Bingo: Big Draw in Small Towns

Americana, Traditions
on January 21, 2010
Mary O. Parker Left to right: Elizabeth Brosch, Della Mae Urban and Pat Werlein sit together as members of the

Vella Garrett, 80, the self-proclaimed "bingo queen" of Smithville, Texas (pop. 3,901), insists that bingo is the thing to do on a small-town Saturday night. "It's what I look forward to all week long. And just look at all them other folks who feel like me!" she says, gesturing to the packed room in Smithville's VFW hall.

Sitting at a table with friends and munching on pimiento cheese sandwiches made by volunteers, Garrett studies the emerging patterns on her bingo card as caller Bill Zimmerhanzel announces one letter-number combination after another.

"B-12!  G-49!  N-32!" Zimmerhanzel calls out between sips from a water bottle as he pulls pingpong-size balls bearing the combinations from a faux-wooden box.

 "I don't play real serious, not for the money," says Garrett, who has played bingo at the Veterans of Foreign Wars hall each Saturday night for more than 20 years. It's the friendship and fellowship with local townsfolk that draw her to the game.

Indeed, old-fashioned bingo is the game of both choice and chance in small towns across America, where players of all ages congregate regularly in churches, community centers, firehouses, fraternal lodges and other venues in search of lighthearted fun and social interactionall while helping organizations raise money for local charities.

"Sure beats staying home and staring at the four walls!" says Pat Werlein, 79, another Smithville regular who sits at the same table every week with a group of friends dubbed the "Widows Club."

"Yep, we go to bingo every chance we get," adds Della Mae Urban, 78, between giggles with the other Widows Club members.

Gladys Susen, 87, has played bingo at Smithville's VFW hall since the 1950s, when corn kernels served as markers. These days, players use ink daubers to mark their cards, and Susen brings along sixincluding one with an image of Betty Boopplus her rabbit's foot and a lucky horseshoe. "But don't let that fool you," she insists, dispelling the power of her lucky charms. "If I bingo, I bingo; if I don't, I don't."

From Beano! to Bingo!
New York toy salesman Edwin S. Lowe is credited with creating today's version of the game in 1929 after seeing its Italian-born forerunner played at a carnival in Atlanta. The game used beans as markers, and the winner called out "Beano!" to signal a winning card. Lowe renamed the game after he overheard a player mistakenly yell "Bingo!" and then asked Columbia University math professor Carl Leffler to increase the number of possible bingo card combinations. By 1930, Leffler had devised 6,000 different cards, and churches across the country quickly adopted the game as a fun and effective way to raise money for charity.

Even with the introduction of electronic versions online and at gambling casinos, playing bingo the old-fashioned way hasn't lost its charm. Traditional bingo "still dominates the market and is spread across the nation," says Steven Fingold, vice president of sales at American Games Inc., which manufactures bingo supplies in Council Bluffs, Iowa (pop. 58,268). "Bingo is a game that brings people together to socialize and have fun. Electronics take away from the typical bingo social environment."

Kathy Horn, a worker with the South Carolina Charitable Bingo Association, likens community bingo halls to second homes for many players. "Everybody knows everybody," Horn says. "They like to meet and greet everyone. And if they don't get a chance to do that, they feel like they've really missed out."

At the Moose Lodge in La Pine, Ore. (pop. 5,799), the weekly Wednesday night game has drawn a crowd for 25 years. "Some people have been coming about that long to play here," says Dave Lea, lodge administrator. "Players have friends they sit with every week."

Playing for others
The fact that proceeds are used to help fund community projectsfrom sprucing up Little League fields to helping pay for equipment and building improvements at local schools and hospitalsis another impetus for the game's popularity.

"People come to bingo to have a good night and fellowship with friends," says Charles Garthwaite, president of Ledyard Lions Club in Gales Ferry, Conn. (pop. 6,837). "But I think they also like knowing that the money goes back into the community."

Last year alone, the Ledyard Lions Club used bingo income to provide more than $12,000 in college scholarships to Ledyard High School graduates and raised $10,000 to take 96 families Christmas shopping. "Another thing we do with the money is get eyeglasses for those who need them and can't afford to get their own," Garthwaite says.

The Moose Lodge in La Pine also puts its bingo money back into the community. "The high school basketball team might need help buying their uniforms or an individual might need help with medical bills. We'll use the money for things like that," Lea says.

In Smithville, bingo proceeds are used to buy flags that fly in the town on patriotic holidays and school supplies for children, among other things. Volunteer Joe Sulak, 80, says charity bingo is an all-American pastime because of the way the game is used to help others. "I think that's the best part," he says, before dashing from table to table to supply players with fresh cards.

Bingo's good will goes far beyond dollars and cents, however. "Our son's dying of cancer," confides Barbara Villegas, 73. "This lets me forget about it for awhile and be around nice people," she says as her husband, Edward, 81, nods in agreement while playing by her side.

Nearby, Melissa Borja, 43, plays from her wheelchair. "I've got RSD (reflex sympathetic dystrophy) and this helps me take my mind off the pain," she says of her neurological condition. Borja flashes a smile across the table to April Wolfe, 46, her bingo buddy who faithfully picks her up and brings her to the VFW hall each Saturday.

"As far as I'm concerned, bingo's the only game in town!" she says.