Callers in sequined drag and foot-tall hairdos, floor workers on rollerblades belting out songs from the movie “Xanadu” - it’s bingo as you’ve never seen it before.
Gay Bingo is “just like regular bingo but way more fun,” says Judy Werle, director of development for the Chicken Soup Brigade, an AIDS-support group here.
Werle came up with the idea for a fund-raiser four years ago and the first session was such a smash that the games became a monthly event and groups around the country began clamoring to call their own numbers.
Forget the smoke-filled regular bingo hall, the monotonous drone of the caller, the die-hard who gives you the evil eye if you talk.
At Gay Bingo’s Seattle venue in the eclectic Capitol Hill neighborhood, drag queen-newspaper columnist Dan Savage steals the show as mistress of ceremonies with nonstop commentary on politics, safe sex and bad hair days.
The curvaceous Savage, 7-foot-5 in spike heels and foot-tall wig, says he’s dazzled by the range of people - all ages, all types - who turn out for the games.
“You never see that kind of diversity in a group of gay people with the exception of our gay-pride parade,” says the MC, whose “Savage Love” column of advice and commentary is a popular fixture in The Stranger, an alternative weekly.
Winners get $100 for each regular game. Raffle-prize goodies include lawn flamingos, visits with a chiropractor and drag makeovers, which double as entertainment at intermission. The hall is smoke- and alcohol-free. And yes, people talk during the games.
“I love the atmosphere. I never win and I keep saying I’m never coming back. But I always do. Where else can you see a seven-foot drag queen calling out numbers?” says regular player Martin Drahos.
Gay Bingo nights take in at least $8,000, including special games and concessions, Werle says. The $10 tickets have sold out since the first session, packing the hall with a predominantly gay and lesbian crowd of at least 500. A summer break is planned after the June games.
Setting up was surprisingly easy, Werle said. Most of the equipment was bought second-hand. The rest was donated or paid for by the end of the first session.
The worst part, she said, was touring bingo halls for research.
“Regular bingo halls are so boring,” Werle said. “I’d swear it’s the same caller wherever you go. It’s smoky and you can’t talk. I wanted something that would reach the whole community.”
Guest callers have included Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper; National Guard Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer, a lesbian nurse whose fight to stay in the military was the subject of a made-for-TV movie starring Glenn Close; and Seattle City Councilwoman Tina Podlodowski, who recently resigned as co-chairwoman of President Clinton’s re-election campaign in Washington over his support for a bill to deny recognition of same-sex marriages.
The games’ success here has piqued interest from other cities, and Werle has her hands full trying to help other organizations start their own Gay Bingo operations. She hopes to have a Web site set up soon to answer basic questions.
From All Walks of Life, a Philadelphia-based organization that raises funds for HIV-related groups, staged its first game May 4.
“It really caught on,” said bingo manager Linda Kligman. “People just had a blast.”
The sold-out game was presided over by one of Philly’s drag personalities, cabaret hostess Carlota Ttendant. Floor managers in drag glided around the tables on roller-blades to verify numbers after kicking off the session with songs from “Xanadu.” Winners were showered with confetti.
“It’s an easy game and because a lot of our AIDS fund-raisers aren’t always about fun, this stands out as being different,” Kligman said.
The sessions also help bring people together, organizers say.
“The gay community in Atlanta is very large and … isn’t as cohesive as in other cities,” said volunteer Mike Olrich with Georgia-based Aid Atlanta, which hopes to hold its first gay-bingo fund-raiser in early fall.
“Gay Bingo will serve a twofold purpose of raising funds for ongoing practical services and providing a means to bring the community together,” Olrich said.
“Bingo is something gay people can do with not only other gay friends but with straight friends and family,” Kligman said.
The AIDS Service Center in Pasadena, Calif., will have its first Gay Bingo night in August. The game offers an alternative to the not-so-universally-appealing bar scene, said Steve Balfour, the center’s director of development.
“In L.A., most social events are centered around a club, alcohol and partying. That’s why I think this is an amazing concept. It’s a night of inexpensive fun that everybody can enjoy.”
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