I grew up a member of Holy Name Catholic Church in Omaha. It’s the church my parents belonged to. The church my two brothers and I were baptized in, said our first communion in, and were confirmed in. It’s where my oldest brother Greg was married. Greg, my other brother Dan, and I attended the church’s K-12 school. We lived just four blocks from the church and school. For years our later mother worked in the cafeteria kitchen on bingo nights. Ah, bingo. The game was king at Holy Name, where hordes of players turned out and enough money was raked in to help keep the church and school afloat. I never saw more than the periphery of the bingo scene. Finally, a few years ago I decided to write about it. The crowd and the take were significantly reduced from bingo’s heyday, before the casinos across the river, the video slot machines everywhere, and online betting cut into the action, but what was the same was the passion and magnificent obsession of the die-hard players. That’s what I tried conveying in this story, which originally appeared in the New Horizons. It’s one of those slice-of-life stories I like doing from time to time. I hope you like it as much as I do.
The Saturday Night Bingo Brigade
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the New Horizons
Along about 6:30 on a Saturday night in the basement cafeteria of Holy Name Catholic Church, 2909 Fontenelle Blvd., regular troops in the local bingo brigade settle in their favorite seats in anticipation of the first game. Of the 200 or so faithful players gathered this evening, probably a little more than half are senior citizens.
For many in the crowd, bingo is a way of life that finds these dedicated souls playing this familiar game of chance as much as seven, eight or nine times a week. Beyond the cash prizes tendered, the game is a casual, pleasant pastime for widows and widowers alike who feel there are few other recreational options for older adults like them. It is also a relatively cheap night out for senior singles and couples who simply thrive on the gambling action and the laid back socializing that permeate this smoke-filled scene. Tanked-up on coffee and nicotine, the bingo brigade plays on.
Many in the Golden bingo set have been at it for decades. They make the rounds at the various bingo halls, sitting in the same spots and following the same routines night after night. Rituals are a big part of bingo and whether it’s a cherished charm or a favorite spot to sit in or a habitual pregame activity, everyone has their own way of courting Lady Luck.
Over in a recessed alcove is 82-year-old Ada McGargill, taking turns dragging on a cigarette and sipping coffee from a thermos mug. She arrives early to claim her spot and wiles away the time with her nose in a romance novel or playing solitaire. Across from her is retired railroad chef Frank O’Neal, a soft-spoken man of 87 with a display of talismans arranged before him, including a turkey wishbone that he hopes to “bring me some luck.”. A few tables back is retired geriatric nurse Virginia Wilson, a dynamic 80-year-old with a flair for clothes and jewelry and a penchant for laying out a menagerie of elephant amulets she hopes bring her good fortune.
Clear on the other side of the room are sisters Clara Langenbach and Betty Berg, who make a habit of attending mass at Holy Name Church before the Saturday bingo session starts downstairs. Whether they say a prayer to hit bingo or not, nobody knows, but that doesn’t stop friend and fellow player Marie Berg to ask for their indulgences. “If they do, it hasn’t helped me any, I’ll tell you that — because I don’t win very often,” said Berg. Then there is Betty “Bingo” Mittermeier, age 77, who has become a kind of bingo folk hero among her fellow players for her consistent winning ways, which she attributes not so much to luck as to good old fashioned pluck.
These are just a few of the bingo maniacs who frequent the various church and social halls that form a kind of loose bingo circuit in town. The people come from all walks of life and each individual has a story to tell about and apart from bingo. Some come for companionship. Some for love of the game. Some for the slim chance of repeating an earlier success.
Bingo first got in the blood of Ada McGargill as soon as she began going some four decades ago. Her husband was confined to a wheelchair after suffering a stroke and Ada, who cared for him at home, needed an outlet. When her husband died in 1972, she made bingo her great escape from grief and loneliness.
“There isn’t much a widow woman can do,” she said. “I had no desire to date or hang out in a beer joint or anything like that. Bingo is someplace to go. It’s getting away and getting out around people. You make a lot of friends. It’s just a good enjoyable night out for me. It’s something to do, and I guess I like to gamble a little bit.” There is also a certain comfort in coming to the same place and seeing the same faces all the time, said McGargill, who’s been coming to play at Holy Name since the church started bingo in the 1960s. “I see people here that I’ve seen since I started, which is 35 years ago. When I started, priests called the bingo games. You don’t see priests do that anymore.”
Winning a few bucks is another lure. But while McGargill said she has won the $1,000 jackpot six times, she emphasizes that is “not too many times considering I’ve played for almost 40 years.” Her luck has been especially sour of late. “I’ve been in a slump. I haven’t won for a long time. It’s like that. Sometimes you win every time you go, and then you don’t win for a long time.” Unlike many veteran bingo players who abandoned the game for the glitzy appeal of the casinos, McGargill has remained loyal. “I don’t go to the casinos very often. I don’t have that much money. I can sit here all night and play for $15-20, but at the casinos that’s nothing. That’d be gone in 15 minutes.” Her bingo schedule is so regular (“I go just about every night.”), she said, that “if one of my kids needs to reach me, they know to try the bingo halls. They know that’s where I am.”
Barb and Bob Smejkal and Tess Perry have been coming to Holy Name bingo for as long as the game has been played there. They remain faithful players out of a desire “to support the church,” Barb said, and because the cost to play is a lot more “reasonable” than casino gambling. Besides, she said, it offers a night out with “the gang.” For retired Omaha fire captain Pete Peterson, 70, and wife Nancy bingo is extra income — “We’ve been on a pretty good winning streak” — and a way “to just kind of relax and get your head off the rest of the world,” he said.
For Frank O’Neal, a night of bingo relieves the tedium of staying home and watching the boob tube. “TV gets boring. Bingo’s a way of getting out and meeting people. The older you get the more you coop yourself up and the only way for older people to get out of the house is through some recreation like this,” he said. “It’s an enjoyment for an older person.”
Besides, O’Neal has never been one to plant himself in front of the set like some couch potato. He has always had an itch to get up and go places. During a 40-year career as a chef/cook for the Burlington Railroad, the dining car was his privileged perch for seeing America.
“I enjoyed my work and I got to see a lot of the country, too. I started out in Lincoln, Neb. and then I got transferred to Chicago and then from Chicago I ran all over. During the war, I was running everywhere because the dining car went wherever the troops were. I was moving,” he said.
His favorite run, he added, took him from Chicago to California. He feels people of a certain age who only know passenger rail service via Amtrack missed out on a special chapter in American travel. “In the heyday, train travel was special. The food was special. No, it’s not special anymore. When I was riding the railroad we made everything fresh. They don’t do that now. The meals are already prepared and they put ‘em in the microwave. The way we did it, well, that’s something of the past,” said O’Neal, an Omaha native who with his wife raised a family during the Great Depression, when bingo first emerged as a popular game in America.
There’s something about the poised, confident way Virginia Wilson carries herself, even when merely setting up her array of daubing markers and good luck charms, that tells you she is her own woman. Growing up with a passel of siblings in the only black family in Beatrice, Neb., she learned early on about asserting herself.
During World War II she followed her seven brothers in the service by joining the WACs or the Women’s Army Corps. She actually began her tour of duty in its precursor organization — the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC). The pride she feels all these years later about her wartime service is evident in a photo she carries with her. The picture — of herself in her crisp GI-issued uniform — was taken while she was stationed in Paris. In addition to France, she served in England, Germany, Switzerland and Belgium. The experience changed her. Just imagine, she said, the impact that seeing the world had on “a little town country girl,” adding, “When I came out of the service, Beatrice was too small for me.” Her expanded dreams found her studying pre-law at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln before embarking on a career in nursing. She lived and worked in Denver and then moved to Omaha, where she raised three children as a single working mom.
By her own reckoning, Wilson has been a steady bingo player for some 55 years. She feels getting out to play the game beats sitting at home. “I get claustrophobia if I stay home. The walls close in on me,” she said. “Plus, I love to play.” Just how often does she play? “I play bingo every night, thank you.” She prefers the simple, direct charm of bingo to the casinos. “I don’t like to have the slot machines gulp my quarters. I don’t get any enjoyment out of it at all. Bingo’s more fun.”
Winning has become such a habit with Betty Mittermeier that she has not — not even once — dipped into her late husband’s Union Pacific pension checks. Indeed, bingo is such a steady source of income for her, she said, that she thinks of her playing nights as “my part-time job.” Recently widowed, Betty and her husband of 59 years raised five children. She used to take her youngest son with her to bingo, where she would play while he built model airplanes. Children are no longer allowed on the premises. Her magic at bingo has been there from the very start. She still wins money virtually every night and her success is so well known that she answers to “Betty Bingo” and finds players coming up to her and rubbing her for good luck, something she is not fond of, by the way. Mittermeier, who plays a large number of cards, doesn’t believe her success is due so much to luck as to persistence and to her increasing the odds in her favor by playing dozens of cards.
It is not uncommon for players like Betty to play up to 100 cards at once between the paper and the electronic bingo games offered. But the more cards one plays, the more money it costs and some folks, like Ada McGargill, cry foul. “Some people are playing 96 cards, and I can’t afford to do that. Most of us can’t afford to do that. So, they spoil it for everybody else, because they win all the time.”
Whether one wins or not, it is the mere possibility of hitting bingo that hooks people and keeps them coming back for more. “It’s the anticipation of how you’re going to do,” said Barbara Finkle, 68, a longtime player around town. “That’s what it is. Everything leading up to it is the exciting part of it. A couple of times I’ve won a $1,000 jackpot, but that’s not very often, let me tell you. But I keep coming back. I’m a sucker.” Or, as a regular at the Holy Name bingo game, John Speese, put it, “One night I did get the jackpot, and that’s what I keep coming back for.”
Yelling out “Bingo,” is nice, as is the cold hard cash a winning hand provides, but the real appeal for players like Marie Beran, 86, is the personal interaction the game affords. A widow whose children and grandchildren live outside the state, Beran would be alone without her bingo family. “I’m all by myself. All I have left is my bingo friends,” she said. “That’s my life — my bingo. If it wasn’t for that, I don’t know what I’d do.”
An every night player, she eats all her meals at bingo. She has been playing for more than half a century, making it a daily and sometimes twice a day affair since her husband died on their 52nd wedding anniversary in 1991. He had battled bone cancer for years. Marie had stayed home to care for him. After losing him and without any other family nearby, her life began to revolve around the game. She is independent enough to still live in her own home and to drive. “If it gets to the point I can’t drive anymore,” she said, “why then I’ll do something else. I just take it day by day.” She believes even more than the camaraderie she finds at bingo, she benefits from the activity it provides. “If you keep active, I think you keep going. Otherwise, I think you sit in a rocking chair and get old.”
Aside from the stimulus that a little gambling action affords, there is the concentrated focus bingo demands, which is not unlike completing a crossword puzzle. Aging experts agree such mental activity is healthy for older people. The focus required increases when playing paper bingo, where row upon row of numbers must be examined and matching numbers marked or daubed. “It takes concentration, especially when you’re playing a lot of cards,” Barbara Finkle said. “I play the paper because I like to be busy daubing. There’s definitely an art to it.”
Indeed, once a game begins and the first number called out, paper players are studies in concentration. An observer on the scene notices several things. First, the pregame drone of gabbing and chitter-chatter falls to a whisper, like in a church, which is ironic since Holy Name Church is directly above the bingo hall. Finkle said there is an unwritten rule to maintain silence when playing, something newcomers unknowingly violate through idle conversation.
“When you get some people in that haven’t played very much, they don’t realize that you should really be quiet and not talk during the game because people are trying to concentrate,” Finkle noted. Hushing such noisemakers is not uncommon. After all, as fellow player Clara Langenbach put it, “It’s serious business.” Then, once the game proceeds, it as if everyone has begun praying. There is a mass of furrowed brows and bobbing heads as each player first tilts their head upward to intently, silently, almost reverently scan the closed circuit TV or tote board for the current number in play and then bows their head back down to examine the sheets spread out before them in search of the corresponding number.
Next, you observe how the dauber is grasped in the hand and positioned above the paper like a fine brush held by an artist over a canvas. With each matching number, the inking begins in what can only be called brush strokes, and soon the sheets resemble the cross-hatched blotchings of a modern art painting. During the game, floorwalkers sell special games and pickle cards. Some in the crowd leave their seats to grab a snack, use the restroom or catch some fresh air. Most winners react in a fairly subdued manner, which is natural considering most payouts range from $20 to $100, but the $300 and up winners do occasionally hoot, holler, hug their neighbors or dance a jig in celebration.
Bingo attendance is not what it used to be. Many players left bingo behind once Council Bluffs opened its casinos. Still, enough loyal players remain to make the game a viable attraction for folks who don’t care for the casinos or can’t afford them. Like many parishes over the years, perpetually cash-starved Holy Name has sponsored bingo for decades as a prime source of income to help subsidize its church-school operations.
In addition to the games held in the cafeteria on Wednesday and Saturday nights, Holy Name also conducts bingo in a social hall at 60th and Hartman on Thursday and Sunday nights. Bingo once ruled at Holy Name. Game nights attracted near-capacity crowds on a regular basis. But then the state legislature imposed new restrictions on bingo (limiting the number of sessions any one sponsor can hold) and new competition arrived in the form of the lottery and the casinos. The parish’s annual bingo proceeds have fallen from nearly a quarter of a million dollars to about a fifth of that amount since casino gambling opened across the river, according to Holy Name Pastor, Rev. Richard Quinn. He said some parishioners advocate abandoning bingo altogether while others continue to embrace what has become a tradition and a steady, if diminished, revenue stream.
While it is true the casinos have taken away many veteran bingo players, Betty Mittermeier said, so has natural attrition — as more old-time players than she can count have passed away over the years with few new players replacing them. It has gotten to the point, she said, that she and her old time bingo buddies joke with each other that “whoever goes first should save a table for us up there.” While there may or not be bingo in heaven, chances are that as long as bingo maniacs like Betty are still around, the game will continue attracting crowds wherever it is played. Long live bingo!