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September 16, 2014

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Items from famed nightclub Studio 54 go to auction

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Alan Diaz / AP

Auctioneer Rico Baca, co-owner of Palm Beach Modern Auctions, surrounded by Studio 54 memorabilia, holds a newspaper clipping as he talks to an Associated Press reporter in West Palm Beach, Fla., Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013. Those long-ago nights at Studio 54, the famed nightclub with a legacy greater than its lifespan, are being relived as a trove of memorabilia from the iconic 1970s funhouse goes up for bids.

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — A trove of memorabilia from Studio 54 is going up for bid in an auction that is resurrecting those long-ago nights at the iconic 1970s clubhouse with a legacy greater than its lifespan.

Mementos kept by the late Studio 54 co-owner Steve Rubell, including paparazzi photographs, letters and artwork once belonging to the New York club's A-list guests, are being auctioned off Saturday in West Palm Beach.

The items give a fascinating glimpse of life at 54: author Fran Lebowitz shoulder-to-shoulder with pop artist Andy Warhol. A stone-faced Frank Sinatra staring off in the distance. Diana Ross, arms flailing on the dance floor. Robin Williams, Dustin Hoffman, Michael Jackson, Elton John, Cher — and on and on and on.

Rubell's partner, Bill Hamilton, finally decided to part with the treasures, more than 23 years after Rubell's death at the age of 45. The boxes of newspaper clippings, photographs and everything else had spent decades in their apartment on West 55th Street in Manhattan, where Hamilton still lives.

Giving up the items was hard, said Hamilton, who was too young to ever enjoy Studio 54 himself. He decided to auction them, in part, because he got married last year and wanted to shed some of his possessions. But as he took a final look at the photos, he was reminded of Rubell's generosity and how much fun he helped create.

"He really just wanted you to have a good time. And he might have just met you and he invited you into the club, but he was going to make sure you remember it," he said. "These people from 1978, 1979 are still living those nights."

Rubell and Ian Shrager opened Studio 54 in 1977 and sold it in 1981, after they "got out of camp," as they called prison, where they served time on charges of federal income-tax evasion. It continued operating under different management for years afterward.

"They just pushed the envelope every single night," Hamilton said.

The club's memories are captured in hand-scrawled notes from its guests, such as one from Farrah Fawcett to Rubell that says "Dearest Steve, Thank you for a fabulous weekend. You made it work!" Or the telegram from Yves St. Laurent to Rubell, inviting him to a black-tie celebration of his perfume Opium.

Most of the dozens and dozens of photographs were taken by news outlets or paparazzi and it's not known how many copies exist. But there's a handful of one-of-a-kind Polaroids shot by Warhol, making them the most valuable of the bunch.

Altogether, the collection broadens the public portrait of Rubell, known to many younger people only through Mike Myers' portrayal of him in the movie "54."

"I'm left with the belief that there was an energy with the way Rubell would put together these groups of people every night," said auctioneer Rico Baca of Palm Beach Modern Auctions, which is handling the sale. "And this energy comes out in these photographs."

Among the pricier objects on the auction block is a metal sculpture by Warhol of dollar signs, which was given to Rubell, and is estimated to fetch up to $50,000. There's also a Warhol drawing of Studio 54 drink tickets, estimated to go for up to $150,000, and a painted portrait of Rubell by Michael Vollbracht given to the club impresario on his 35th birthday, with an estimated value of up to $20,000.

Also being sold are drink tickets, posters, invitations and even Rubell's personal address book. And, perhaps most interestingly, the key to the fortress itself, Rubell's tattered front-door reservation book, which held his jotted notes on each night's guest list.

The book is filled with gads of famous names, notations on whether the guest's bill would be footed by the club, and the faint sound of disco-fueled memories frozen in time.

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