“Twelve … 61 … the number 3 …”
Dozens of men and women sitting at rows of long tables hunkered over their cards and sheets, listening intently as a woman called out number after number on the public-address system.
“Twenty-one … the number 6 … 51 …”
Silence hung over the pavilion at the Napa Valley Expo, as the players daubed number after number on their cards with wide-tipped, colored marking pens. Beside many of the cards and pens were an Afro-topped bobblehead, a yellow Minion stuffed toy, and other tchotchkes that may have been either prizes or good-luck charms.
Suspended atop the glass partition bisecting the hall, a large flashboard labeled from 1 to 75 slowly lit up number by number. Off to one side of the pavilion, an air-driven hopper lofted numbered balls up a chute for the announcer to read out.
At last, a woman’s right arm shot up. “Bingo!” she called out, breaking the silence.
The scene has played out in numerous California cities for more than four decades: guests hunkering down for an evening’s worth of bingo games, with the proceeds helping to bolster high school choirs, youth sports teams and various charitable causes.
Locally, the heart of the action is the Napa Bingo Emporium, which opened in 1992 on the Expo fairground on downtown Third Street. On weekends, the doors open in the late afternoon, two hours before each slate of 18 games. The buy-ins of $22 to $40 support the nonprofits operating each nightly game – Napa United Soccer on Fridays, the Napa High School band booster club on Saturdays and the Vintage High music and choir boosters on Sundays.
The games can pay out $250 or more to the winner, but for some of those hunkering down for three or more hours at a time, they also serve as a welcome refuge and relaxation.
“When I’m here, it’s easy to forget about what’s going on outside,” said Peggy Acosta of Fairfield at the Expo’s Sunday bingo session. “You concentrate on the numbers and it helps you forget all the stuff you’re dealing with.”
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“It’s to get away from my house, from my dogs, my cats, my kid,” quipped Acosta’s friend Judy Fisher, who had traveled from her Vacaville home to play alongside her in Napa.
About 100 people lined the rows of long tables at the Expo’s bingo hall, but organizers of the Sunday games say the facility could comfortably hold twice that many players. Those numbers point to the image problem the game’s supporters fight to overcome, according to organizers of the Sunday program benefiting Vintage music programs.
“The biggest challenge we have is that bingo’s had a stigma of being for grandmas,” said co-director Dan D’Angelo. “… It’s often depicted as little old ladies with their tiddlywinks and lucky charms spread on the table.”
D’Angelo’s fellow director Tracee Walston got her start in the game in her early 20s, when local bingo games took place at Napa’s old Ridgeview hall at the present-day Harvest Middle School campus. When the game moved to the Expo in the 1990s, bingo’s popularity created enough business for 10 sessions across all seven days of the week, including three on Saturdays and two on Sundays.
“There was much less competition back then from Indian casinos and other bingo halls,” she said, referring to competing venues in Vallejo, Vacaville and Suisun City. “And back then, a lot of the players were from when bingo was legalized in California (through a 1976 ballot measure). Most of them have passed on.”
The Expo’s bingo schedule has receded over the past 15 years, shrinking to three nights a week after Napa Youth Sports ended its Monday program in July, according to the fairground’s CEO Joe Anderson. (The Expo collects a flat rental fee of $425 per weekly session from each of the three remaining bingo sponsors.)
“I hate to see any game close, but I’m hopeful another nonprofit will want to start a game,” said Walston after the Sunday night slate. “Most of our players, they play all three nights and I’ve found them to be supportive of all that we do here.”
For Vintage students, bingo remains indispensable for musicians and choir members – paying for instruments, sheet music, traveling costs and most necessities apart from instructors – and the bingo program’s directors hope to use that fact to appeal to new generations of players.
“We want people to look at bingo as helping a nonprofit while you’re having fun,” said Walston. “There are no nonprofit casinos, yet we’re nonprofits and it’s more appealing that way for the people who do play.”
Whether bingo ever recaptures its former popularity in Napa, D’Angelo held out hope that a new organizer can help keep the game, and its fundraising, vital for all involved.
“We’d welcome another group with open arms and help them be successful,” he said. “We try to support each other, because we depend on each other to spread the word.”
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