Once a month for the past 20 years, Rick Allison has started his night with the same affirmation: “Sit down, shut up and play bingo.”
He’s addressing the crowd at OUTrageous Bingo, a monthly game that offers community support, a safe space and fundraising for the LGBT community in Pittsburgh.
Last Saturday, he was talking to 500 people gathered at Rodef Shalom Congregation, as they prepared for an evening filled with nearly 20 bingo games, a drag king and queen performance and Allison’s tongue-in-cheek humor.
“People are comfortable. They feel safe, they don’t feel different,” Allison said of the game that he helped start in 1997 after a friend of his attended a similar event in Seattle and wanted to bring it to Pittsburgh. “We wanted it to be a social event where people could bring their families and the LGBT community could feel comfortable.”
The games routinely sell out within hours of tickets going on sale, and the event caters to a diverse population of players, from young adults to children to grandparents. “We have every spectrum of the LGBT community here,” Allison said.
The monthly bingo game is run entirely by volunteers and raises money for the Shepherd Wellness Community, an organization that helps people living with HIV/AIDS, and the PGH Equality Center, a community center for members of the LGBTQIA+ community.
“We’re promoting diversity and tolerance and acceptance for the whole community, and that, as a side effect of bingo, is wonderful,” said Scott Peterman, executive director of the Shepherd Wellness Community.
The organizers could not disclose how much money they raised each game, but directors from both organizations said the funds are considered one of their biggest sources of revenue.
Rodef Shalom heard of their struggle and extended an invitation to the group to host the event.
“It’s an embodiment of our values,” Carolyn Frischer, director of member engagement at Rodef Shalom, said of the event. “Like it says on our door, we are a house of worship for everyone, for all people. This event brings together so many people you wouldn’t imagine bringing together for such a good cause.”
Allison starts each night by asking how many “OUTrageous Bingo virgins” are in the crowd. About half the room usually raises their hands, but Allison said there is also a small contingent of people who have been coming for all 20 years of the program. He makes a point throughout the night to celebrate birthdays and commemorate the passing of loyal bingo players at each game, contributing to the sense of community.
Before the games begin, players raise their dotters in their right hand to pledge that they promise to have fun, won’t take the game too seriously and will remember that they are here to raise funds for the Shepherd Wellness Community and PGH Equality Center.
As the players race to fill their cards for both traditional and “special” bingo games, they also have a chance to win random cash prizes, outrageous products from “as seen on TV” and participate in a 50/50 raffle. At intermission, guests enjoy a drag king and queen show.
Janchenko helped lead a digital regrowth of OUTrageous Bingo about five years ago, bringing online ticket sales, a special Twitter game and increased presence on the Web and social media. As the game has grown in popularity, Janchenko said he has seen more straight allies of the LGBT community attending the event and the crowd continuing to get more diverse.
Ed Motznik, who has managed the finances for OUTrageous Bingo for 16 years, said the changes in the makeup of their players reflects how society has become more accepting as a whole, which is encouraging, he said, after years of Pittsburgh’s LGBT scene sticking to the shadows.
“Twenty years ago, there wasn’t a whole lot to do other than bars. This was an alternative,” Motznik said. “Ten years ago, or even five years ago, if someone showed up with a camera, people were freaked out. That’s all completely changed now.”
“It started off and really was extremely popular,” he continued. “There really was a need for something like it in the community.”
The group holds a few themed bingo nights throughout the year — one for Pittsburgh Pride week in the spring and one for Halloween — and often hosts toy and clothing drives in December for the holidays. They have also teamed up with Rodef Shalom in past years to host a Pride Shabbat and a drag performance for Purim and worked with the synagogue to craft a Passover meal. Bet Tikvah, a queer-centric independent minyan, has also met at Rodef Shalom since 1994.
At Rodef Shalom, the group feels “not just accepted, but included and involved,” Motznik said. “It was a place that wanted us when other people rejected us.”
At Saturday night’s game, a hush fell over the crowd each time Allison began calling numbers for a new game, interrupted only by cheers of excitement and despair when someone yelled “bingo” and the heckling each time Allison read the number “O 69.”
“Our logo is, it ain’t your grandma’s bingo,” Allison said. “You just don’t know what you’re going to see.” PJC
The next OUTrageous Bingo will be at Rodef Shalom Congregation on Feb. 17. For tickets, visit outrageousbingopgh.org. Tickets are $20 online, $22 at the door (if available).
Lauren Rosenblatt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.