THEY'VE BEEN calling Carl Rowan "Simon Legree" this past week at the Capital Hilton. "This time," chuckled the celebrated black pundit, "I'm at the handle end of the whip."

"They" are some of the land's most effective reporters, editors and news bureau chiefs, working after deadlines on "The Gridiron," a unique Washington entertainment show now in its 95th year. With the title of music chairman, Rowan is virtual producer of a show which opened last night and will close this afternoon before a two performance total of 1,500 invitation only guests.

"This year, the show's going to be different," says Rowan of the musical satire, which can be described accurately as always the same but always different in its knowing mockery of current capital foibles.

Rowan starts, once again, rehearsing the opening number, "Anything Goes." Miraculously, mature males and females who spend their most creative hours on their tails are on their feet, gusseted into white tie and tails, canes in their hands, steel clips on their shoes, tapping widly, exuberantly to Cole Porter's melodic razzle-dazzle.

"This is the most ambitious dancing the club's ever tried," gloats Rowan, who credits choreographer Maureen Ribble with making some 80 untrained feet into hoof clones of Astaire and Rogers.

Then, blowing his silver whistle and cracking his invisible whip, Simon Legree Rowan complains: "I'm not getting all the words. You're thinking about your feet. Now, do it again from the top."

Snap!

Time was when lovers had a wedding/Before they would buy their bedding/Now, heaven knows, Anything Goes/Bikinis and G-strings were naughty/But look at'em now, Oh, lawdy!/Don't mention clothes. Anything Goes!

The country's gone bad today,/No matter straight or gay,/There's nothing they won't say/In films and songs they play --/No theme is too risque/They do it their own way/So why should guys propose?

They specialize in hot massages; /What you set is not mirages!/Would you suppose, Anything Goes? /Now grass is cool/And coke is cooler/Where Club 54 is ruler./You pick your woes! Anything Goes!

The term "gridiron" stems from the idea of roasting people in the barbecue sense. The Gridiron is a social club limited to 50 active members plus associates who've risen -- or descended -- to other lines of work, as well as "limited" members from outside journalism. After a revolutinary period 10 years ago, there are now no sexual or racial bars to membership; the sole requirement is professional distinction. Small as well as large news papers are represented.

The Gridiron boasts that it "may singe but never burn." Long tables are arranged in the shape of a gridiron. White tie and tails are de riqueur. Sousa's latest successor, Maj. John Bourgeois, leads another tradition for officialdom, the red-jacketed Marine Band parade.

With the lighted gridiron on the wall glowing above what amounts to a head table, club president Grant Dillman, Washington's UPI chief, makes "The Speech in the Dark," a welcome to the four-hour dinner which always includes Maryland terrapin. The entertainment consists of two halves, 25 minutes for the Republicans, 25 for the Democrats. Celebrities preen to be introduced and should the president be present, his will be the final remarks.

The Gridiron's aim is to satirize "the great and not-so-great with good-humored bite." There are always those who find the satire too good-humored and those who find it too biting. But in nearly a century of performances, only one president has missed a roasting in prson -- Grover Cleveland. After two in person roastings, Jimmy Carter last year sent Rosalynn. This year, neither is expected. What they missed is a song set to Sir Arthur Sullivan's hymn tune:

Onward, Carter soldiers,/Arm the Persian Sea./Bring back Doug MacArthur,/Patton, Grant and lee.

Billions for the Pentagon/We will vote with joy./Tanks and planes and missles,/Draft each girl and boy.

Mark 5 and Poseidon,/M-X and B-1./Build them in profusion,/ We are never done.

Last night Teddy Kennedy was to be in the audience to hear Marine baritone Michael Ryan, playing Kennedy, sing to the tune of "Blues in the Night":

My mama done tole me:/And Eunice done tole me:/George Gallup done tole me:/The lib-rals done tole me:/And every one tole me:/Run!

From Rockford to Bismarck,/From Maine to Chiago,/ Wherever the four winds blow,/I've been to some tank towns,/I've heard me some small talk,/ But there is one thing I know:

A voter's a two-face,/A worrisome thing who'll leave you to sing/The Blues ev-ry night.

George Bush was to hear himself, in the person of Rudolph Kauffman II, third generation of his family in the club, sing to the tune of "Rhinestone Cowboy":

I've been making my plan since Yale/That I'd hit the glory trail;/ This Connecticut boy was headin' down Texas way,/Where dazzle is the name of the game/And a smooth guy can learn to play/And put a shine on his name.

Zbigniew Brzezinski heard about himself from Adon Phillips playing Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and singing, to the tune of "Makin' Whoopee":

We're not alike he's not my twin,/I don't give press shots to Sally Quinn./I wish he'd vanish. I'd like to banish/Zbig-niew Brze-zin-ski.

I try to fix things in I-ran./And he plays tricks in Pakistan./He thinks he's smarter than Jimmy Carter,/ Zbig-niew Brze-zin-ski.

There will be few shocks this weekend, for good humor presently is valued above acrimony.

The search for topical wit begins in December when the new president has named his music chairman, deputies and skit chairmen. This year music chairman Rowan gathered together his staff for a January dinner: Alan Cromley of the Daily Oklahoman and Charles McDowell of the Richmond Times Dispatch were his deputies; Benjamin Cole of the Indianapolis Star was in charge of the GOP half and Alan S. Emory, of the Watertown, N.Y., Daily Times, rode herd on the Democratic material.

Ideas were tossed around and farmed out to skit teams and lyric-writers, some of whom have been contributing for years. A fortnight later, choices were made from the incoming material. Then followed a "Singers Dinner," at which club singers tried out songs to see if they fit the demands.

The most critical time is the "audition dinner," when club officers hear the projected material. It's as though a Broadway show had 20-odd, all-powerful, equal producers -- a threat of mayhem all try to make "good-humored."

During the past three weeks the pace quickened for a series of nine full rehearsals with Bourgeois conducting and Les Karr, whose band plays for the show, at the rehearsal piano.

As in professional productions, rehearsal conditions are makeshift, and this year the actors could not use the stage they would perform on until the Friday dress rehearsal. The Capital Hilton is a busy place, and each previous rehearsal had been held in a different room. "That means," explains a rear-row hoofer, "that when on one beat we've been looking toward a door, the next time we're looking away from it. Which can make you a bit confused about what is really your right foot. I guess Maureen thinks we're simple-minded."

Another uncertainty is the unpredictable nature of journalists' hours.At one rehearsal, Helen Thomas, UPI's White House reporter, had to work late -- but beteran journalist Margaret Mayer was able to fill in with Thomas' lines in the role of HEW's Patricia Harris:

We finance ev-ry social need/From cradle to Iud/If you know me, we will succeed./The best things in life are free.

Thomas burst in just as rehearsal was ending, and Marjorie Hunter of The New York Times -- who was about to leave -- had to take her coat off and go through the dance routine with Thomas, the club's first female member.

All week, everything was aimed toward the Friday dress rehearsal at 2 p.m. It was meant that Rowan would have to miss his weekly taping for "Agronsky & Co." -- but Charles MacDowell would probabaly be able to make Paul Duke's "Washington Week in Review" at 8. Then there was a rumor: There would be a presidential press conference. Would it conflict with the rehearsal? No, as it turned out -- the press conference was set for 9 p.m. But what other theatrical company can say that its rehearsal was threatened by the President of the United States?

As in the professional theater, there's a stage manager." This year's is Darwin Olofson of the Omaha World-Hearld, whose job it is to know everything: how long each songs runs (and if it's too long his dreaded command is ""cut!"), when the various dinner course will be served, who's to be introduced when and by whom and to get everyone at the right place at the right time.

All members pay dues. Guests cost them $75 a piece for the Saturday dinner, $17.50 each for this afternoon's fully costumed repeat performance.These charges pull in a total of about $55,000 for food, drink and production costs. Props and costumes are a big item, and Karr's unionized band is paid at scale. In most cases members newspapers chip in for their members's costs. The profits go to the Gridiron's own foundation for scholarships in journalism.

One tradition is that though presidents are never personified, first ladies are. This year, to the tune of Irving Berlin's "Doin' What Comes Natur-lly," Maureen Ribble sings:

Jimmy sez because he's prez./He'll hang around the White House/Even though he'd like to be/Doin' what comes natur-lly.

I've learned how to fudge it the Bob Strauss 'way,/If you ignore inflation it will go away./And while Jimmy plays with his White House toys/ I've been all the way from Maine to Illinois./It comes natur-lly.

Current events, especially in an election year, can play havoc with the annual script. Originally that skilled country singer, Henry Trewhitt, had three Howard Baker songs. After the Tennessee senator's retreat, the Baltimore Sun's pundit was cut to one, a

The eastern states are dandy, the western states are too./The Middle West is near the best, the Southland's heart is true./Through every section of our land my campaign workers pushed,/But in the end, from ev-ry trend, I sure am feelin' Bushed.

Former President Ford's recent murmurings prompted a late addition to the script, for John Duvall to sing, a la "Taking a Chance on Love":

Here I go again,/I hear those trumpets blow again;/Start the show again --/Taking a chance on Ford.

Abscam produced an inspired idea. Since its victims appear to be all Democrats save one, a variation on Scott Joplin's "Sting" score was assigned to Robert Stranahan, playing Rep. Richard Kelly of Florida, the scam's sole Republican victim.

Rep. John Anderson's unlooked-for ability to attract cross-voters put him into the script which originally hadn't even mentioned him. Now, in the person of Haynes Johnson, he pops up in both of the two sketches, a wandering Diogenes peering silently at the Republicans, who claim: "He's not in our skit" and, later, at the Democrats, who shout the same line.

Just when everyone thought the script at last was frozen, John Connally bowed out. In the Republicans' sketch, inspired by "The Wizard of Oz." tall, Connally-like Allan Cromley had been "The Wizard of Was," but is now, songles, "more Was than Wizard."

The Oz framework casts "The Wicked Witch of the West" as Richard Nixon in the person of Mike Ryan singing "Do It My Way." Walter Ridder, supported by his own Sorcerer's Apprentice, staggers forward as Ronald Reagan for a "September Song" variation:

When they were out running late last year./I played a waiting game./They whipped up the crowds and slogged through the snow/While back at the ranch I was taking it slow,/Just watching myself on the Late Late Show./And as time came around votes came my way,/As time came around votes came.

Still, it's a long, long road/From March to November/ But the cue cards help/When you can't remember./ When you gain momentum/Ganst uh-what's-his-name?/You haven't got time for the waiting game.

The songwriter would have you note that the well-known melodies chosen fit the mood aimed at the victim. This subtle tradition is a requirement for all the numbers.