It's Saturday night, and there's a guy pacing the stage like a circus lion eyeing his captors. He has barely started his monologue and he's already sweaty. He's explaining the rules, such as they are. "And losers ... " he screams into the microphone " ... will continue to be losers for the rest of their shit lives!" The frenzied crowd shrieks in ecstasy.
They might be here for a postapocalyptic kangaroo court or a medieval execution -- or even a Pentecostal tent revival. But bingo?
Indeed, bingo. Make that Underground Rebel Bingo: a surrealistic version of the game for the hip and hedonistic, held in a Hollywood club and initially promoted as by-invitation-only. There is smoking, and drinking, and shrieking. There are buxom burlesque performers. And yes, there are bingo tickets, and someone calls out G-46, but they rhyme the callout with "dicks" or "pricks" -- this is bingo as they might have played it in the Moulin Rouge while fucked up on absinthe and opium.
The game is the brainchild of one Freddie Fortune, although it's unclear whether Fortune is his real name (he has given the supposedly false surname Sorensen to at least two other publications). There's a lot about Fortune, in fact, that isn't clear -- even after exhaustive research. When we tried to schedule an interview with him, he canceled on us, ignored us and changed our meeting times and locations at the last minute before finally talking, and even then not saying much.
What we do know: Fortune is a soft-spoken Brit with close-cropped hair. He's likely about 28, give or take. He likes black coffee and Marlboro Lights. And that's about it.
In hushed tones, with an accent that betrays upper-middle-class south of London (although it's possible he's faking, as his stage accent sounds lower-class northeast London, oddly enough), he gives his spiel: "We were drinking a bit and messing around in this church basement back in London and we found this old bingo kit. One thing led to another."
Everything else he wants to share is a political screed, pitting the villainous bingo establishment against his heroic bingo partisans.
In Fortune's telling, there's the bingo 99 percent and the bingo 1 percent, and this rigid order is kept in place by a boring old guard that's intent on stopping the lively young upstarts represented by Fortune's ilk who want bingo to be fun, freaky and flirtatious.
"We do have pretty hard and fast rules ... as every rebel should," he says.
No. 1 is "no old people" -- followed by "no boring people."
Fortune may be unhinged, if not bat-shit loony, but he seriously loves L.A. He's held Rebel Bingo nights in 25 cities across the globe, including Madrid and Toronto, but suggests that he may settle his gadfly games into a more permanent home. "I love this city. It's perfectly trashy," he says. "And there are a lot of bingo traditionalists here. This is, in some ways, the belly of the traditionalist beast."
Indeed, those traditional bingo outlets throughout L.A. -- Catholic churches, Jewish rec centers and American Legion halls -- are staid affairs, attended mostly by placid, elderly folks.
(Asked about Rebel Bingo, one 74-year-old player at All Souls Catholic Church in Alhambra, who will give her name only as Terry, says, "You've got to mark your card. Pay attention! They called one of your numbers." Of Fortune's enterprise, she says, "I don't know what you're talking about. Sounds communist.")
Rebel Bingo is held irregularly at Hollywood's Dragonfly under the ruse "Story Club," or something similarly hush-hush. The whole scene looks like something out of Ziggy Stardust's basement hootenanny. The under-30 set is dressed in glitter, gloss, rave wear and standard-issue hipster duds. Most have temporarily tattooed each other with their markers.
Some dude has duct tape covering his nipples. "I've been waiting for someone to rip it off," dude winks. He's also wearing a codpiece.
Fortune and his cohorts hand out bingo cards and markers. Fortune -- Tony Robbins meets Tony Blair -- is onstage working up the crowd: "Oooh, No. 7! A lucky number for stupid people!" Two burlesque ladies Fortune hired for tonight only, Frankie Sin and Natasha Marcellina, draw numbers with rhymes and naughty aphorisms.
Winners get pool floats, panda suits and a really rad faux-old-school iPod boom box. Losers who approach the stage with incorrect numbers are mercilessly scorned: Beck's "Loser" blasts over the sound system as a ravenous crowd calls for blood.
This version of Pinocchio's Pleasure Island comes to a close with a DJ and dancing. Pairs of 20-somethings aggressively make out in all corners. There are lots of drunken asses, but no one has yet turned into a donkey.
Maria, 24, who lives in Hermosa Beach, has been dubbed "the unicorn master" for her skill with a marker. She says, "Our co-workers come all the time, even though we think the idea is pretentious. It's very Silver Lake ... like, who are they rebelling against?"
The insight hasn't stopped her from dropping $20 to be here.
But even if this is, in fact, a grand gimmick and Fortune is full of shit, he's having fun. Everyone's having a blast, actually.
Fortune has snuck out back for a smoke. "It's a cheap way to have a silly night out with your friends," he says between puffs. Right? "And this is how I get out all of my rage," he admits, exhausted and looking worse for the wear.
In a follow-up email after a sojourn in London, he says, "Look, we've dropped the 'Underground' from our name. We're not going to hide from the bingo traditionalists anymore -- we're coming out of the shadows -- standing up for what we believe in."
Rebel Bingo returns to Los Angeles in October to stick it to those very traditionalists.
Our new friend Terry was unavailable for comment.