It all started a couple of years ago in the basement of a church hall in central London, when two event promoters started putting on a secretive club night with dance music, costumed hosts, sexy girls — and bingo. Secretive, because running a bingo game could be construed as gambling (it's not). And why bingo? Because there's nothing like a childhood game to get people to drink, dance and even take their clothes off.
Underground Rebel Bingo Club has become a global cult hit, now happening in 25 cities worldwide, including London, Madrid, Toronto and New York.
Started by two former British reality show producers, Freddie "Fortune" Sorensen and James "Flames" Gordon, the bingo idea happened purely by chance. "After the night was over and we would relax with a few drinks, we noticed there was an old bingo kit stored down in the basement, and one night we started fooling around," says Sorensen, who prefers to go by Fortune. "We didn't know the rules, so we made it up and gave away silly prizes. It spread through word of mouth and turned into this cult thing."
The Rebel Bingo nights are now taking off in L.A., with three in the span of about a month quickly selling out. Fortune, who hosts the evenings, likes to call it immersive theater. "It starts from the moment you buy your ticket," he says. The secret location is revealed only days before the event, and it is billed as something not bingo, such as a school of etiquette or a health and safety seminar.
"We greet you at the door and warn you not to mention bingo in case we get found out, but once inside and the coast is clear, so to speak, the night explodes," says Fortune. "The idea that this is naughty and rebellious is all a bit of fun, but if you are not in on the joke, then this is probably not the night for you."
There are certain nods to the original game, such as number cards and an old-style bingo cage rolling the numbers onstage, but the flamboyant bingo girls who call out the letters and numbers are more likely to yell out such rhyming phrases as "Your mother is a dominatrix" than "B 20." Oh, and nobody wins by spelling B-I-N-G-O.
"This is a totally unfair version of bingo," Fortune, who gives away novelty prizes such as stuffed pandas, says with a laugh. "You can win stuff, but it's totally arbitrary who wins. It not based on the numbers but on how enthusiastic you can be."
So you get prizes by being outrageous. You can see where this is headed. Fueled by DJs, dancing and drinking, the night can descend into a raucous room more akin to a living Jackson Pollock installation, as markers are used liberally on skin and clothes. "You give a drunk person a pen and they turn into a 5-year-old child," muses the effusive Fortune.
"I think everyone is looking for something a bit different, and we are so popular because it's a cheap, silly night out with your friends," he says.