Shuttle buses for customers sat empty at curbside. Dozens of doughnuts grew stale with the wait. Bank tellers were prepared for long lines of depositors ready to withdraw their funds, but the crowds never came.

To the relief of bankers and state officials, the turnout for Chase Manhattan Corp.'s debut on the Maryland banking scene came not in a crush, but a trickle.

Yesterday, the new Chase Bank of Maryland opened its doors at 13 branch offices of three now-defunct thrifts, giving 70,000 depositors who had money in Merritt Commercial, Friendship and Chesapeake savings and loans complete access to their accounts for the first time since May.

The three thrifts, along with others, had had restrictions put on them by Gov. Harry Hughes, who feared a drain on deposits after the state's savings and loan crisis broke in May. Merritt depositors had been unable to touch any of their money since June 12, when a freeze on withdrawals was imposed. Friendship and Chesapeake customers were permitted to withdraw up to $1,000 a month until Hughes froze withdrawals there two weeks ago while the General Assembly considered Chase's offer to take over the thrifts.

Yesterday, exuberant Chase officials said the only crowd of the day formed at a former Merritt branch in Pikesville, where customers lined up not to close accounts, but to open them. Some were shuttled to another Chase branch in one of the buses standing by in case depositors wishing to withdraw funds had to be ferried to other branches.

"Everything is going extremely well," said Chase Vice President Larry Sterling. "Depositors are not flocking to branches to take money away. As a matter of fact, we have a substantial number of new depositors."

Steven Rautenberg, another Chase vice president, said the bank's research shows its 8 percent interest rate -- which it offers on money market funds, NOW accounts and 32-day certificates of deposit -- is the highest in Maryland. "There's a lot of interest in the new accounts," he said.

Hughes, who stopped at a former Merritt branch in Baltimore and a former Friendship branch on Rockville Pike, was buoyed by depositor reaction yesterday.

Chase's takeover of the three thrifts "hasn't cost the taxpayers of this state one penny," he said. He said the completion of Chase's entry into the Maryland marketplace will allow state officials to devote more attention to resolving problems at First Maryland, Community and Old Court savings and loans, three large thrifts that remain in financial trouble.

In some branches, there were more bank employes on hand than customers. In mid-morning, Carmine Candido was one of only two customers in Merritt's old headquarters office in downtown Baltimore, and he was there to make a deposit.

"Why withdraw?" said Candido. "You have the backing of Chase Manhattan."

That assurance was echoed by customers in other branches who said they had confidence in Chase because of its $86 billion in assets and the fact that deposits there are federally insured.

The New York banking giant took pains to keep its new Maryland customers in recent days, touting its 8 percent interest rate offer in newspaper advertisments and mailgrams sent to all depositors. "The best place to keep your money is right where it is," Chase ads told depositors.

At a former Chesapeake branch on Somerville Road in Annapolis, there were just a handful of customers and plenty of empty spaces at the tellers' windows.

"We're very happy," said Tom Greene, a Chase banker from New York brought in to help. "I'm a branch manager up in Long Island and I have a bigger line-up outside my bank on a normal day." He said there had been a few withdrawals, a few new certificate of deposit accounts opened up, but mostly money transferred from one account to another.

The only crowds in evidence at some branches were small knots of customers and Chase employes gathered at tables of complimentary coffee and doughnuts.

In a related development, Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan unsealed eight private bids yesterday morning for the purchase of the Merritt Tower in downtown Baltimore, and then promptly ordered the details of the bids to remain secret until next Wednesday.

The Merritt skyscraper now technically belongs to Chase, but the bank will sell the building if Kaplan rules that one of the bids is acceptably high. Under the terms of an agreement between the bank and state government, the two sides will share any proceeds if an approved bid exceeds $32.4 million.

If the accepted bid falls below $30 million, the state must pay Chase the difference between that and the lower offer.

Meanwhile, Mark Siegel, an accountant, wandered into one of Chase's new offices in downtown Baltimore to get information about opening an account. He said he believes Chase will provide faster and better service than local savings and loans. "I just feel a New York bank coming in here is going to be more attentive to customers," he said.

Isabelle Falcone, manager of Chase's new Main Street branch in Annapolis, said it was hard to compare yesterday's level of business with a normal day in the past. "It's been so long since we've had a normal day," she said.