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O-2 Be Playing Bingo Today--the Game Isn't the Same

Trends: That old standard is drawing crowds at several Manhattan venues, with decided twists--disco music and drag-queen numbermeisters rule.

September 10, 1998|PAULA SPAN | WASHINGTON POST

NEW YORK — Remember that kiddie ditty about the farmer who had a dog? "B-I-N-G-O! B-I-N-G-O! B-I-N-G-O and Bingo was its name-o"-- that one?

Four Certifiably Hip Young Persons were singing it, loudly, and clapping along from their booth at a downtown nightspot called Tortilla Flats recently. Which was not as peculiar as one might think: It was bingo night, and the anticipation was building.

In a nightlife trendlet, several Manhattan bars and eateries are drawing crowds with a pastime even more retro than martini-drinking or swing-dancing.

Gotham being what it is, some of the folks cranking the cage of bingo balls and calling the numbers are drag queens.

"People are tired of the everyday--this is different," explains Bobsie Colon, manager of a Greenwich Village cafe called Lips (as if being served drinks by linebackers in minidresses weren't different enough). Nevertheless, it's recognizably the same game. B-3. N-36.

"It's the bingo revival," Richard Feuring, an investment banker and grad student, explained gravely while waiting for cards at Tortilla Flats.

"We like audience participation," added his friend Katie Massa, a 24-year-old temp and aspiring comic.

Tortilla Flats has been hosting Monday night bingothons for years. But the current fad, to the extent such things can be tracked, seems to have arisen at the historic Village watering hole called Stonewall, where a police bust in 1969 detonated the gay rights movement.

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Kenny Dash, the "comic female impersonator" (his preferred job description) who presides, was casting about for some novelty to pull in patrons on somnolent Mondays.

"Drag as an act was tired, played out. I felt like the Titanic going down," he recalls. "I couldn't come up with a mousetrap they hadn't seen, but I could find a mousetrap they hadn't thought about in a while."

Even Dash, who calls bingo numbers until 4 a.m., has been surprised to see patronage triple.

"In a city that's so culturally and economically and cerebrally advanced, never did I think something so sedate would attract people," he says.

Customers not only sing along to his classic disco tapes, answer trivia questions and applaud his stories (there was that time his car broke down on the Triborough Bridge and he used his pantyhose as an alternator belt), but they also help cater.

"Everyone walks in with stuff wrapped up in aluminum foil," Dash reports. "Platters of homemade cupcakes! Cookies! One guy brings 60 White Castle burgers, and the waiters pass them around."

Next on the bingo bandwagon was Lips, on Wednesdays. Hostesses Yvon Lame and Sherry Vine call numbers while genially trashing each other's appearance ("I never get tired of seeing that wig!"), social lives ("What's the difference between Yvon Lame and garbage? Garbage gets picked up once in a while") and joke-telling skills.

Recently, bingo moved uptown to the Works on the Upper West Side, where the gimmick is a new theme each Tuesday. At Studio 54 Bingo, mirrored disco balls made the cards a trifle hard to read. Flintstones Bingo featured the drag-diva hostess and sidekick as Betty and Wilma. Prizes, as elsewhere, tend toward the cheesy--CDs, hats, T-shirts, free drinks--but that's not why people play.

"It's an icebreaker," theorizes the Works' manager, Daniel Lake. "You're not just standing around afraid to talk to someone, or waiting for someone to talk to you."

Bob Strickland, a Manhattan ad exec and a proud recipient of the Big Bingo Winner T-shirt at Tortilla Flats: "Kind of gives you something to do during lulls in the conversation."

The Tortilla Flats game can be intense. "It gets more competitive as people get more . . . invigorated," says bingomeister John Barry, delicately referring to the effects of margarita consumption. There are shrieks of joy for I-24, hisses from Katie Massa for B-2. At one point, a player at a tableful of Morgan Stanley bankers claims to have bingo but doesn't, disqualifying his party and provoking chants of "Don-is-dumb. Don-is-dumb."

Tsk, tsk. Massa's friend Alice Muir, an NYU grad student, was one square from victory, but no one hears her squawking.

"It's not whether you win or lose," she lectures primly. "It's how you play the game."

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