A Knoxville native recalls the best days of disco at Studio 54
by Adrienne Martini
Don Fendley's eyes glitter like two giant mirrored balls when he talks about New York in the 1970s. In his mind, he's back in Studio 54, immersed in the legendary party. His body, however, is in the living room of his Farragut home, which is crammed full of old magazines, art, newspaper clippings, and CDs. Fendley's pedestrian surroundings belie his halcyon days in the 1970s.
"I never thought much about itwhen I was doing it," Fendley says. "Then you think back and think 'Wow. That was pretty special.'" It was an exciting time to be in the big city, which was full of endless possibilities for a young man from Knoxville.
That's rightKnoxville. Fendley graduated from Bearden High School in 1962 and spent some time in Colorado, California, and New Hampshire before he found the glitter of Manhattan irresistible. One of this city's own was at ground-zero of the disco revolution, and lived to tell about it. While many of us probably have a couple of dusty disco memories, few have the credits that Fendley has. Through his work as a DJ and later as a music programmer for fashion designers, Fendley rubbed elbows with the New York disco scene's rich and famous, and called some of them friends.
While his personal story follows the traditional coming-of-age formula, the backdrop is newly in vogue. The Disco Years are now the staple for books, films, and sit-coms. Two films set in this era were released during the last six monthsThe Last Days of Disco and 54, which indicate the beginnings of a full-blown trend to use the decades' discos as settings for stories.
But the 20-year distance between the creators of these entertainments and the era itself have cheapened it somehow, narrowed the focus to the most salacious highlights while ignoring the backdrop of more typical lives. Fendley, by sharing some of his memories of this now-hip decade, punctures some of the exaggerations of our current obsession with '70s disco legends like Studio 54.
Fendley did not, however, move to New York and immediately find himself immersed in this world of dancing celebrities. Like most struggling actors/models, he waited tables. As a waiter, he made connections. Lily Tomlin's brother was also a waiter at Serendipity Three and hooked Fendley up with a night job at a cabaret called Upstairs at the Downstairs, where Tomlin, Ruth Buzzy, and Joanne Worley honed their acts. "I started falling into this world of actors and models and photographers and artists," he says.
Fendley found himself on Fire Islandthe vacation spot of
the rich and famous, people like Calvin Klein and Halston.
Fendley went to one of the "botels," a combination hotel, boat dock, and night spot, and checked out the dance scene. "It was terrible," he recalls. "They had a jukebox when I first went. You'd want to dance and start dancing, and then the song would stop and the next one would come on, but it might not be a dance song. It would be a slow song.
"So I convinced the owners to let me put in two turntables, which I'd been doing at home. A friend of mine put in a mirrored ball with a spot on it. It was like magic. At the end of the night, people would stand and applaud. It was endearing."
From this, Fendley grew to DJing in some of the premier clubs in the city, like Le Jardin and New York, New York. His steady gig was at a club called Hurrah's, which was Studio 54's largest competitor. Still, he was immersed in the land of celebrity. "Diana Ross would come there and some of the Saturday Night Live crew. Diana Ross would get up in the booth with me and work the lights. She loved to play around," he says. "Gilda Radner I met at the door one night. You ran into so many celebrities like you would, in Knoxville, friends. You'd see them and you weren't surprised this was Robert DeNiro. Grace Jones was a good friend. Working with Halston, I became friends with him also. I did music for the parties at his house. His parties, his salon, his fashion showsand the other people picked up on it and I started doing it for Calvin Klein. So I stopped playing at clubs because I went a step beyond just a disco DJ." It was this step beyond that made him a fixture at 54, where he would spend five nights out of seven hob-nobbing with the rich and famous.
But his memories of Studio don't jibe with the most recent movie to use the club as a background. In his opinion, 54 "was kind of stupid. It didn't show the real club. The real club was really glamour. I mean, fashion. Sure there were the crazy fashions and a few offbeat people there but you never saw really beautiful people or models or celebrities [in the film]."
Life at 54, however, wasn't all beautiful people and fun. Owners Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager had a small problem with the powers-that-be and the club was busted for tax-evasion and drug-related charges in December of 1979. Fendley recalls his brush with the chaos that briefly closed New York's most exclusive night-spot.
"Ironically," Fendley says, "December 12, my birthday, I played at Studio 54 because the hostess' boyfriend was also born the same day and they were giving a party and decided to give a party for the two of us. No publicized thing but we invited our friends. It was a section of the club that was always sectioned off anyway for celebrities or parties. And I got to play records for an hour. I brought all of my records that I would play. I left them there that night, maybe the next night was Sunday or something, so I didn't go back until Monday morning or Monday afternoon.
"When I went in to get them, the place was crawling. I was nervous at the door because there were these two guys in suits with the FBI, and the drug people, and the tax people were crawling all over the club. And I said, 'Can I please get my records? It's my life.' I was there getting my records out that day they were busted.
"But the first year and a half [to] two years before they got busted, was a completely different era than after it was taken over by someone else. Even though [Rubell] was around a long time before he went to jail and then when he came out of jail two years later, it had gotten sort of bastardized. It wasn't quite as glamorous. It cheapened it a lot. In the heyday of those first two years, Bianca Jagger's party, she would come in on a white horse, naked like Lady Godiva. Grace Jones performed with a panther. It was just the wildest thing, the wildest shows. But you never saw any of that in the movie."
The movie, however, did show one of the most infamous parts of the clubthe basement. According to the myths that surround it, this dank cellar was the place to be, the spot where all of the stars went to undo their coifs and party.
"It was much different than it would seem," recalls Fendley. "I mean, it was a basement of a theatre so it rambled on and on. There were alcoves and hallways and rooms, where they kept the liquor and there was maybe an office. But it was dingy.
"There wasn't the blatant sex. There may be come-ons and the flirting, but that scene in the movie where he walks right by two people having sex was just ridiculous. That'd be way up in the top of the balcony. They wouldn't be right there on the floor.
"Little things like that made it look ugly, you know? They took away all of the fun and glamour of Studio which made it so fabulous. They didn't even show that. You hardly saw any of the beautiful models or actors or people. They all seemed to be more freakish.
"The music at the time, too, held it together. And none of these movies, none of these books, ever talk about the DJ. It's like the clubs were all run by machine. There was real talent there that made disco so fabulous. And I was one of them.
"When I talk to people, it's like, 'You're such a name-dropper.' But they were my friends. They were the people I knew. And it seems to be people you would know, too."
The current crop of films just don't seem to hit the mark because they skirt one of the more important aspects of the eradrugs. In Fendley's opinion, they leave out "the reality of drugs. It wasn't all psychedelic. It wasn't all trippy and wired and crazy. It was a time of enlightenment to a lot of people. They didn't use drugs necessarily for recreation and for wild parties. Somehow there were the deeper thoughts and the dialogue and people who got into their art and into writers. It was time when people kind of bonded. Drugs, in a way, brought people together and also it caused a burst of creativity. Andy Warhol. Keith Haring. Lichtenstein. Avedon. Scavullo. I mean, visually things were really bursting with creativity."
To Fendley, a film that focused on one person could be an effective way to capture the soul of the late '70s. Perhaps, he posits, "a movie about a fashion designer of the time, like Halston. A movie about Halston and his life and would capture, I think, that periodthe glamour and the parties and the fun and sprinkle in the drugs when they were having fun.
"These people had to get up the next day and go to work, too. It wasn't like strung-out junkie-type drugs. Coke didn't seem real terrible at the time. It was the abuse of it, and then when it spread to the masses and everyone started doing it, that it turned into crack and stuffit was really ugly. But people would carry a little bit of coke. It wasn't like they were buying ounces or half-ounces. I think there was a large amount of people who would try it and didn't necessarily do it all the time. I think if you didn't take certain drugs, you wouldn't be there, wouldn't be having fun, you wouldn't be on the same level, you'd be bored.
"It wasn't all glamour and it wasn't all party. It wasn't all cheap and sex and rock 'n' roll. They've almost bastardized it to make it look like it was a terrible, decadent time. I don't think of it that way. And not everybody was, either. It wasn't blatant. Not everybody was doing it. It's just like you never see crime in New York when it's just supposed to be full of it. I never saw any of it. Since I've been in Knoxville, I've seen worse."
Fendley left the NYC nightlife in 1984 and returned to Knoxville to take care of his mother, who was suffering from Alzheimer's. But you can see the city lights flash behind his eyes when he talks about his life two decades before, a lifestyle that '90s pop media seems determined-yet-unable to fully capture. Perhaps it is because a universe full of easy sex and plentiful drugs is anathema to the mindset of the late '90s. Perhaps, this is because we are unwilling to listen to the voices of those who were there, one of whom lives right under our proverbial noses.