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Feeling Lucky?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a week of crazy dreams and great expectations, with the California Lottery jackpot soaring into the stratosphere at a cool $70 million, what better spot to take your shot at stardom than the place known as the luckiest little Lotto outlet in all of Los Angeles?

With high hopes of hitting the second-biggest jackpot in the lottery’s 13-year history, would-be winners lined up by the hundreds Monday outside Bluebird Liquor in Hawthorne, the high-rolling outlet with a history of big payoffs.

They appeared even before sunrise and by the time the Bluebird opened at 6:45 a.m., the line had snaked into the adjacent parking lot--all of this frenzied betting coming a full two days before Wednesday night’s drawing.

All across the Southland, Lotto fever hit with a vengeance Monday as high-stakes gamblers from Whittier to Woodland Hills dusted off their lucky charms, crossed their fingers, settled on their picks and let their money ride.

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Normally, at California’s 19,000 lottery outlets, the crush for winning tickets doesn’t begin until a few hours before the twice-weekly 7:58 p.m. drawings.

But this is no average week by a longshot, with the largest jackpot since 1991--when the granddaddy of all pots reached $118.8 million, the largest jackpot in the history of state lotteries nationwide. Now, once again, California is drawing national attention with the land’s largest current lottery jackpot.

And if sales continue at their present rate, lottery officials say, the pot will grow considerably by the time the numbers are chosen Wednesday night.

The jackpot reached $40 million for Saturday’s drawing, in which no player picked all six numbers.

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Since then, ticket sales have shot through the roof.

“Look at them,” regular Bluebird customer Barbara Black said Monday, motioning to ticket buyers. “They’re all after that American Dream, that pot at the end of the rainbow. They want a new house and a new car and want to send their kids to college and not have to worry anymore how they’re going to pay their bills.

“And let me tell you, nothing brings ‘em out of the woodwork faster than a $70-million jackpot.”

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There was another incentive to flush out the heavy hitters: the new Super Lotto lump sum payment option feature, with which winners can opt to receive a lump sum equaling about half the jackpot. That’s the amount the lottery would invest to pay off the jackpot amount over 26 years. Or, as before, a winner can get annual payments spread over 26 years.

Outside the Bluebird, the hopefuls included gardeners and accountants, plumbers and secretaries, hundreds in all, and they all had something strange and wonderful in common: Whether they were wagering $5 or $500, they all felt lucky.

In the line, where the wait was as much as two hours, every last one of them flashed dollar signs in their eyes--even if the odds of winning the Super Lotto jackpot are a distant 1 in 18 million.

Attracted by a past $16-million payoff--and hundreds of other smaller winners--players flock to the Bluebird from as far away as Arizona and even New York City, regulars say.

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On Monday, they included people like Jene Mathews, a secretary who drove down from the Antelope Valley with $500 in cash. There was Vinnie Donohue of Santa Monica, a plumbing contractor who once bet $500 a week on the lottery, but has since curtailed his habit to a mere $100 weekly.

So far, in years of shelling out for tickets, Donohue’s biggest payoff has been $90. “But I figure I’ll get lucky sooner or later,” he says. “My chances are as good as anybody else’s. That’s why I keep playing.”

Norma Minas, a California lottery spokeswoman in Sacramento, said response to the newest jackpot has been fever-pitched. “We’re breaking records,” she said. “With the largest jackpot in the nation, we expect it to be very busy.”

Six previous drawings dating back to March 21 produced no winner. “So, as we say, the jackpot rolls,” Minas said. “People keep playing and it gets bigger each time.”

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The luckiest individual Super Lotto winner in state history was Augustine Chiarenza of Lompoc, who won $51.6 million on June 18, 1994.

Still, lottery jackpots remain fickle creatures. The last time the pot reached as high as $40 million was a year ago, and so far 1998 has been what officials call a dry year with average jackpots.

Minas said: “In 1996, which was a wild year, we had two $50-million jackpots in July alone.”

This week’s big jackpot brought out longtime lottery losers and some first-time players.

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Joe Helou, owner of C & C Liquor in Encino, on Monday helped a woman who had never played the lottery but felt compelled to take her chance at the monster jackpot. “I showed her how to pick the numbers and how to play,” he said.

Even out-of-state buyers are getting in on the action. Helou, who expected his ticket sales to jump almost 500% this week, sent out tickets Monday to a man in Philadelphia. “When it’s a big pot like this, everybody plays,” he said.

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Moiz Zarifian, co-owner of Liquor Store Ladins in Canoga Park, said his customers are split on choosing a lump sum or a series of payments. He said about 70% prefer the lump sum, and those who opt for the payments do so to cut their taxes.

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Doris Blank, who took a break from shopping at the Encino Newsstand on Ventura Boulevard, is one who prefers the lump sum payment.

Blank, who bought her weekly allotment of $5 in quick picks, said: “I’m 74 years of age. Enough said.”

Waiting to make their wagers--dreams of $70 million dancing in their heads--some players displayed no small amount of generosity in reciting their plans as winners.

“I am going to build an orphanage,” said George Fortun, a 46-year-old salesman who has hoped for years that his name would bring some luck. So far, no fortune.

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But Fortun said he is not discouraged as he picked his “secret” numbers on a counter at the Grand Central Market liquor store in downtown Los Angeles.

“I am going to make them all mine,” he said of children without parents.

Standing outside Bluebird Liquor, lottery picks clenched in his hand, 56-year-old Willie Luellen of Gardena said he felt good--$70 million bucks worth, in fact.

“Hey, this liquor store is the luckiest spot on Earth,” he said. “If I’m gonna take my place among the millionaires on this planet, this is the place I’m gonna do it.”

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Times staff writers Amy Oakes and Daniel Yi contributed to this story.


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