Barry Morgan doesn’t know how to feel about Feb. 4, the day the music dies at Studio 54.
On one hand, the closing party is going to be “totally sick,” Morgan promises, and he’s eager to see what will take the nightclub’s space. But MGM Grand’s director of entertainment has been with the city’s longest continuously running club since the day it opened in 1997. “It’s going to be bittersweet.”
Studio 54 had a phenomenal Las Vegas run—14 years is like a century for a Strip nightclub—and Morgan has been a key player in all of its big nights. He cast the original troupe of dancers and choreographed the moments when bartenders would show their flare. He was the creative mind behind Studio 54’s Halloween parties, which made the MGM and Las Vegas a destination for that night. And he was there to make the Billboard Music Awards’ pre-party the party to attend.
We caught up with Morgan prior to Studio 54’s closing and just days before Angel Management Group and Hakkasan announced they were partnering to lease the space for a luxury dining-nightlife venue under the Hakkasan brand that’s scheduled to open late this year.
When MGM Grand brought the Studio 54 concept here from New York City, was there any concern about it becoming a cheap knockoff?
The original set a high standard. It had such an impact on nightlife and celebrity culture. It was the place to be seen. So that was our vision for the club here. But New York is so different from Las Vegas, and the expectations of visitors are different. We tried to do the New York thing with the velvet ropes and picking and choosing who came in.
After a few months, it became clear that that wouldn’t work in Vegas. So yeah, we could have just been a wannabe. But we managed to capture what that brand had meant and make it work here.
Like the original, the club has been a celebrity magnet. What nights stand out to you?
Prince performing here was insane [the pop star ushered in 1999 at the club]. He started to jam, and you got a raw Prince. You saw a musical genius at work in a way you never would in concert. And personally, I really enjoyed doing the Billboard Awards pre-party. It was televised with Ryan Seacrest hosting. The red carpet was beyond sick.
Who’s the one celebrity you’d most like to see show up on closing night?
Ricky Martin. Everyone here knows how much I love his music. When I had my birthday party here two years ago, the dancers did a special Ricky Martin mix for me. It would make my year to have him in the club.
Studio 54 was ahead of the trends for industry night and celebrity DJs. Who’s your favorite DJ?
One is DJ R.O.B. He’s a Vegas local, and he’s done my music production since back in the theme-park days. [Morgan started his MGM career choreographing shows at the property’s old theme park.] He’s a huge motivator for getting people on the dance floor. Another is DJ Loczi. He has a great way of mixing old music with new beats. So no matter how old you are, you’d enjoy it. The brand has always pulled a good mix, with the older crowd early in the evening.
The closing party is going to bring back all the old DJs. From R.O.B. to Joey D and Lisa Pittman. So many people have come through here.
What do you think will become of Studio 54’s space?
I just hope they do something original, and I’m sure it will be. I’ve watched the nightclubs popping up lately. Everybody has beautiful servers. Everybody has bottle service, and they play the same music. They slap lipstick and rouge on the place, but so many seem to be same. Studio 54 stuck around so long because we constantly brought something new. Whatever comes next will have to live up to that. [He pauses and winks.] But don’t be surprised if Studio 54 pops up at one of our sister properties; she’s part of us now.
When you tell people what you do, they probably think you’re the party guy. What don’t they know?
I’m kind of a lone ranger. I don’t have a team, but I work with so many different departments—casino marketing, HR, the technical team. And there’s so much that can go into it. For our New Year’s party, I start planning in July. I hired about 25 dancers, a 14-piece band, we brought in the Pointer Sisters and the Four Tops—about 65 people in all. The day after Christmas we [start to] rehearse for a week, all for one four-hour party. Then there are two days to turn over the room and get our Employee of the Year event staged.
My job is all about making it look easy. If it doesn’t look easy, people won’t have a good time—not the clients, and not the staff.
What would you be doing if you weren’t doing this?
Teaching at a university. I came here in 1985 and started working at the Folies Bergere. But I knew my years would be numbered. I went to UNLV and got my master’s in music. I love the energy at a university. For the most part, people are there because they want to be, not because they have to be. I think there’s some teaching in my future.