The third bingo game of the night was well underway when Joan Crawford, the mistress of ceremonies, announced one of the evening’s door prize winners. A tiny, white-haired woman also named Joan got up from her seat and shuffled to the front of the bingo hall, grinning. She celebrated the win by motorboating her fellow Joan, whose cleavage was prominently displayed in a hot-pink ball gown.
Hosted monthly by the Connecticut Gay Men’s Chorus at the Annex Club in East Haven to fundraise for their semiannual shows, Bingomania! is an evening of racy jokes, skits, singing, and intense competition. Joe Evangelista, the chorus member who plays Joan Crawford, calls it Gay Bingo. Its devotees — an eclectic mix of soccer moms, gay and straight couples, middle-aged friends, young hipsters, life-long bingo aficionados, and bachelorette partiers — come to test their luck, laugh at the PG-13 jokes, and admire Joan’s latest outfit, designed by chorus member Joe O’Brien to fit the month’s theme: “Hot For Teacher” in September, “Zombie Dearest” in October, “Baste Your Butterballs” in November, “Pop Your Cork” in December, and “I Have A Heart on For You” in February, when I attended.
Joan’s outfits change, but her wig remains the same. And so does the edgy but friendly vibe of the event, best embodied by Joan Crawford herself. When a door prize went to a blushing man who said he was with his female fiancée, Crawford exclaimed, “You’re all shades of red! Is that ’cause of me? Well, I have something to match your face!” and presented the man with a cherry-red gift basket.
When the chorus started hosting bingo eight years ago in the basement of a Unitarian church that lacked air conditioning and prohibited alcohol, Evangelista thought he would be Joan for one night only. But people loved the character, and she has been a Bingomania! staple ever since.
Evangelista, 48, grew up in a devout Catholic family in Ossening, N.Y., where he participated in music and theater. But when he was 11, his family moved to Monroe, N.Y., which was farther from the city and more conservative. Evangelista thought singing or dancing would draw attention to his sexuality and worsen the bullying he already received in Monroe, so he stopped performing until he joined the Gay Men’s Chorus 12 years ago.
When he came out to his parents at 26, his mother first asked if he was sure it wasn’t a phase, and then whether he’d been to see a priest. His family accepted his coming out, but the experience caused him to empathize with young gay people who feel they have to hide their sexual orientation. Behind the silliness of Bingomania! is a serious mission: reaching out to people who might be more inclined to participate in bingo than attend a gay chorus show. “No matter how accepting people think they are, there are still people out there who just have not experienced [being around gay people] yet, so they can’t share that same tolerance,” Evangelista said. “Through things like bingo we slowly start to enlighten people.”
On my way into the Annex Club at 6:15 on a rainy Sunday evening, I passed a straight couple smoking cigarettes in the parking lot. The woman was disgruntled because they had arrived later than she wanted. When doors open at six, attendees receive numbered cards marking the order in which they’ll pay the $20 entrance fee and select a spot at a bingo table. Arriving early is crucial because the hall sometimes fills up long before the show starts at seven.
When I arrived, attendance was down because the game had been postponed from the night before, so I was lucky to be 120th in line. But the man standing next to me who wore a shirt that said, “Do I look like a fucking people person?” scowled at the chorus manager when she told us to wait our turn.
Bingomania! attendees come prepared for a long evening. As the hall filled up, pizzas, boxes of Dunkin’ Donuts, bags of baby carrots and potato chips, platters of sub sandwiches, containers of hummus, trays of baked ziti, and Tupperware full of cheese cubes piled up on the tables. The bartenders sold beer and wine, which the three women sitting next to me agreed was extraordinarily strong. They’d taken the night off from caring for their fourth-graders in Seymour, Conn. and were exchanging stories about their kids. One woman, Jacque, had been to Bingomania! before, but the other two, like me, were virgins — first-time players.
The game begins when Joan makes a dramatic entrance from the back of the hall, waving and blowing kisses to the crowd as they twirl their bingo daubers in the air.
“Just wait ‘til you see his legs!” Jacque whispered to her friends.
After taking the stage, Joan calls out the numbers and interrupts game play to tell jokes.
“Sometimes the best way I can figure out what you’d sound like in bed is to listen to how you sound when you lose at bingo!”
Jacque assures me that this is a tame night. Usually, the jokes are bawdier and every seat in the hall is occupied.
Evangelista tells me that the only negative reaction he’s ever received about Gay Bingo concerned his jokes. In the early days of Bingomania!, the chorus advertised their event at the Annex Club’s weekly bingo, which caters to a crowd that plays to win. They thought Joan Crawford was too distracting.
“One woman wrote on our feedback form, ‘Joan Crawford just impedes the progress of the game,’” Evangelista said.
That no one has criticized the fact that Evangelista dresses as Joan is a sign that Gay Bingo is already on the right side of history. Darren Sutphin of New Haven, attending his fourth Bingomania!, said he sees the event’s popularity as a powerful symbol of progress. When he graduated from high school in 1980, “gay was a bad word.” He served in the military from 1983 to 1987 and knew fellow soldiers who were dishonorably discharged after being diagnosed with AIDS.
“Everybody hated gays,” Sutphin said. “They didn’t want to be around fags. And now everybody comes to bingo.”
During intermission, I walked among the hall’s crowded tables. Sutphin was right. Young, old, white, black, gay, straight, wearing sweatshirts or skimpy Cupid costumes, everyone was there. Chorus members in red sequined vests chatted with greying, tuxedoed bartenders. The man who did not “look like a fucking people person” was sitting with a large group and eating a cookie, and he looked content. Near the stage, Joan and Joan posed for a photo together. One stood nearly six feet tall in high heels while the other, in white sneakers, came up to her chest. They were both beaming.