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

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."

This St. Patrick's Day, she's vowed, will be a far cry from her first one more than two decades ago. She and her husband, a singer, arrived in the United States from Dublin, moving first to Baltimore and then to Los Angeles. As he became increasingly successful, Hanlon--niece of the late playwright Brendan Behan--found she spent more and more time on her own, raising the couple's two children.

Homesick, she soon found the cozy Irish pub. When the former bar owner needed cash, Hanlon loaned him money--enough that, after he skipped town, she wound up owning the bar.

"I didn't know what I was doing," recalled Hanlon, pointing out a prominently displayed portrait of herself from those early days, a strikingly handsome woman with a mane of brunet hair.

But she found that her customers were loyal. When she ran low on cash, they loaned her money. And everyone forgave her for her first St. Patrick's Day, when she dramatically underestimated the crowd, the toilets overflowed, the beer was warm, and the mixer guns that spew beverages gave the bartenders electric shocks.

"Oh, I did everything wrong," she said with the lilting accent of a childhood spent in the Liberties, Dublin's poorest inner-city neighborhood. "I was bewildered."

Hanlon became fiercely protective of her staff. Once, when a customer in a group of well-dressed young people whistled to get the bartender's attention, she flew into a rage. "I don't know where you grew up," she stormed, "but you do not whistle at a barman. Get out. Don't bother paying for your drinks."

On St. Patrick's Day, she is particularly sensitive to the feelings of her regulars, who find the normally intimate bar invaded by hordes of revelers. (Once, a longtime customer pointed out a stranger sitting at the end of the bar usually occupied by the regulars. "What is he doing there?" he said petulantly. "It's cost me thousands of dollars to earn the privilege of sitting there.") She makes sure each of them receives a green pass that allows them to enter the pub without standing in the holiday line.

George Benson started as a regular customer about eight years ago when he was a computer programmer. When he burned out in his profession, he found a niche for himself at the bar, working as a sound engineer. Soon he'd installed himself in a trailer parked behind the pub.

"It's family thing here--when you need help, there's someone here who'll help you," he said.

Last week, Hanlon needed plenty of help. Could Benson make signs indicating parking? Could he get the extra wires for the bands' speakers?

Benson obliged. "There's no such thing as a bad St. Patrick's Day," he said.

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