It was as much a social club as a gambling hall. “If they ever closed this place down, 20,000 women would be homeless,” Wayson’s bingo caller Willie Dornicak told The Washington Post for a 1966 story.
The business was run by the Waysons and Michael Wynn, a national bingo promoter who had controlling interest in the hall. When he died in 1963, his 21-year-old son took over the operation.
Steve Wynn would conquer the gambling world, building the Mirage, Bellagio and a namesake Las Vegas resort. But he was a bingo guy first, and several decades ago, Wynn described Wayson’s as “by far the largest bingo operation on Earth,” according to biographer John L. Smith.
Bingo’s appeal faded as more states legalized lotteries and authorized commercial or tribal Indian casinos. Even charitable bingo has declined in popularity, said Schwartz, the gaming historian; many fraternal organizations now host charitable poker tournaments instead.
“There are some people who still like bingo,” Schwartz said. “Especially older people.”
That’s another problem for the business: Bingo’s core demographic is dying off.
Minda Niestrath, who gets paid to shuttle bingo players to Wayson’s from Waldorf, Clinton and Suitland in a 15-capacity van four nights each week, says she has lost at least a half-dozen of her players to the big bingo hall in the sky.
And there are fewer and fewer younger players picking up bingo, Boone Wayson said. “How do we repopulate?” Wayson asked. “The lifestyle, the game, is more for older people. Younger people who are used to the Internet like the speed and ever-changing nature of [slot] machines.”
Wayson’s and the other halls now have a limited number of electronic bingo machines, which look and play almost exactly like electronic slot machines. But a few dozen machines at Wayson’s can’t compete with 4,750 slots at Maryland Live — to say nothing of the difference in entertainment and dining options.
Maryland Live has a concert venue and multiple restaurants. Wayson’s has a row of vending machines selling Hot Pockets, Fritos, sodas and 25-cent cups of coffee.
On the first night of bingo after Maryland voters approved the gaming-expansion referendum, Tim Wayson surveyed the hall, which was more than half-empty.
“I’ve been here my whole life; I grew up in here,” he said. He’s 24, not nearly old enough to remember when bingo did boffo business. But he knows things are getting worse — and the arrival of a new MGM casino at National Harbor could be a killer.
“I don’t want to be too negative, because this is our business,” he said. “But it definitely could hurt bingo a lot. It’s a scary thing. I was hoping it wouldn’t get passed. Nothing good can come out of it for us.”
Nearby, Miss Doris was dabbing away at her bingo cards. Her hand was covered with bright pink ink. To her, the chatter about a new casino was just noise.
“I won’t go,” she said.
She started playing at Wayson’s years before Tim Wayson was born, when chartered buses shuttled players to the busy hall from all over the area. “Oh my, it was always so, so packed,” said Miss Doris, who lives in the District near the Convention Center. “I made a lot of friends in here.”
The numbers-caller announced G-54.
“BINGO!” a woman sitting nearby shouted. Miss Doris groaned. It had been a long time since she’d won, and the last $1,000 payout of the night was now in the books.
“Well,” she shrugged as she stuffed her snacks, medication, eyeglasses and hand lotion into a bag, “I’ll be back tomorrow.”
Miss Doris still comes almost every night they run bingo at Wayson’s — Thursday through Sunday — and she’s always in the same place. Squatting is one of the few traditions that has survived.
“We own this table,” said Angie Wooden, who always sits next to Miss Doris. Wooden has been coming to Wayson’s since she was 17. She’s 54 now and is the assistant to the director of a labor union in Washington. Stressful job, she said. “Bingo relaxes me.”
She plays at Wayson’s almost every night — “as long as I have money.”
But come 2016, when the new casino in Prince George’s is scheduled to open, she probably won’t be back much. “Oh,” she said, “I’ll be at the Harbor.”