The lure of bingo still strong in Baltimore County

Joe Antoszewski, chair of the Arbutus Volunteer Fire Department's Bingo Committee, talks about the popular bingo nights at the fire hall.

The sound of bingo balls richocheting in an air-controlled hopper fills the large hall of the Arbutus Volunteer Fire Department.

The only interruption is the voice of Ron Meyer every few seconds, announcing letters and numbers, as he has for more than 20 years.


It's the same whether there are 62 people there, as there were on a recent Monday, or more than double that on a typical Saturday.

Meyer, 59, has control of the room. But at the same time, he's in control of absolutely nothing.


It's so quiet, he said, because the players are concentrating, marking the called number with a dauber, a bottled stamper, on as many as 30 cards at a time, hoping the number called completes a game-winning pattern, letting them shout "Bingo!"

And while money's on the line for each of the 25 or so games played over the course of the three-and-a-half hour night — the largest pot is $500 — those with money on the line are calm.

Bingo — a centuries-old game — has been a popular, affordable pastime for generations at fire halls, churches and clubs.

A 15 card package costs $10, a $18 card package is $12 and a 21 cards are $13, which includes the early bird games, regular games and a complimentary game. A six card package for four special games costs $5.


The fire department hosts bingo Monday, Thursday and Saturday nights.

"It's relaxing," said Mary McGregor, a regular player from Catonsville. "It keeps your mind, you know, working properly."

"They talk about seniors and the way they get dementia," she continued. "If you're working with numbers and talking to different people, it helps a whole lot."

In a 2011 study, researchers from the psychology departments at Boston University, Bridgewater State University and Case Western University noted that larger bingo cards with high contrast help with loss of visual perception for those with Alzheimer's disease, as well as mental engagement.

But while it's quiet, it's also a social experience. Some, particularly older people and those on their own, come for the socialization as much as the game.

"It's almost like a club," Meyer said. "Everybody knows each other and it's a family kind of atmosphere."

For some, it's truly a family affair. Take the Meyers, for instance. Ron, 59, is the assistant manager of the Arbutus games. His father, Al, has been the manager for the last 21 years and involved with bingo for 48, while his son, 35-year-old Tim, is a clerk.

Sandy McCubbin wore her "I Love Arbutus Bingo" T-shirt, which displays six lucky numbers. The numbers she chose — 46, 51, 69, 70, 71 and 72, represent the birth years of her late husband, herself and her four children.

On some nights, as many as 30 of her family members could be found at the fire hall to play. On this night, there were six. While she arrived at 6:45 for the 7:15 start, her daughter arrived at 4 p.m. to reserve seats.

McCubbin has been playing since she was 15.

"Everybody knows where we sit, we've been coming for so many years," she said. "I don't like doing nothing else."

An early arrival to save a certain seat is one of many superstitions players have, set in their ways, with the hopes of being victorious.

Joe Antoszewski, the chair of the fire department's bingo committee for 35 years, remembers the uproar that occurred 20 years ago when the parking lot was re-striped.

"We changed the parking configuration and you thought we'd killed half the people," he said. "Their parking spot wasn't there."

Regulars have been known to make it a point of playing at all costs. One player, who has since died, ordered an ambulance driver to drop her off at bingo when she was taken home from the hospital for cancer treatment. They did, and someone took her home after.

Another insisted on playing even while having a cardiac event. While he was getting his vital information taken and his blood pressure measured by paramedics, he insisted on not missing a number.

"They were like, 'Can you give me your arm?'" Ron Meyer said. "He said 'no, I only need one more number, wait a minute.'"

"He was still dabbing numbers," Al Meyer added. "He wouldn't stop dabbing."

Karen Brunelle and Rosemary Desmond, of Arbutus, have attended Monday night bingo at the fire hall regularly for 15 years. For them, it's girls night.

Bingo is their entertainment of choice, as Desmond doesn't like crowds and they say they're not bar people.

They like the smaller crowds on Mondays, believing they have a better shot at winning.

When one of them does win, they split the prize. That's the longtime agreement they've had. The most they've won — and split — is $1,100.

"Whatever we win, we split with each other," Brunelle said. "We think we have a better chance that way."

"You've got to be willing, though," Desmond added. "If you win $500, you're only getting $250. But we've always split."

Bingo is regulated by the Maryland state code and permits are administered by Baltimore County. The state mandates bingo can only be hosted to benefit charitable organizations, such as fire companies, veterans' organizations, religious groups or the Maryland State Fair and Agricultural Society.

In the county, a maximum of $2,800 and a $200 bonus can be given out at the games on weekdays and a total of $4,000 on Saturdays. Bingo is prohibited on Sundays.

There is no age limit for bingo, although some groups set a minimum, and alcohol is not allowed, per county regulations.

Revenue the county receives is from permit fees, according to Donald Brand, chief code administrator for the county's Department of Permits, Approvals and Inspections. Permits cost $525 for an annual license, $190 for a temporary license that allows bingo to be played 10 days of the year, and $80 for a one-time permit.

This year, 128 permits have been given out, as of Sept. 14, according to Traci Davis, processing supervisor for the county's miscellaneous permits and licenses division. Last year, 142 were given out, while 148 were in 2014 and 143 were in 2013.

In Catonsville, Bingo at Our Lady of Victory school has been a tradition for more than 50 years, according to organizer Lindsay Bobian. Crowds can range from 60 to 150 on a given Friday night, depending on the jackpot.

Regulars range in age from 6-year-olds to those in their mid-90s, she said.

Between bingo boards and instant tickets — mini-games sold within the bingo game that can result in large jackpots for winners — between $500 and $2,500 can be raised in a given night, she said. The money raised goes into the school's operating budget and helps lower student tuition.

And can bingo thrive at a restaurant? At McDonald's on Frederick Road in Catonsville, it can. The fast-food spot hosts free bingo from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. on the first and third Tuesdays of the month.

Between 10 and 30 people play on a given day for prizes that include free meals, coffee mugs, chocolates and assorted gifts.

"That's our bingo rush," said manager Nikia Lewis, adding the restaurant makes sure there's enough staff on hand to support the games and the usual operations. "We plan for it."


Lewis said it's a tradition for McDonald's to offer bingo, but it's the decision of the owner or operator as to whether to offer it.


"It's something that McDonald's traditionally does," Lewis said.

In southwest Baltimore County, the bingo tradition has survived changes. At the Arbutus Volunteer Fire Department, organizers thought banning smoking would be a problem, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise, Al Meyer said.

Even with casinos north and south of Arbutus, the fire department continues to raise about $100,000 a year toward its $450,000 operating budget and capital costs.

Technology has enhanced the game, as well. Ron Meyer remembers the days when he had to call out numbers repeatedly. Now, once he announces the ball, he places it in a grid, which lights up a number on three flash boards on the wall throughout the room. If people can't hear the number, they can look up at one of six 55-inch monitors.

When someone calls bingo, instead of inspecting the cards, a clerk yells the card number, Ron Meyer types it into a computer, which validates winning cards.

But one thing has stayed the same — the 75 numbers on a grid.

"You can't buy a night's entertainment anywhere for $30," Ron Meyer said. "And here, you can't get into too much trouble."

Bingo's roots

It's believed that bingo dates to 1530 in Italy, when the government ran a lottery game, "Il Giuoco del Lotto d"Italia."

The trend spread through Europe in the 1700s, before making its way to the United States in the 1920s.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun