Last Thursday night, at exactly 8:04 p.m. Minnesota time, when Joe Theisman hit Calvin Muhammad for a 68-yard touchdown in the first play of the Redskin-Viking game, the customers at the Malt Shop went wild.
The Malt Shop, a friendly, warm tavern on the second floor of the Dancing Crab restuarant on upper Wisconsin Avenue NW, is clearly Redskin country.
The players themselves, current and former, frequent this neighborhood bar, usually on Monday nights. The bar's wormwood-paneled walls glitter with the Redskin lineup: John Riggins, Billy Kilmer, Joe Jacoby, Curtis Jordan, Russ Grimm, Dexter Manley and Sonny Jurgensen, old No. 9 himself now a sportcaster, who visits the Malt Shop through his own secret entrance from the television station next door.
It was Jurgensen, along with fellow TV sportscaster Glenn Brenner, who inspired the Malt Shop's name. On their Redskins Sidelines program, they would joke about having malts after the show. They would then visit the Dancing Crab to enjoy malts of a nondairy nature. When owners Tony Cibel and Joe Rinaldi expanded the Dancing Crab, they named the upstairs bar the Malt Shop in honor of the their celebrity guests.
Every Redskins' game, the Malt Shop lures Washington football fans from their home television sets with the promise of ritualized, unintrusive tending.
Like other neighborhood bars, it caters to Redskin purists who dislike distractions from less-involved family members. In the cozy, traditional atmosphere, visitors gain an almost magical empathy with the gladiator-like contest on the screen. The entire bar becomes an extension of personality, nourished by darkness, drink, smoke and professional, sports-sophisticated conversation. Casual game watchers either stay home or patronize less-intense drinking establishments in their area.
Only one former Redskin -- single-season (1960-61) tight end Lew Luce -- showed up Thursday night. But the team was still enthusiastically cheered by more than 60 fans. There were businessmen, salesmen, students, clerks, secretaries, laborers elbow to elbow and chair to chair. Beneath the low, white-tiled roof, three-piece suits mingled with T-shirts, blue jeans and dresses, surrounding the vintage bar and green-draped tables.
"The fact that we're all Redskin supporters outweighs a lot of social differences." explained insurance salesman Stan Howard. "They the Redskins certainly have a way of uniting people in this town."
Waitress Susan Baurenfeend darted cheerfully between the tables, somehow refilling beer pitchers without distracting patrons from three large-screen color televisions strategically mounted around the room.
TV concentration faded quickly as the game became a Redskins rout; too quickly to suit Cibel, who practically equates football massacres with early departures and diminished profits.
When defensive tackle Darryl Grant converted Viking quarterback Wade Wilson's fumble into a 31-0 Redskin lead to end the first half, former TV sports editor Bill Moore soon voiced the bar owner's fear.
"This isn't a game." Moore laughed. "All the smart people'll go home to bed after that one."
Although a few patrons did leave, halftime loyalty, enhanced by the Malt Shop's seductive ambience, delayed the rest.
With victory comfortably in sight, several conversations took some nonathletic turns. Amid political (young Walter Mondale supporter Anthony Bell lamenting his candidate's defeat), humorous ("So the kid says to the ice cream girl . . ." joked executive Richard Seward), and romantic (a young couple whispering at their table) exchanges, Baurenfeend placed surprisingly diverse selections of food from the Malt Shop menu. Salads, burgers, hot and cold sandwiches, and seafood specialties from the Dancing Crab downstairs appeared and disappeared without ceremony.
Redskin watching resumed with the second half, but the Washington onslaught did not. Diehard fans expressed concern about the inconsistency, especially when Minnesota racked up 10 points in the third quarter.
When the Redskin lead diminished to 14 points and threatened to shrink further, however, even the most victory-confident patrons began watching intently. With five minutes remaining and half his customers gone, Cibel finally had a game in his bar.
As second-half Viking quarterback Archie Manning fired through the Redskin defense toward a third Minnesota touchdown, both beer and casual conversation stopped flowing. "Don't let them blow this one," pleaded laborer Frank Wilcox.
Redskin defensive end Dexter Manley complied. He hit Viking Allen Rice near the Washington goal line, knocking the ball and the game out of Minnesota's hands and the tension out of the Malt Shop. Wilcox refilled his glass sheepishly, as if embarassed by his moment of doubt.
"I knew they'd stop 'em," he said to his friend.
In the dim tavern light, warmed by food, drink, and company, about 25 customers remained, appearing smug in their champions' victory.
"Next week, Dallas," announced American University student David Mercer.
And the smugness dissipated like the head on a beer.