After Dark

When Disco Had A Dress Code

Before Studio 54 and Saturday Night Fever, Régine’s gave New York glitter during a dark age

  • A party at Régines, New York City, 1977 Ron Galella/ Getty Images

The year is 1977. Ms Esther Williams, the lead singer of The Soul Searchers, drags Mr Andy Warhol onto a Lucite dancefloor and teaches him how to disco dance as socialite Ms CZ Guest and Prince Rupert Loewenstein of Bavaria (the manager of the Rolling Stones and better known as “Rupie the Groupie”) look on. The venue is Régine’s, which opened in 1976 on the ground floor of the old Delmonico’s Hotel on Park Avenue and 59th Street.

Back then Manhattan was a graffiti-riddled, crime-swept island teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. The Wall Street-fuelled Oz was still more than a decade away. Régine’s acted as a bridge between the supper clubs of Café Society – places like Le Club – and Studio 54, which opened in 1977. As such Régine’s foreshadowed the libertine, sex-and-drugs mentality of the disco era while remaining firmly cosseted in old-school glamour.

  • Clockwise from top left: Mr T and a guest dancing at Régine’s, 1982 Ron Galella/ Getty Images; Mr Roy Halston Frowick and Ms Margaux Hemingway on the dance floor, 1980 Condé Nast Archive/ Corbis; The club's famous entrance, pictured in 1978 Ebet Roberts/ Getty Images

The gold-plated membership cards came in little cases made by Cartier, for $600 a head. Champagne was served in jeroboams. Gentlemen were asked to wear neckties (Sir Mick Jagger was famously turned away for not wearing one). Ms Dewi Sukarno, the former first lady of Indonesia, was kicked out of the club for accidentally upending a table of wineglasses. (Ms Sukarno blamed her hoop skirt and sued the club for $4m, but was awarded only 1 franc.)

For non-members, the ritual at Régine’s went something like this: you stepped out of a checker cab in front of the Art-Deco awning of what appeared to be a posh apartment building and knocked on the locked door. The back panel of a sliding peephole opened while a doorman gave you the once-over. If you made the grade, you passed through a dark restaurant. The Bee Gees’ “Nights on Broadway” hit your ears. A staircase at the back led to a playground of pulsing neon sculptures, brocaded sofas and more mirrors.

  • From left: Messrs Peter Falk and John Cassavetes and Ms Régine Zylberberg at Régines, 1981 Sipa Press/ Rex Features

On any given night you might see Mr Roy Halston Frowick, Ms Liza Minnelli, former Secretary of State Mr Henry Kissinger, or a twentysomething Mr Michael Jackson, jumping up from a banquette to dance an impromptu number with a cast mate from The Wiz. You had themed costume parties – Barbarella, Moroccan night. You had Ms Paloma Picasso serenading Mr Neil Sedaka with his hit song “Happy Birthday, Sweet Sixteen”, but in Spanish and Portuguese. You had Rothschilds and Gabors, Kennedys and Trudeaus, Mr George Hamilton and lawyer-powerbroker Mr Roy Cohn, Mses Brooke Shields and Diane von Furstenberg and Mr OJ Simpson.

Régine’s, the nightclub, was in every sense an extension of its proprietor’s imagination. She was Ms Régine Zylberberg, a Belgian-born aspiring torch singer and former hat-check girl at Paris’ Whisky à Gogo. Her performing career never quite took off (she did eventually have a hit single, covering Ms Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”). She claimed to have invented the world’s first discothèque in 1957 when she opened her original Parisian club, Chez Régine, and introduced the Duke of Windsor, Mr Rudolf Nureyev and Ms Brigitte Bardot to spinning records instead of live music or jukeboxes; to bottle service; and to the twist.

  • Clockwise from top: Model Iman and Mr Warren Beatty arriving at Régine’s, 1977 Richard Corkery/ NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images; Ms Pat Cleveland (in feathered bikini and headpiece) with Mr Halston Frowick (right) and Ms Marina Schiano (bottom) at a Régine’s carnival party, 1980 Condé Nast Archive/ Corbis; Ms Marie Helvin and Mr Jack Nicholson at Régine’s, 1978 Richard Young/ Rex Features

Her mother had abandoned her as a baby, and Ms Zylberberg and her father hid from the Nazis in a French convent. While he was running a bar in the Parisian neighbourhood of Belleville, she realised her calling. In the decades that followed she opened nearly two-dozen clubs all over the world, including the namesake outpost in New York.

Even as her club was eclipsed by others, she understood the role she had played in the history of New York, claiming that she provided “mouth-to-mouth help”. Later, she told New York magazine: “I am the one who saved this city from bankruptcy. I made it happy again.” Although Régine’s endured until the economic downturn of the early 1990s forced Ms Zylberberg to shut it down, by then the club had lost ground to younger competitors and fallen out of favour. Indeed if you look up Régine’s in the index of Mr Warhol’s published diaries, you get a sense of just how quickly a nightclub’s chicness can fade. As early as 1978, he noted “Studio 54 is making Régine desperate.” Nevertheless, Mr Warhol remained a regular at Régine’s until at least 1985.

This story is the second feature in a four-part series on the clubs of their decades. For Part 1, click here.

Inspired by Régine’s