WATCHING TELEVISION may not be everyone's favorite activity, butwhen war broke out in the Persian Gulf, it quickly surpassed every other alternative and demanded our attention.
Suddenly, huddling before the small screen, watching the events in the Mideast unfold, seemed far more important than many other things Baltimoreans could be doing with their leisure time.
Such as dining out.
"We've noticed a significant drop in business in the last four or five days," said Melanie Ford, manager of The American Cafe in Harborplace. She said business at the popular downtown restaurant has been down about 50 percent all week and was off by 75 percent Wednesday evening, the night of the first air attack on Iraq.
"People come down to Harborplace to celebrate, not for something serious," she said.
At Linwood's Cafe, an elegant Owings Mills restaurant, patrons are still going out to eat, but their mood is somber, says owner Linwood Dame. Lunch yesterday was "very subdued, very quiet" he said, "one of the quietest lunches I've ever seen."
Linwood said that when the news broke that war was under way, the formally dressed staff "actually rolled a TV into the dining room" so that patrons could follow the progress of events. "A lot of our customers are regulars, and a lot of them wanted to know what was going on," said Linwood.
Interest was similarly intense at the Brass Elephant, where at least two large parties went on as scheduled Wednesday evening, said maitre d' Paul Kountz. Several customers went to their cars to get portable radios, he said, and "everyone was invited upstairs to the lounge at 9 o'clock" to watch President Bush's address to the nation on a small TV brought in for the occasion.
Similar scenes have been playing out all over town as people try to keep a close eye on news coverage of Operation Desert Storm without disrupting their already scheduled activities.
At Center Stage, where the comedy "Candida" is playing, patrons have gathered around a TV monitor in the lobby during intermission the last two nights.
Wednesday night's intermission happened to fall during Bush's speech, and management delayed the start of the second act several minutes to allow theatergoers to hear the president.
Last night's crowd of 338 was not unusually light, said House Manager Angela Atkins Hughes, although since Tuesday more than 30 people who held tickets for last night's performance decided to exchange them for another date.
Moviegoers seemed even more deterred than theatergoers by the turn of international events. Last night's audience at the 7:30 screening of "The Russia House" at the Senator Theater on York Road was half the size of a normal Thursday night's, said theater owner Tom Kiefaber.
He said Wednesday evening's crowd was similarly small and that the 10:30 p.m. show that night was canceled, "so our own employees could go home and watch the news."
Movie rentals, in particular, have felt the impact of the TV newscasts, a normally weak competitor of the growing video market. At Erol's in Waverly, Assistant Manager J.B. Hanson said last night's business was down about 50 percent from other Thursdays.
"It's been incredibly slow. I think [the war] has had a tremendous effect, and people are watching" the news.
Greg Sunday, of Blockbuster Video in Towson, reported a similar decline in rentals, as well as a change in mood.
"When people come into a video store, they're usually in a positive, 'up' mood," he said, but after the fighting broke out, "everyone was somber."
Indeed, even when people do manage to get out of the house, they seem to take a serious mood with them.
"Most people are extremely quiet and sedate. They seem stunned," said Ford of the patrons at the American Cafe, where the television in the bar has been tuned to war reports since Wednesday evening. "They seem very uncomfortable" with the news, she said. "They're intent on watching it on TV, but they seem hesitant to talk with one another about it."
Not so at Hammerjacks, where bucking the trend seems to be the norm. Owner Louis Principio reports a "noticeable increase" in attendance since the initial air attacks. He likened the Wednesday night atmosphere at the popular nightspot to a "celebration," saying that patrons were "more than happy" with U.S. military action and "very supportive."
"It's like a dam broke. There's a sense of relief that we are on a course of action."