At one time, smoke-filled bingo halls and slot machines fit neatly into the Wild West atmosphere that made Anne Arundel County a summer playland, beckoning visitors in search of suntans and jackpots to its shoreline.
But over the past three decades, Anne Arundel has been undergoing a slow metamorphosis brought about by the march of the Washington and Baltimore suburbs. With the transformation has come an almost inevitable clash between the county's freewheeling past and new, suburban sensibilities.
This week, that conflict drove four County Council members to offer legislation that eventually could shut down the county's few remaining bingo parlors.
The bill would reduce the number of licenses issued, essentially preventing any new halls from opening. More than that, it calls on the county's Amusement License Commission to prepare a report recommending whether commercial bingo games should be discontinued altogether.
"I would like to see it phased out," said council member John J. Klocko III (R-Crofton). "There just isn't much about bingo that's redeeming, and there are a lot of elements to it that raise serious questions."
To the best of anyone's recollection, this is the first time county political leaders have waded into a debate over commercial bingo, which has long been accepted, if not welcomed, as a relic of Anne Arundel's colorful past.
Edward O. Wayson Jr., whose family has run Wayson's Bingo out of the same south county warehouse since the late 1950s, said the games have not changed much over the years.
"Most of the original bingo licenses were attached to the beach clubs, so that's different," he said. "But we're still in the same place, doing much the same thing."
While many parts of the country permit charity bingo, Wayson estimates two dozen jurisdictions in addition to Nevada allow the sort of professional gaming operations found in Anne Arundel.
Slot machines were phased out of the county in the late 1960s, but bingo halls have continued to operate under rules enforced by the county's gaming commission.
Many of the rules were written in the past decade, after the business associates of one local bingo hall owner were convicted in federal court of laundering organized crime profits through bingo games. The hall eventually was sold to a new operator.
Under the guidelines, the bingo halls can offer an unlimited number of $50 jackpots but fewer bigger games. They are limited to giving away $10,000 a day, except for a few times a year, when they produce games with one-time jackpots of $20,000.
A portion of the proceeds, amounting to $560,000 last year, goes to the county.
The people who operate bingo halls say that this is, in fact, a rather wholesome pastime, enjoyed mostly by elderly patrons.
"We put a lot into this place," said Scott Cook, vice president of Bingo World, a hall in Brooklyn Park where roughly 400 patrons turn up each night to watch the letters pop up on 22 television monitors. "The people know what they're getting, and they have a good time when they're here."
But recently, council members and local residents have begun to question just how quaint and wholesome the business really is.
When a company proposed opening a new bingo hall on the Broadneck Peninsula, residents quickly coalesced to fight it. This week, the county responded to their complaints, denying the permit. The company, which operates a hall in Annapolis under the name Treasure City, is appealing.
But council members said that debate was enough to get them thinking.
"When we saw the community response, it was clear there are strong, unambiguous feelings that the county should not be supporting this kind of commercial gambling operation," said council member Barbara Samorajczyk (D-Annapolis).
Klocko, a former head of the Amusement License Commission, agreed, saying he believes the halls are exploiting the poor.
Bingo parlors, he explained, draw most of their business from impoverished neighborhoods in Baltimore and the District. Each day, he said, the drivers of buses and vans get paid a fee for each person they shuttle in to wager their money. "They're like head hunters," he said. "I don't think that's something the county should be getting behind."
In the coming months, the debate has a good chance of becoming a dominant issue for the council.
Council member Pamela G. Beidle (D-Linthicum Heights), a co-sponsor of the bill, said it will be tough for the council to wipe away something that has been part of the county's fabric for so long.
"I think bingo is a recreation people enjoy, and I'm not thrilled with the idea of taking away that enjoyment," she said. "But if it is creating problems, I think it's something we're going to need to look at carefully."
CAPTION: A man checks the boards for numbers during a visit to Bingo World in Brooklyn Park. Many patrons travel to Bingo World and other halls in buses and vans.
CAPTION: Some cards get stamped at Bingo World, where roughly 400 people a night show up for games.