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Friday, July 08, 2005

Bingo Mania
Despite decline, number daubers continue to play the game at Longmont venue

By Valerie Singleton
The Daily Times-Call


Joe and Shirley Fowler of Thornton mark their cards while playing bingo at the Longmont Bingo Alley on June 30.
Times-Call/Joshua Buck

LONGMONT — The glue stick is open, and the daubers are in starting position.

On the table: $24 worth of bingo cards, all split between husband-and-wife team Joe and Shirley Fowler, a Thornton couple who have called this bingo alley home away from home for two months.

“We like it because it’s not smoky,” Joe Fowler says of Longmont Bingo Alley. Shirley Fowler, an asthma sufferer, nods in agreement.

By all appearances, the Fowlers are methodically plotting a game plan. Joe has glued the edges of several yellow bingo cards together. Shirley, meanwhile, looks over a sheet of paper outlining the different games and bingo patterns on tonight’s agenda.

In reality, the mood in Longmont Bingo Alley is much less tense than it appears. Tonight’s crowd of 140 is simply preparing and waiting for announcer Shelley Besaw to begin calling out letters and numbers.

Tonight’s $10,196 jackpot — accumulated over time — ranks second to the week’s other big prize: a $26,100 jackpot.

On June 26, after 270 people packed in for a chance to win the money, one lucky Tri-Town woman matched the right numbers and walked away with the $26,100.

Some of them have returned tonight. Among the evening’s guests: Frank, a longtime player who once won a $7,000 jackpot here; Mary Lou Nuoci, the life of the party; Carson Bright, a Loveland man who prefers the trek to this Longmont bingo hall to a Loveland one; and Irene Pineda, an 8-year-old girl who has been attending these bingo nights since she was in her mother’s womb.

Behind the cards

Longmont Bingo Alley’s mission is two-fold, according to owners Max and Cindy Martinez.

For nearly 14 years, the Martinezes have aimed to please patrons with an evening of low-maintenance, inexpensive entertainment.

The player with his or her eye only on the prize may not realize the second goal: supporting local nonprofit organizations.

“Nonprofits are able to keep their businesses going,” Max Martinez says. “This is a very profitable thing for them.”

Seven local nonprofit organizations currently rent out Longmont Bingo Alley for games: Longmont High School Music Boosters; Longmont Academy; Longmont Humane Society; St. Vrain Youth Soccer Association; Longmont VFW and Auxiliary; Skyline High School Music Boosters; and Lyons Middle/Senior High School’s Lions Booster Club.

Bingo nights have proven to be a successful fundraising tool for the Longmont Humane Society, which has been participating in Longmont Bingo Alley sessions for more than a decade, according to Bob Olsen, a local, licensed bingo manager who helps oversee some of the games.

“When they first got involved in it, it was because it was so lucrative, and for a number of years ... it was the largest single fundraiser for the (Longmont) Humane Society,” Olsen says.

As of May, the organization had grossed $27,000 from the bingo sessions for its fiscal year, according to Longmont Humane Society executive director Linda Tyler.

The sessions remain the largest single fundraising effort for the Longmont High School Music Boosters, which uses the proceeds to purchase equipment and fund projects and trips for the school’s band, choir, orchestra, drum line and color guard, according to boosters President Janeil Walter.

“We have 150 sessions a year ... $275 to $300 a session is what we give back to the group,” Walter says. “It’s a huge fundraiser.”

The Longmont High School Music Boosters does not hold progressive bingo games, sessions at which monetary prizes increase when no one claims a win.

That’s what led up to the June 26 Bingo Alley game, at which the Lions Booster Club wrote one lucky woman a hefty check.

By the same token, state law requires each organization to pay its dues to participate. A nonprofit group must first be in existence for at least five years before being approved to hold games.

Longmont Bingo Alley’s seven member organizations each pay $350 in rent per bingo session as well as an annual $62 bingo licensing fee.

Additionally, state law requires that the entity hosting bingo games have at least $1,500 in prizes at hand during each session. State law also requires that a progressive bingo game — and consequently, its increasing jackpot — cannot continue past 30 successive bingo sessions. At that point, bingo managers must find a winner.

It’s a heavily regulated process, one that would not be possible without each organization’s volunteers, Olsen says.

Rae Buchanan has spent several years volunteering her evenings for the Longmont Humane Society’s bingo nights.

She helps sell bingo packets — six bingo cards — and “pickles,” which are bingo tickets with pull tabs revealing rows of images not unlike those on electronic slot machines. She does her best to accommodate bingo patrons. But some requests can’t be satisfied.

“I always hear, ‘Give me the good (card),’” Buchanan says.

A steady decline

The last few years haven’t been too kind to Colorado’s commercial bingo halls.

“When we had 170 people, it was a slow night when we first started,” Max Martinez says. “Today, if we have 100, it’s a good day.”

That trend has extended across the nation, according to industry insiders.

In Colorado, the amount of bingo sessions dropped roughly 14 percent from 1996 to 2002, according to a 2003 study by the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office.

Additionally, bingo participation decreased by about 16 percent from 2002 to 2004, according to a 2004 report by the office.

Since that report was released, the success of Colorado’s bingo halls has continued to steadily decline, according to Mike Shea, director of licensing with the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office.

“He said in the last three or four months, halls here in the Denver area have gone out of business,” says office spokeswoman Dana Williams.

Shea identifies the following reasons for the trend: competition from casinos in Black Hawk and Central City; smoking bans enforced in many municipalities; the loss of the game’s traditionally elderly participants; and the inability of some organizations to attract volunteers to work the games.

Olsen adds Internet gambling and a poor economy to that list.

“I think all of those things combined have taken their toll on the bingo group,” Olsen says.

In Longmont, where smokers comprised a significant portion of Longmont Bingo Alley’s clientele, a January 2004 no-smoking ordinance threw the Martinezes a curve ball.

Before the ban, the owners designated a smaller, window-filled room a smoke-free zone. Within days of the ordinance’s enforcement, longtime smokers and Longmont Bingo Alley patrons vowed never to return should they be denied indoor-smoking rights.

They kept their promises.

As a result, faithful bingo players have felt the hit, Olsen says.

“Back in its heyday, all you had to do was show up and you could make $1,000 and $1,500 a day,” Olsen says. “Then I saw it go to the point where you could do anything you wanted and you couldn’t make any money.”

In fact, Williams says the average bingo-game payout — once in the $1,000 to $2,000 range — is now generally $100 to $200 per occasion.

“Overall, the decline is an unfortunate trend,” Williams says. “But the groups that are still operating seem to be still doing well, and they seem to still be doing the same kind of business.”

And as long as there is money to be won, the faithful will continue to keep commercial bingo halls alive, Max Martinez says.

Keeping bingo alive

“People have been coming here for a long, long time,” Max Martinez says. “They have their own special chairs.”

There’s the gals who play 36 cards at one time, even the folks who simultaneously juggle paper cards and electronic bingo portables. The generous share the cookies they routinely bring to the games.

Pauline Varela brings her troll dolls, multi-colored dauber tops inscribed with her lucky pairing, “B13,” and a dauber bottle with a picture of her grandchildren pasted to the front.

The regulars have become one big extended family, a figurative and literal statement for the Martinezes.

“I’ll tell you what — there’s been a few people who have met their spouses here,” Max Martinez says, referring in part to his daughter, Amy, who met and later married Longmont Bingo Alley patron Jared Follweiler.

The social dimension of the Martinezes’ bingo hall has been a great asset, a means for it to resist the industry’s downward shift.

As long as Longmont Bingo Alley stays in business, Mary Lou Nuoci will be there in her favorite chair, making new friends.

“This is our social life,” Nuoci says.

If you go

What: Bingo

When: 7 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, at 12:15 and 7 p.m. on Fridays, at 1, 6 and 9 p.m. on Saturdays and at 1 and 6 p.m. on Sundays

Where: Longmont Bingo Alley, 640 19th Ave., Longmont

More info: 303-776-0460

What: Bingo

When: 7 p.m. Thursdays

Where: The American Legion Auxiliary, 315 S. Bowen St., Longmont

More info: 303-776-2034