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The Vampires of Studio 54


Although vampire hoaxes have probably been around as long as vampires, incidences exploded after the FVZA was disbanded in 1975. Pranksters seeking fame, attention, or just a few laughs took advantage of the lack of official oversight to frighten and terrorize the populace. While there were many convincing hoaxes in the latter half of the Seventies, none had as big an audience as that for the vampires of Studio 54.

Cutting the rug
at Studio 54
New York in the summer of 1977 was a city on edge. The Son of Sam killer was gunning people down in their cars, and a blackout on July 13th had paralyzed the city and sent looters running amok in the streets. Amid this atmosphere of fear and paranoia arose reports that a pack of vampires were preying on the young and the hip at Studio 54, the city's most popular discotheque. The rumor was that "54" owner Steve Rubell kept the vampires in a basement crypt and allowed them access to the clubgoers in exchange for a promise of immortality for himself. Though a couple of young men had disappeared after a night at Studio 54, most people discounted the rumors as the stuff of urban legend, and the disco remained popular.

One Studio 54 regular was not so quick to dismiss the story: Geraldo Rivera, a brash young reporter for ABC-TV. Rivera was looking to make a name for himself and thought that breaking the vampire story would be a sure way to put him on the map. His sources for the story were a group of disgruntled former Studio 54 employees. All claimed they were fired by Rubell when they refused to keep quiet about the vampires. One Sunday afternoon, former 54 bartender Francisco Birney snuck Rivera through a back entrance into the Studio 54 basement and showed him a mysterious locked vault where he claimed that the vampires slept during the day.

Rivera pitched the story to his superiors at ABC; they were wary and suggested he find an expert who could give the story credibility. Damien Gould fit the bill. Gould was a respected, thirty-year FVZA vet who had fallen on hard times and needed the cash promised by Rivera and ABC.

Rivera talked his bosses into making the crypt-opening a one-hour live special. The show was hyped as the first assault on vampires ever carried on live television, although the location of the assault was kept undisclosed so as not to tip off Rubell and Studio 54 management. The cryptic marketing campaign intrigued the nation, and on the night of September 4, 1977, approximately 40 million Americans sat down in front of their TV sets to watch host David Hartman introduce the special with the words "we're about to do something that has never been done before."


Rivera prepares to enter the crypt
After a taped introduction featuring interviews from the former Studio 54 employees, the show went to a live shot of Rivera in a van parked behind the disco. The cameras followed him, Gould and Francisco Birney into the basement, where Birney unlocked the vault. Inside the dark, cramped space lay two dusty coffins. The television audience held its collective breath as Rivera pried open one of the coffins and the camera captured the image of a what appeared to be a male vampire at rest. Suddenly, the vampire's eyes snapped open and, as the camera rolled, he leaped out of the coffin and attacked Rivera. A melee ensued. When the dust settled, Rivera had a broken nose and Damien Gould had his burly arms wrapped around the alleged vampire: former 54 doorman Robert Mendez, complete with blue makeup and plastic fangs. Rivera promised "to get to the bottom of this" as the live shot cut back to the studio and a flummoxed David Hartman.


Rivera a day
after battling
the "vampires"
In all, five former Studio 54 employees were involved in the hoax. They admitted that they had hatched the scheme in the hopes of bringing bad publicity to Rubell and Studio 54. It was only after they got Rivera involved did they begin to see an opportunity to get what 54 patron Andy Warhol might have called "their 15 minutes of fame."

Studio 54 was eventually brought down, but it was the tax man, not vampires, who did the job. As for Rivera, although his reputation took a hit and he became something of a laughingstock, he survived the embarrassment and continued his career in television. Agent Gould was not so lucky: humiliated, he sank into a pit of drinking and despair and died in a rooming house far from the bright lights of Studio 54.

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