B-4, and After

By Gary Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 24, 2001

After carefully taking stock of the audience, Carlotta Tendant couldn't resist firing off a salvo. "For you straight people, I know that bingo can get a bit confusing," deadpanned the drag queen-cum-emcee. "So if you're having trouble, don't be embarrassed to scream for help."

"Oh, that guy should thank goodness for his big feet," Winifred Smith laughed from the floor. "Otherwise I might mistake him for my daughter."

Such campy chides by all accounts were typical of the friendly fire hurled across the aisles at Philadelphia's Gay Bingo, a wildly popular event for gays and straights from as far off as New York, Washington and Richmond. Since it began in 1996, the monthly game has attracted a following so fervent that the 576 seats usually sell out within minutes after the box office opens.

And if December's sitting -- when I made my gay bingo debut -- was any measure, the devotees make for a cozy if unlikely mix. Aging bingo grannies in basic frocks huddled alongside hard-bodied gym boys in tight pants. Drag queens in wigs and sequins squeezed in next to married couples in casual dress. And a smattering of just plain folks in jeans and sweaters filled the seats in between. The split between heterosexuals and gay men and lesbians was about equal, according to a show of hands.

The 16 bingo games, offering more than $4,000 in cash jackpots, were an obvious attraction. Although staged at other places, including occasionally at the Chaos club in the District, nowhere has gay bingo become the runaway success it has been in Philly. For nearly three hours, shouts of "B-12," "I-26" rang across the auditorium of the Gershman Y, sending the place into a frenzy and building anticipation of the expected cry: "Bingo!"

Another big draw for many participants was the chance to contribute to a cause. The event is organized by the AIDS Fund in Philadelphia, which donates an average of $10,000 a game in profits to local organizations assisting persons afflicted with the AIDS virus. Over four years, the fund has raised $650,000 from ticket sales and donations from game sponsors.

But nobody doubts that it's the stage show, hosted by the zany Carlotta and his cohort Chumley Singer, that keeps the house packed. Combining the spontaneity of "Saturday Night Live" with the cutting wit of Broadway's Dame Edna, the duo laces the evening with a lively flow of jokes and skits. A fleet of drag queens, known as Bingo Verifying Divas or BVDs, circulates through the room on roller skates, giving the scene color and an air of campiness.

Much of the humor onstage appeared to play on the mix of sexual orientations in the audience. In one skit, for example, the hosts invited gay and straight volunteers to the stage for a pop IQ quiz.

A straight male was asked a string of serious queries. Example: "In what city and on what day was the poet Oscar Wilde born?"

The gay male, in contrast, got such softball questions as: "Fill in the missing word -- 'It's better to blank than to receive.' "

Whatever drew them to the occasion, both gay and straight participants seemed to relish it. "Something about this scene really thrills people," said Glenn Holsten, a gay television producer who made an hour-long documentary about the event. The account, which aired on Philadelphia public television last year, charted the lives of several die-hard gay bingo devotees.

While unusual in most other U.S. cities, the following of locally based gays and straights at gay bingo is part of a broader Philly scene where locals from both cultures seem to mingle with unusual ease. In the past couple of years, in particular, a cluster of clubs, cafes and restaurants has attracted a clientele refreshingly devoid of the prejudices and inhibitions often associated with sexual-preference issues.

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