

But the club itself would eventually end up in the hands of Ginsburg, who, without a liquor license, still had an angle on how to make money from the massive space.

Near Beer and Imported Waters

“We’d had the underage into Studio 54 before, for private events, bar mitzvah parties, Sweet 16s, and whatnot,” David Miskit, the club’s general manager from 1981 to 1983, told me. He recalled hosting the Sweet 16 party for Calvin Klein’s daughter Marci in 1982, which featured a 16-piece classical orchestra and 16-foot tall wax candles.

Yes, by 1988, the Studio 54 name was dead as disco to celebrities and Manhattan’s nightclub elite, though maybe it was still strong enough to attract a kiddie crowd that had been in grade school during the club’s golden era and wanted to cosplay in the past.

It was a decent bet.

We were at the height of “Just Say No” and DARE, the city was becoming more yuppie and conservative, and New York’s drinking age had just been raised from 19 to 21 in December of 1985. Surely there were some 19-year-olds who felt they’d been robbed at the 11th hour of their God-given right to go out clubbing.

“All the people who used to be on line at Studio 54 are now on line at AA,” Rubell told The Chicago Tribune in 1988, in an article about the rise of sober living among the fashion crowd.

Ginsberg couldn’t obtain a liquor license, and while he sat around waiting for it, he ambitiously reopened Studio 54 as an alcohol-free club for the underaged. Andy Warhol and Liza Minnelli would no longer be in attendance, but it was still glitzy and gorgeous with its gray walls and black lights and glitter aplenty.

Likewise, The Man in the Moon With the Spoon — an anthropomorphized lunar body snorting coke — may have no longer been swinging over the dance floor stage, but the club still had the custom-built Coliseum Galileo G-Force Sub-Mass speakers. Kids would dance to hip-hop music like Run DMC, Big Daddy Kane, and KRS-1, while sipping on soda and “near” beer.

And it still had that great name as its key draw.

(“Now out of minimum security prison, Rubell threatened to sue Ginsberg over the use of the Studio 54 name, before realizing he had no legal right to it,” explained Spy Magazine in 1988.)

By the late-1980s, the New York nightlife trend was moving toward smaller-scale, more intimate clubs like Nell’s on West 14th Street, which attracted more conservative clientele that eventually wanted to get to bed so they could wake up bright and early (and not hung over) the next morning to go make money. Black Monday, the stock-market crash that had occurred on Oct. 19, 1987, may have not taken much of a toll on the city’s nightlife economy, but it certainly left many broke, unhappy people in its wake.

But not at the sober Studio 54, which was eventually drawing 2,000 teens a night, every night, throughout much of the summer of 1988. Despite the lack of alcohol and drugs, the underage crowd was having enough of a raucous time and so disturbing the peace that the local community board soon complained that people in the neighborhood couldn’t even live in their own apartments.

Exile

Studio 54 wasn’t the only once-legendary club now catering to non-drinking youth in 1988; at least a half-dozen teen clubs opened in Manhattan that year.

“We’re not into drinking, or anything,” said Daniella, a 17-year-old hanging at the Palladium one night in the summer of 1988, according to the New York Daily News. “Kids need a place to hang out, too.”

The famed Union Square nightclub, also opened by Rubell and Schrager in May of 1985, offered an offshoot called Exile for 16- to 20-year-olds like Daniella. (The Times noted that the venue was “now viewed as somewhat over the hill by downtowners, but still a striking architectural presence,” while a 1988 issue of Spy Magazine more bluntly called it a “loser nightspot.”) Exile was held in what was known as the Michael Todd Room — formerly the club’s VIP spot — which featured a Basquiat mural and futuristic design.

“You wouldn’t open the doors at the nightclub ’til 10, so we could have the kids in ’til 9:30,” claims Miskit, who by this time had moved onto GM-ing at the Palladium. It drew an eclectic crowd, everything from middle- and lower-class “bridge-and-tunnel” kids to yuppie spawn from uptown and the suburbs. “A parent who let their kid go there meant it would always be filled with a bolder type of kid,” Miskit says.

The cover charge was $10 and bouncers were said to check IDs at the door to make sure customers were young enough to come and sip the exotic juices, virgin frozen Daiquiris, and “imported” waters stocked at the bar. (Remember, this was before the era of craft … anything, and even the adult nightclubs were serving nothing fancier than Screwdrivers, vodka tonics, and Budweisers.)

“Even though it wasn’t a place with alcohol, it was still very exciting to these kids,” says Miskit, noting it was still very much a world-class club.

Since the Palladium had formerly been a concert hall and theater, it offered the unique ability to pull out sets, meaning the dance floor could constantly be shifting in size depending on how many people were in the venue. It also offered the most impressive light show in the city — one that reportedly forced the club to foot a $2,000 light bill every single week. Even so, despite the fact that the 3,000-person capacity club was drawing a couple hundred kids per night, the lack of liquor revenue meant they weren’t making much money on them. But that was fine with Rubell and Shrager.

“The kid thing was not so much for business itself, says Miskit. “Rather, we used it as a marketing tool for our catering business. Kids come in, see it, and they’ll want their parents to pay for a Sweet 16 or bar mitzvah or whatever at another time.”

While Studio 54 and the Palladium’s Exile were all-children, all the time, other Manhattan clubs would only dedicate the quieter nights of the week — Tuesdays and Sundays — to the underaged.

Notably, there was 1018, a club as large as a football field in Chelsea, which packed the dance floor as DJs spun house music and R&B. Nearby, there was the Tunnel, occupying an entire city block on 12th Avenue, where by a summer Tuesday in 1988, “16-year-old girls in clingy Betsey Johnson minis” and “17-year-old guys wearing jeans and Reebok high tops” (according to the New York Daily News) were 200 deep to get in and listen to live music acts such as Noel, the Latin Rascals, and Pebbles.

Claimed Vito Bruno, Palladium’s co-manager then (and today a Trump-loving Republican who ran for  State Senate in Brooklyn last year): “These kids aren’t into drinking — they’re into dancing.”

The Club Kids

As we’re currently working our way through another Dry January, with NA beverages way more advanced than imported water and near beer, and legitimate no-alcohol bar scenes emerging not just for kids but for adults, it would seem that places like Studio 54, Exile at Palladium, and the Tunnel were ahead of their time. But, those odd few months in 1988 were hardly the start of a new trend. It was, rather, merely the calm before the next storm.

In April of 1989, the Ritz took over the Studio 54 space, dubbed it The New Ritz, and finally got the space’s liquor license back, turning it into a venue for new wave, punk, heavy metal, and Eurodisco. A new era of Manhattan partying was soon to come.

A month before, 1018 was forced to close due to rampant violence that the mayor’s office claimed was spurred by the club selling alcohol to minors and looking the other way regarding drug-dealing and use. By May of that year, The Times was reporting that the Tunnel was likewise “attracting rowdy teenagers.”

“The clubs that cater to the younger people are the ones that end up in trouble,” said Captain Daniel Collins, head of a new NYPD unit specifically monitoring these nightclubs. “Even though they say they don’t let them drink, we see kids 15 and 16 years old coming out drunk and rowdy.”

The early days of the Club Kid culture had just begun as well, and these colorful and carefully cultivated misfits had begun gathering in the Tunnel’s VIP room in the basement. After a New York Magazine cover story earlier in the year, there would soon be perhaps 1,000 Club Kids haunting New York. They may not have drunk a ton of alcohol either, but they helped revive coke and ushered MDMA into Manhattan’s nightclub scene.

By 1993, in an article in New York Magazine called “The Village Under Siege,” Carolynn Meinhardt complained that “Violent, noisy, and homophobic 14-, 15-, and 16-year-old disco patrons were brought into our neighborhood by one Marvin Ginsberg.” By 1994, Rudy Guiliani was in the mayor’s office with a plan to “clean up” the city; the days of kids in nightclubs were all but over.

Today, the Palladium is an NYU dormitory. The warehouse that once hosted the Tunnel was sold in 2019 for $880 million and is slowly being turned into a high-end commercial, retail, and restaurant space. And, the former Studio 54 space hosts the Roundabout Theatre Company, staging musicals like “Kiss Me Kate,” with a cabaret in the basement. Both continue to sit empty during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“People remember [Studio 54] better than it was,” Rubell told Vanity Fair in 1987, a few months before his iconic nightclub would again open in its final, and most tame guise. “There were many dull nights.”