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No Place for Greenhorns : Little Details Loom Large as Irish Pubs Prepare for a Busy St. Patrick's Day

March 17, 1997|NORA ZAMICHOW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fifty-four kegs of Guinness? Check. Fifty pounds of corned beef? Check. Ten cases of new pint glasses and three cases of Irish coffee mugs? Check.

Today marks the 26th St. Patrick's Day celebration for Angela Hanlon, owner of Molly Malone's Pub in the Fairfax district, one of the nation's most traditional Irish pubs.

But Hanlon still gets so nervous that she practically chain-smokes her cigarettes and chain-drinks black coffee. The aching anxiety is the same year after year, as the kegs cool and vats of Irish stew bubble on the stove: What if no one shows up?

It never happens.

Molly Malone's opens at 7 a.m. on St. Patrick's Day and closes about 17 hours later, after hundreds of patrons line up around the block for a chance to quaff a pint brewed in the homeland, paint their faces green, dress like leprechauns or wear T-shirts with endearing phrases like "Kiss me, I'm Irish."

It's because of the throngs of real and wannabe Irish Americans, singing, jostling one another shoulder-to-shoulder, that Hanlon's second fear quickly comes into play: What if we're shut down?

Just a few years ago, Hanlon's pub was closed when city Fire Department safety inspectors could not walk from one end of the tiny bar to the other.

For an Irish pub, St. Patrick's Day has the financial weight of Christmas week for a department store. And so Hanlon's staff and four other Irish bars in the city of Los Angeles have crafted an elaborate arrangement to keep their doors open:

When the fire marshals inspect any one of the five bars, the bartender quickly alerts the others so they can clear their crowds. A spotter is posted at the front and back door and when a red or white Los Angeles Fire Department sedan pulls up, all the regulars are asked to leave temporarily--an exodus that creates just enough room in the bar for a fire marshal to thread his way among the patrons.

It is a cat-and-mouse game played out across the city as bar owners attempt to cash in and fire inspectors try to ensure that no club is dangerously overcrowded.

Fire Department officials say the bars sometimes use such shenanigans against each other: Sometimes, a bar that's doing dismal business will call authorities to complain about an overcrowded bar in hopes of siphoning off customers. (Irish pub owners say they would never play such a prank.)

Other times, irate customers will call the Fire Department, tiring of waiting in line and hoping to empty a joint so they can enter.

"All in all, most places comply," said Chief Mike Bower of the Fire Department's public safety section. "We are there to keep the public safe from themselves."

These concerns never overshadow the one day in which Guinness sales are so popular in the United States that brewery officials refer to it as "our holiday."

"Clearly, March is our biggest month," said Howard Pulchin, spokesman for Guinness Import Co., the marketing arm of Guinness Brewing Worldwide, which has brewed stout since 1759 in Dublin.

Pulchin estimates that the world downs nearly 12 million pints of Guinness stout in the name of St. Pat--2 million pints more than on a regular day. Last year, March sales in the United States rose 42% over February.

At Molly Malone's, 90% of the customers who show up for the holiday are drinkers whom the bartenders have never seen before. For some, it's an annual pilgrimage to the pub, a dark comforting place where paintings of regulars cover the walls and the bartender normally welcomes female visitors with the query: "Can I get you something, luv?"

To handle the crowd, Hanlon hires busboys and security guards--staff not necessary on a normal day. She also hires extra waitresses and bartenders, advising her staff to bring extra shoes and socks because their feet will inevitably get doused by spilled brew. She herself brings several changes of clothes--she'll start the morning dressed up nicely for the benefit of the inevitable television cameras (the first crew today is due at 7 a.m.). But by the day's end, she's in jeans and a T-shirt.

Hanlon's nerves began eating away at her a week ago. So she kept a notebook by her side to jot down questions or reminders. Suppose the Guinness didn't arrive? (It did.) Did she order enough extra glasses to accommodate those that got broken or swiped as souvenirs? (Yes.) "It's been 26 years and these fears are not going to go away," she said.

She's stowed away enough Irish soda bread and Coleman's mustard to sate a small army. A refrigerator truck is parked behind the pub with a load of extra ice. As a contingency, she stocked up on plastic cups, but these cannot be used to serve stout, she says. "You could never give an Irishman a pint in a plastic glass--certain things they won't tolerate."

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