TIMES ARE LEANER FOR CLUBS Area night life a casualty of Gulf war, recession

THE BALTIMORE SUN

If it weren't for the dozens and dozens of miniature American flags handed out by the management, it would have been impossible to tell from the crowd at Baltimore's Original Sports Bar last Sunday night that there was a war going on. Or a recession.

Customers filled the tables, booths and mock bleachers to watch Super Bowl XXV on the video monitors scattered throughout the cavernous bar at downtown's Market Place, quaffing 50-cent draft beer and munching on 25-cent hot dogs.

"Super Bowl's too big" to be affected by a war or a recession, observed Jeff Sharak, the sports bar's entertainment director, eyeballing the festive gathering.

Overall, he said, "Things are a little slow here, like they are everywhere else. But I definitely wouldn't say we're doing poorly.

"People still go out. People gotta get out."

But while people still may be going out, they're not exactly dancing the night away, a la the Kuwaitis in Cairo. In fact, a random survey of area clubs yields a mixed picture of the effect these turbulent times are having on night life.

Some report that business is about as good as it ever is at this traditionally slow time of the year. But others say their business is off substantially -- a result, they say, not just of the Persian Gulf war and the economic downturn but also of the higher federal liquor excise taxes that took effect at the beginning of last month and the continuing trend toward lower alcohol consumption. A couple report that people are indeed still coming out, but say they're spending less money when they do. To counter the downward trend, they are cutting back on expenses such as advertising, considering a reduction in live music and increasing promotions to lure more customers.

Michael Cherigo -- who books and manages blues, Caribbean and jazz acts throughout the mid-Atlantic region through his Baltimore-based agency -- estimates club business is off 10 to 20 percent. He says the affect is noticeable not only in the decline in crowds, but also in the reluctance of club owners to "make decisions" about booking acts more than a couple of weeks in advance.

"Even places that are doing well are using the recession as a ploy for bands to get less money," he said.

Some places don't need a ploy. Christos Dardamanis, owner of Club Stabile's in Highlandtown, says business is "the worst I've ever seen in 26 years." Weekend crowds are off 30 percent at the landmark country bar, he says, with weekday crowds down even more. On one recent Thursday night, he counted a dozen customers. "People don't have the money to spend," he said.

He said his club, which features bands Wednesday to Sunday nights, may have to cut back its live music to two or three nights a week.

"If it wasn't [that] I had the place paid for. . . . I feel sorry for someone buying a business today," he said.

A world away musically and geographically is Christopher's, a Top 40 club in Cockeysville, but owner Marc Loundas makes much the same point.

"If a business person had $500,000 to invest, I don't think they'd open up a nightclub," said Mr. Loundas.

He says that Christopher's is still drawing as many people, but that the patrons' spending is off 10 percent. He attributes that to an overall decline in drinking, the economy and the war.

"A lot of young people have friends or relatives in Saudi Arabia," he said. "That has an affect on the party atmosphere."

Christopher's noticed its happy hour business especially was down, so a month ago it initiated a mammoth "36 Feet All You Can Eat" $1 Friday buffet -- the 36 feet representing the length of the buffet table -- that Mr. Loundas says attracted more than 200 people last week. It has also begun emphasizing food sales in the bar.

"People are more apt to spend 10 to 15 dollars on two to three drinks and a snack than on five drinks," he said.

The club has also cut its advertising budget, preferring to pass the savings on to customers in the form of such specials as $1.50 drink nights on Wednesdays, he said.

Wurlitzer's, an oldies club in Hunt Valley, has had to raise its prices an average of 20 cents a drink because of the increased federal excise taxes that took effect Jan. 1, at a time when customers are "not spending as much" because of the recession, according to promotions coordinator Melissa Lawrence.

"Unless there's a specific reason for going out, people are not going out as often," she said. As a result, the club is "doing a lot more promotions" such as the one scheduled for Feb. 20 in which the cover charge will be donated to the American Red Cross.

The Charles Village Pub, a chain of three bar-restaurants, has faced the problems head-on, advertising "Recession Specials" for its dinners. Co-owner Lou Hoge says business has been "rolling right along" at the original location in Charles Village, but is down an estimated 20 percent in Towson and Catonsville.

Buddy Breen, who manages two popular Anne Arundel County bar-restaurants, has a different way of measuring the impact of the war and the recession. At Yesteryears in the Annapolis Mall, where he canceled live music the first two nights of the war so the few people there could watch the news on television, sales were down $30,000 last month. At Jason's in Eastport, customers usually drink a case of Dom Perignon a month; last month, they drank six bottles. "What that says is people are still NTC coming out, but they're cutting back some," he said.

But at another popular Fells Point bar, the Horse You Came In On, the only sign of the times has been "people coming in trying to get us to sell T-shirts related to the war," said general manager Joy Schuh. Bar receipts were down just $3,000, or 5 percent, last month compared to January 1990, which Ms. Schuh said was attributable to the first two days of the war, when the place was all but empty.

"Not too many things affect us the same way they do other bars," she said. "Maybe it's because we've been here 20 years."

And at Hammerjacks in South Baltimore, owner Louie Principio says there has been a "substantial increase in business" at his nightclub since war broke out 2 1/2 weeks ago, though he admits bookings at the adjacent concert hall have been hurt by the dearth of bands on the road.

"I believe there was massive, across-the-board support for the war," Mr. Principio said by way of explanation. "I think the young ++ people were behind it 100 percent. They were relieved the waiting was over."

He says Saddam Hussein jokes are told from the club's stage and "twisted tunes" are sung about the Iraqi leader, such as the variation on the song "Get the Funk Out."

"The crowd goes wild," he said.

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