All-in-good-fun games of bingo keep the church lights on, subsidize school field trips, buy equipment for volunteer fire departments and make countless other charitable efforts possible.
Add the fact that 43 percent of people in Wisconsin say they are of German heritage, and at least 25 percent consider themselves Catholic. We know “polka” and “mass” are not necessarily mutually exclusive activities.
If you are proud or at least amused by these observations, a new and interactive dinner theater might be just the ticket during your next trip to Chicago. “We Gotta Bingo,” a Chicago Theater Works production, is similar in spirit to the wacky “Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding” that opened in 1988 in New York’s Greenwich Village and still plays nationwide today.
What’s the difference? This setting is Der Brew-Ha-Ha, a German beer hall where fate has rivaling Irish and Italian Catholic churches working together in a bingo fundraiser whose proceeds will enable them to merge into one congregation. Expect more than a little over-the-top tension while this scenario unfolds.
As the place fills with around 150 guests, the first challenge is to separate the cast of 14 from staff and ticketholders. The crowd is friendly and seated with strangers at circular tables. The polka music is lively, dancing is encouraged and cornball antics are high in energy.
When audience members are nudged to participate, they can do so without fear of ridicule, a relief for introverts in attendance. Interactions sometimes border on cornball, predictable or risque but are nevertheless endearing.
You’ll buy your own beer, but a ticket includes bingo play and chow: a straightforward combo of bruschetta, salad, lasagne and garlic bread from Giordano’s (just down the street). Somebody at your table fetches the meal, which is served family style. The final course is a little assortment of bars that arrive in Tupperware – nice touch.
“We Gotta Bingo” has an open-ended run at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 5 p.m. Sundays at Chicago Theater Works, 1113 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago. Major holidays are excluded. Shows last slightly more than two hours and tickets start at $49, which includes the show, meal and bingo cards. Groups of 10 or more pay less. Use the code “HELMUT” for discounts on tickets on shows through Nov. 1.
If staying in the Chicago Loop, take the red or brown line of the “L” rail system to Belmont, then walk three blocks west. wegottabingo.com, 312-391-0404
Bingo was an educational game for children in Germany long before it was introduced in the United States as a carnival amusement in the 1920s. The mix of numbers, luck and alertness was known as “beano” before “bingo” because beans were used to mark cards during play. Historians say the game’s concept has roots in Italy and dates back to the 1500s.
Now casinos offer bingo games from morning through night, bingo is big business online and “rebel bingo” – which blends the game into a rave atmosphere – engages young adults. Bigger operations in Wisconsin include the 1,300-seat bingo hall at Potawatomi Bingo and Casino, Milwaukee, and 850 seats at Oneida Bingo and Casino, Green Bay.
The state also grants annually a license to 450 bingo organizations for charitable gaming. “Many Catholic parishes have become dependent on gambling revenue from bingo and raffle tickets in light of dwindling numbers of parishioners and lower overall giving,” writes Beth Haile for U.S. Catholic magazine.
Bingo regulations are specific and detailed in Wisconsin: Nobody can play for free, for example, and players cannot be given a free number during a game. A bingo card can only be printed on one side, and the maximum charge is $1 per game.
No donations of any kind can be solicited during bingo events. At least two people who have paid to play must see and verify that all 75 bingo numbers are represented (and not duplicated) before games begin. The rules go on and on, and the game is popular not just here but throughout the world.
“One day a week the entire country of Sweden comes to a stop while a national bingo game is played via TV,” asserts BingoBugle.com, which pays attention to small fundraisers for charity to mega halls with high stakes. “Tiny villages in Central American rainforests boast nightly bingo games.”
The online publication organizes an annual bingo tournament and gaming cruise. The Nov. 7-15 event this year entices with at least $100,000 in cash and prizes. The ship will head to the eastern Caribbean – St. Maarten, Antigua, St. Thomas and Nassau.
Rates start at $1,625, based on double occupancy and do not include transportation to the Miami departure point. For details, call 888-352-2464 on weekdays or consult bingobugle.com/cruise.
Also noteworthy on the Chicago theater scene is the re-emergence of The Second City’s improvisational comedy shows, temporarily suspended or moved because of destruction by fire in August. Inside the Piper’s Alley complex, which has reopened, are Mainstage, e.t.c. Stage and UP Comedy Club shows. Training Center classes for kids to senior citizens go beyond teaching professional comic techniques and timing: Some sessions are geared to help ease anxiety or just have fun.
The Second City is at 1616 N. Wells St., Chicago. Ticket prices depend on date and type of show. secondcity.com, 312-337-3992