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B-4, and After
In Philly, Gay Bingo Echoes Beyond Last Call

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.

Following my bingo foray, I made the round of stops on the crossover circuit recommended by locals. Unlike popular gay Philadelphia clubs like Woody's or the Attic, where straights sometimes venture out of curiosity, these places cater more to gays, straights and bisexuals in search of a comfortable setting where they can kick back or party together.

For a post-bingo supper, a friend and I headed to Beau Monde, a casual restaurant on South Sixth Street. This neighborhood creperie was tapped a couple of years back by Philadelphia Magazine as the best place for a first date, and it was easy to see why. Candles flickered everywhere; service was friendly and quick; and the food, mostly crepes and soups, was excellent. Except for the openly gay owners, nothing identified the place as particularly gay. But then again, maybe that's what made it feel comfortable for just about anyone.

Our search for an after-dinner haunt took us around the corner to Fluid, a club recommended by Beau Monde chef and co-owner David Salama. This was a dimly lit place, where a row of men and women in their twenties stood along a blue-tiled bar sipping beers and cocktails. The funky hip-hop music and the dance floor, where a lone dude was dancing passionately, gave the place an edge.

The next morning found me worshiping at St. Peter's, an Episcopalian church at the corner of Third and Pine streets. Although not an obvious stop on the crossover itinerary, it was included in an advertisement in the Philadelphia Gay News as one place whose doors were open to gays and lesbians. While the service was traditional, it was devoid of the homophobic diatribes gays have come to associate with some churches. The parishioners, casually dressed and congenial, offered a warm hand of fellowship to this out-of-town visitor.

My next stop was brunch at Judy's Cafe, a runaway favorite on the crossover scene, located a few blocks from the church in Queen Village. The menu, composed of the usual roster of omelettes, French toast and other Sunday morning favorites, was prepared and presented with flair. But its unpretentious environment as well as the embracing welcome of the wait staff and bartenders make this a beloved dining spot for gays and straights. Like a smaller, more intimate version of Cheers, it's the kind of place where you often find regulars hunched over a meal or a drink.

Over a cup of coffee at Judy's, I reflected on my foray into this Philly subculture. Although I was inclined to chalk it up as a New Millennium trend, its spirit may date back a couple of centuries to Philadelphia's beginnings as a haven for Brits escaping the persecution of repressive monarchs.

At least that's the way Cara Schneider sees it. "This is a city that was founded on principles of live-and-let-live tolerance," explained the thirtysomething Philadelphian, who promotes tourism for the city. "I would like to think that the kind of open-mindedness that you find in the crossover scene is rooted in that spirit."

I think she's right. Bingo!

© 2001 The Washington Post Company