By Lee Wohlfert-Wihlborg
October 05, 1981 12:00 PM

Outside, the limos were so jammed that police had to close the street with barricades. Inside, Jacqueline Bisset, Rex Smith, Bjorn Borg, Cheryl Tiegs and the usual glitterati partied the night away, as pink-and-white-costumed dancers pranced overhead on a moving bridge. It seemed just like old times at the reopening bash for Manhattan’s très snob Studio 54, and in a very real sense it was. There, right in the eye of the hurricane, stood Steve Rubell, the glad-handing dynamo who helped make Studio the world’s most celebrated disco for three frantic years—until he and partner Ian Schrager were jailed in February 1980 for tax evasion. After 14 months in prison both Rubell and Schrager were released. Five months later Studio 54 was back in business under new management. “I’m thrilled,” gushed Steve as he surveyed the crowd from the d.j.’s booth, accompanied by good pals Calvin Klein and Brooke Shields. “The place came out terrific.”

Except for a coat of whitewash, Studio looks much the same. So does Rubell. He has dropped most of the 30 pounds that he gained in prison. “My biggest concern was always the food,” he recalls. “It was like being in the Army, only worse.” But now that he is back in constant motion he is once more the center of attention at Studio. “I’m hyperactive,” he admits. “On opening night I left the club at 7 a.m. and got up at 9:30. I don’t need much sleep.”

It is not, however, as if he had to get back into Studio’s business office. This time around Rubell is on hand strictly as an ornament and drawing card. He and Schrager sold the club to businessman Mark Fleischman earlier this year. Fearing that any official involvement with the club would jeopardize its liquor license, Rubell and Schrager assured the state liquor authorities they would keep hands off. “I don’t want to be controversial anymore,” Rubell insists. “I love Studio and I want to support Mark.”

In Rubell’s case that kind of support still means life in the spotlight, and Fleischman is content to stay somewhat in the background. “I’m introducing Mark to all the people I know, and I’m going to come as a guest with all my friends,” explains Rubell. Talent coordinator Jim Fouratt explains that even though “the emphasis will not be on Steve and Ian, let’s face it, without them there’s no nightlife. They’d run it if they were able to. It’s not a new regime exactly—more a continuation.”

Certainly, the new management plans to run the club in the old style. “When we got into trouble, we had a lot of offers to buy, but we wanted the most substantial person,” Rubell says. “We wanted someone who’d run it the same way we had. Mark was dedicated to running it with a high level of taste!”

Fleischman has even retained one of the old Studio’s most intriguing features—surly bouncers who guard the front doors, admitting only the celebrated, well-connected or amusingly exotic.

Without a business to call his own, Rubell is hanging free. “My private life is my public life,” he observes. He lives around the corner from Studio in a two-bedroom apartment adorned with Mylar wallpaper and Warhol prints, shared with a young couple who work at the club. In an only-in-Manhattan turn of events he will this fall teach a course called “Pop Music and Nightlife in New York” at the New School for Social Research, featuring guest appearances by pals Halston, Andy Warhol and record producer David Geffen. Obviously, that’s not enough to satisfy his ambitions. Even in prison, he and Schrager tried to keep up business connections. As Ian recalls, “Getting to the phone was rough—a dime a call, and you had to wait on line.” Rubell is currently negotiating a deal he describes as “in the entertainment business in Europe.” (He and Schrager still own 50 percent of the rights to the Studio 54 name.) “We do hope eventually to own and operate a club in New York,” he allows. “I don’t want to be thought of as the former owner of Studio 54 all my life.”