Callers in sequined drag and foot-high hairdos, floor workers on in-line skates 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, development director for the Chicken Soup Brigade, a local AIDS support group.
Werle came up with gay bingo for a fund-raiser four years ago. The first session was such a smash that the games became a monthly event, and groups elsewhere across the country began clamoring to call their own numbers.
Forget smoke-filled bingo halls, where callers drone monotonously and die-hards give you the evil eye if you dare to talk.
At Gay Bingo’s Seattle venue, drag queen-newspaper columnist Dan Savage steals the show as mistress of ceremonies with nonstop commentary on politics, safe sex and bad hair days.
Savage, 7-foot-5 in spike heels and foot-tall wig, says he’s dazzled by the range of people 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 Savage, 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 make-overs, which double as entertainment at intermission.
“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, Werle says. The $10 tickets have sold out since the first session.
Most of the equipment was bought secondhand. The rest was donated or paid for by the end of the first session.
The worst part, Werle 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 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 City Councilwoman Tina Podlodowski, who recently resigned as co-chairwoman of President Clinton’s reelection campaign in Washington over his support for a bill to deny recognition of same-sex marriages.
Werle has her hands full trying to help organizations in other cities start their own Gay Bingo operations.
From All Walks of Life, which raises funds for HIV-related groups in Philadelphia, staged its first game May 4. Floor managers in drag glided around the tables on skates to verify numbers after kicking off the session with songs from “Xanadu.” Winners were showered with confetti.
“People just had a blast,” said bingo manager Linda Kligman.
“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 help bring people together, organizers say.
“Bingo is something gay people can do with not only other gay friends but with straight friends and family,” Kligman said.
Bingo also offers an alternative to the bar scene, said Steve Balfour, director of development for the AIDS Service Center in Pasadena, Calif., which plans its first Gay Bingo night in August.
“It’s a night of inexpensive fun that everybody can enjoy.”