by Josh Duboff
The last time I played bingo, I was sitting cross-legged on my mom’s lap sipping on a Shirley Temple. Some 15 years later, I found myself in a crowd of similarly dressed, fidgety, disaffected New Yorkers. It was nearly midnight on a Friday night last month and we were packed, nearly a thousand of us, in front of the stage at Warsaw at the Polish National Home in Brooklyn. All eyes were on a woman whose hair and face were done up as if she was going as Amy Winehouse for Halloween. She sashayed across the stage, sporting a tummy-bearing sequined red top and small blue-and-white shorts, toward a man dressed more modestly in a white button-down and jeans. The woman, Luki “Danger” Goddi, whispered in the man’s ear, as the crowd-so silent you could hear an iPhone text message alert-watched. Finally our host, James Flames, spoke: “Ladies and gentlemen, the verdict is in. Is Diana here”-he motioned at a girl standing beside him, whose face has turned so pale you would think she was on stage with James Franco-”is Diana here the winner of this gigantic inflatable soccer ball?” There was a dramatic pause “No… no, ladies and gentlemen… she’s not!”
I hollered exuberantly along with everyone else in the crowd. Goddi and her partner-in-crime Anita Baker ushered poor Diana back into the audience. “LOSER!” flashed on the large screen above the stage as the Beck song of the same name blasted over the speakers. The dancing briefly commenced before Flames announced that the next number was about to be called. Diana’s bingo has been invalidated. We are all still in the game.
“People find it really difficult to find things to do if they’re under 30… you know, they’re sick of getting smashed and dancing and drinking. We’re looking to give people something different to do in New York,” Flames said afterward. “The way we do it, it’s… like going to an amazing theatrical event and a heavy metal concert and a massive rave and a house party of your friend-all at the same time.”
Over a year ago, Flames and his buddy Freddie Fortune, both from London, came across a bingo wheel in the basement of a defunct church where they used to throw parties. “We just started playing around with it,” Flames says. “We didn’t really know the rules-it was just kind of our own creation. There’s this adrenaline. There’s something very social about it-everyone doing this weird thing together, surprised to be enjoying it so much.” Flames and Fortune eventually decided to bring their love of the game to the masses. They took the idea to their friends Anita Baker and Goddi, who perform in London as a burlesque duo, who were immediately on board. The Underground Rebel Bingo Club was born.
Whether the appeal comes from its “so dorky it’s hip” quotient (in the same vein as knitting or thick-rimmed glasses) or from the mere fact that it offers an alternative to the typical New York night (starts with an overpriced dinner, moves to a bar with music so loud you can’t hear your friends, ends with pizza and Hulu), this rock and roll bingo has struck a chord. The Club has attracted an increasing number of followers over the past year-both on Facebook and Twitter, and in, you know, real life-at their events throughout Britain.
The Bingo Girls have even become pseudo-celebrities themselves. “You get people every now and then shouting ‘Bingo!’ at you from across the street,” Goddi says of her nascent fame. And now that they’ve conquered England, they’ve-as acts are want to do-set their sights on America. The July 9 Brooklyn show marked their U.S. debut, and they’re back in the city for a second go-round tonight.
The unlikely, flashily monikered foursome has generated enough buzz that they were able to sell out the Brooklyn event even with tickets at $15 apiece; their formula, as Goddi puts it, is “simple and effective.” The “club meeting” begins like any other hipster dance party (“OMG, I love this song,” a girl in a loose green top shouted when Sleigh Bells came on). There were a group of bros eating perogies, which can be purchased at a stand outside the main concert hall. Seven girls were drawing on each others’ backs in a chain (“That isn’t something we ever encouraged or that occurred to us,” Flames said. “People get playful”). There were a group of curly-haired kids-who look like they should be cast as friends with Michael Cera in a teen comedy-muttering to each other and holding their Bingo cards as if they were beers.
But everything comes to a complete halt when the main event begins. Flames lords over the proceedings with an appealing mix of affability, fury and verve. The prizes are amped-up versions of things you’d win at a carnival-a small BBQ, an inflatable piano-but they somehow seem extremely desirable in the moment.
Baker and Goddi read out the numbers pulled from the bingo wheel, all of which they’ve paired with crude rhymes that the girls write themselves. “I have never heard the word â€˜pussy’ yelled into a microphone so much in one night,” a 23-year-old attendee Olga said. The crowd follows along studiously, crossing off the numbers with the communal markers, when they aren’t being used to tag each other with vulgarities. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of all of this-it struck me as everyone oohed and ahhed at the giant inflatable soccer ball Flames held in the air to the thumping DJ beats-was how the crowd, so accustomed to scowling on the subway and avoiding eye contact on the sidewalk, were, well, smiling. This is bingo, after all.
“Sometimes people are so cool-they think, â€˜I’m gonna hang back here by the wall.’ You see them a few hours later and they’re drunk out of their minds, screaming to get the prize,” Flames said. Jen Lyon, co-owner of MeanRed Productions, which helped organize the event, compared it to a similar nerd-cultish phenomenon: “People were really excited to go to something different. Just to be a part of the show almost. It reminded me of ‘Rocky Horror’ back in the day.”
After tonight, Flames is mulling embarking on a tour of the west coast. “Las Vegas could be cool,” he said.
Goddi, though, is thinking on an even grander scale. I asked what her least favorite part of her Bingo Girl job is. “That we are not yet at the stage where my entrance is from a giant bingo ball which has just emerged from fiery water at a massive show in Vegas,” she said. “But we will be soon, so it’s fine.”