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Shtick and a Few Yuks? Bingo!

Despite a celebrity's snub and a questionable buffet, the event is a laugh riot

September 29, 2002|MARY McNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

You are in the "world famous" Friars Club of Beverly Hills sitting at a long white table. At the bar lurks a man whose cratered mug has been in every gangster movie since "Little Caesar." A few feet away, two women in motorized vehicles that look more like Harleys than wheelchairs are negotiating the buffet with its glass bowls of Thousand Island dressing and croutons.

The air shimmers with the smell of butane and the sound of Donna Summer singing "God Bless America." A man in a Hawaiian shirt holding a microphone is explaining that Buddy Hackett will be arriving in less than an hour. Directly in front of you are two bingo daubers, which look inarguably like brightly colored sexual aids, and a plateful of banana cream pie. Sitting on your left, drawing off white gloves with big blue polka dots, is Jo Anne Worley. You are laughing so hard that when you try to breathe, you snort, just like you did in high school.

This is not a dream.

This is the grand opening of Celebrity Bingo Night at the Friars Club earlier this month. You are here because a comic named Steve Bluestein convinced a few of his friends, including Worley and Mary Willard, that it would be an absolute hoot to see Buddy Hackett call a bingo game and they, being gracious, adventuresome women, allowed you to accompany them.

The dreamlike quality of the evening began early, at about 3:15 on the front stoop of Worley's Toluca Lake house. For anyone older than, say, 35, Worley occupies a significant and unique place in the heart of popular culture. She was one of the most beloved members of the deliciously odd ensemble of "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In." With her big hair, zany polka-dotted head scarves, unapologetically fake eyelashes and trademark high-pitched warble, Worley's post-"Laugh-In" career includes game show diva, stand-up comic and comedic actress.

Meeting her is kind of a big deal.

Opening her door, she is immediately and irrefutably her, with a jet-black pageboy and lashes out to here. "You look hot," she declares over the silky head of her miniature Yorkshire terrier, Harmony. "You want a diet soda?"

She and Willard, who is also there at the house, know nothing about bingo, nothing about this game except that Hackett's supposed to be there tonight and comedian Norm Crosby is scheduled the following week. "But how can it not be a scream?" says Willard, who is a playwright and is married to comedic actor Fred Willard.

In the car, Worley dangles a string of white beads. "I wore these once in Esther Williams' pool," she says. "They have to be lucky."

The beads pay off almost immediately; Willard gets street parking right across from the Friars Club, and then things start to get a little odd. From across the street, it's apparent that the health inspector has been here fairly recently and awarded the food service a thought-provoking C.

"Maybe C stands for comedy," says Worley. Or Cedars-Sinai.

Inside the club's foyer, a group of women is gathered. Most of them seem to be wearing T-shirts adorned with sequined American flags. Many of them are carrying pillows. They all seem to know each other. They do not seem to be from the neighborhood. They are bingo ladies.

The doors do not open until 4:30. It is 4:15. Bluestein arrives. He had been told by the folks at the club to show up at 4, and this is what he told his friends. Some of the bingo ladies are slowly sneaking their way up the curving staircase that leads to the main room where the games will be held. One woman advises Worley to get seats at the end of a table--better access. "It's going to be like the Cocoanut Grove," says Bluestein. "A stampede. I'll get a high heel in my forehead."

The women are talking to each other about "this evening." About how they're going to do in the games "this evening." Worley looks at Bluestein, her wide eyes wider, and asks, "Since when is 4:30 the evening?" Bluestein looks at Willard, who sensibly asks the woman behind the counter: "What time does the bingo actually start?" 6:30. And it will probably go until at least 10. And Buddy Hackett's only scheduled to do 15 minutes. At 7:30.

7:30. It is now 4:20. "But the buffet opens at 5," the woman behind the counter says.

The buffet. When plans were made, there had been no mention of a buffet. The two women turn as one toward Bluestein. He takes a small step back. He is the only man in the room right now. He has no allies in this building. He has only two friends who thought they'd play a little bingo, laugh at Buddy Hackett, be home by, what? Seven? And they are now facing down a three-hour wait for 15 minutes of Hackett, 3 1/2 hours of bingo at $35 per card pack and a $12 all-you-can-eat buffet. Even backward, the C in the window is emphatic.

The two women look at each other and a moment in which just about anything could happen twitches between them. Worley starts to laugh, and Willard starts to laugh and, in a nervous minute, Bluestein starts to laugh too.

And for the next five hours or so, they very rarely stop.

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