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Members of Lodi’s 50 Plus Club reflect the city’s love of bingo

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Posted: Friday, January 13, 2012 8:14 am

They’re gathered at Hutchins Street Square, in a huge room with a varnished blonde wood floor. Outside, sycamore leaves drift to the well-manicured lawns.

They are here, 32 strong, with walkers and canes. They are here with energy bars and cups of coffee and bottles of Diet Pepsi. 

This, after all, will be a test of stamina.

They are here with talismans — smiling trolls and lime-green frogs and even a little golden elephant — hoping for good fortune today.

When all is ready, a machine is clicked on.

Colored balls swirl like popping corn. The ritual begins, a time-honored ritual that draws screams of delight and sighs of disappointment, a ritual that brings money to some and loss to others. 

It is 11:58 a.m.

Time to play bingo.

Bingo nation

Bingo is a national obsession, and has been since the 1930s. Games are held every day and every night in community centers, schools and lodges across the country. Bingo is staged in Lodi at Hutchins Street Square by the Lodi 50 Plus Club, a social group that’s been holding the games as long as the club has been in existence, about 35 years.

“This gives us all something to do. You can win a little money, but nobody is getting rich, that’s for sure,” said Jean Roberts, president of the club.

The club makes a modest amount from the weekly bingo sessions, and that allows it to make donations to various worthy groups, from the LOEL Center to Ronald McDonald Houses.

You can play bingo at least four times a week in Lodi: Wednesday at Hutchins Street Square with the sprightly Lodi 50 Plus members;  Tuesday afternoons at the LOEL Center; Friday nights at St. Anne’s School and Saturdays at The Arbor senior center.

Basic bingo is straightforward. Buy a card with a grid of numbers below the letters B-I-N-G-O. As numbers are called out, you blot them out or cover them up. When the covered numbers create the winning pattern, usually a row across or down, you are the lucky one.

But you better shout out “bingo” quickly — the first to holler is the winner.

At the 50 Plus games, the winner gets $9 if there are 35 or more players.

Today, sunny but cold, attendance is a bit light.

There are only the stalwart 32, so the winner gets $6.

Across a bingo-crazed nation, cash prizes are typically modest but they add up: An estimated $90 million is spent on bingo in the U.S. each week. 

A chance to mingle and munch

The bingo sessions at Hutchins Street Square are a chance to mingle and munch.

Members gather for coffee and conversation well before the bingo balls start their frantic dance. The members share doughnuts, coffee and conversation, and take care of club business.

Once the game has been going an hour or so, they have refreshments, like pineapple-upside down cake or brownies, always homemade. Other days, they have a what amounts to a potluck, with each member bringing a dish.

Margaret Fitch, bingo caller

The hand that firmly clicks on the bingo blower belongs to Margaret Fitch, who has sharp blue eyes and a ready smile. Fitch is amiable, but orderly. She was the school secretary at St. Anne’s for 26 years.

She knows how to keep track of things.

Fitch is the caller. The uninitiated may think calling bingo game is easy, a rote matter of looking at numbers and then hollering them out. It’s not easy.

As a caller, Fitch is part emcee, part game show host, part accounts payable clerk.

A study in multi-tasking.

Fitch must pull the bingo balls cleanly. She must see them clearly. She must click the right switch to illuminate the right numbers on the flashboard behind her. 

Most importantly, she  must use just the right voice and cadence. If she hurries, players, some of whom are busily noting numbers on eight or 10 cards, fall behind. If she is too slow, the game loses its steady pace, its “yes-I-am-ready-to-win!” velocity. 

So the announcement of “G 24, G 24,” must have energy. A hint of drama. The calling must be sustained for nearly three hours.

When a player happily cries bingo, it is Fitch who reviews the card, making sure it is indeed a winner.

Fitch loves playing bingo, but when club members asked her to start calling, she agreed.

“So now I do all the calling — and they get to do the playing,” she laughed.

The club directors assess the bingo operation periodically. 

“They ask every year if I will call bingo again,” she said. “And I say, ‘Sure, as long as you want me.’”

Fitch calls out a number, but there is no response.

“OK,” Fitch said, pulling another ball from the glass chamber. “Let’s try again.”

There are many  who make bingo happen each week. Those who cook the treats, those who start the big coffee urn, take the money in exchange for the bingo cards.

The maestro, though, is Margaret Fitch.

Carnival crowd sparks an idea

Edwin S. Lowe of New York City was a traveling toy salesman with a sense of curiosity.

On a sales trip in December 1929, he came upon a country carnival outside Jacksonville, Ga., according to “Gambling Times Guide to Bingo,” by Roger Snowden.

Walking among the tents, Lowe heard a commotion and went to see what the fuss was all about. He saw a fellow pulling numbered wooden discs from of a cigar box, then hollering each number to a crowd of men and women. As they placed dried beans on numbered cards, the players seemed intense, even slightly frenzied.

Lowe wanted to play this odd game of beans and numbers, but there was no open seat. 

The game was called Beano. It actually had roots in various forms of gambling in Europe.

On that December night, the Beano winners walked away with Kewpie dolls. 

Lowe left with an idea for a business opportunity.

Back in New York, Lowe bought some beans and fashioned some crude numbered cards. He gathered friends in his apartment and, acting as the pitchman, began a version of the game he’d witnessed at the carnival in rural Georgia. 

He noticed the excitement build as the beans steadily filled numbers on the cards. When her card was filled, one of Lowe’s friends erupted with excitement and stuttered out, “B-B-B-Bingo!”

Lowe liked the sound of that.

The new game of bingo was born.

Surgical concentration

As they were in that crowded tent in 1929, the group at Hutchins Street Square is intense.  Once Fitch starts calling a game, there is a hush.

The crowd is pleasant, mature and largely female. 

They pay $2 for three cards, $3 for six cards. Bingo is usually won with a horizontal, vertical or diagonal linkage of numbers, but there are many, many variations.

Bingo is not for those with deficient attention spans. It is a game of keen concentration. Most of those in the room are playing at least four or six cards.

They are like a room of surgeons, each lost in their own operation. Most claim the same spot next week, seated next to regular chums.

At one of Fitch’s calls came the happy announcement.

“Bingo!” 

The winner: Patricia Williams, a bright, bespectacled woman who plays bingo twice each week.

Williams plays six or eight cards at a time, never missing a call, a number, a winning sequence.

She’s widowed and retired, and said bingo keeps her mind agile.

“You play this, you won’t get dementia,” she quipped. (There is, in fact, some tentative evidence that regular doses of bingo may indeed help maintain or improve cognitive functioning.) Williams finds the bingo challenging but relaxing, too. “All you do is look at numbers,” she said.

How much did her bingo triumph bring? 

“Six dollars. That’s almost enough for dinner tonight at the Eagles Club,” she said.

There are 10 rounds of bingo played each Wednesday at Hutchins Street Square.

That’s 10 winners, 10 gleeful cries of bingo.

Ten hearts sent aflutter.

Bingo ends, and there is no dawdling

It is 3 o’clock and splashes of sunlight are fading from the big windows at Hutchins Street Square.

A final game of bingo is called, a winner duly recognized.

The bingo blower is silenced, and the colored balls lie still.

Time to go home now, and there is no dawdling.

The players clutch their walkers and canes and move out.

Margaret Fitch wheels the bingo blower and the flashboard into the storage area. Doors are clicked shut.

Today, pineapple upside-down cake has been eaten, coffee sipped, money has been won and lost, friendships renewed.

Bingo has been played.

Contact editor Rich Hanner at richardh@lodinews.com.

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