“I just touched your boob.” When was the last time you heard a bingo caller say that at a bingo game? When was the last time you played bingo?
If you have recently, and you're not on social security, you were probably at Legendary Bingo at Hamburger Mary's in West Hollywood. The irreverent twist on the old-fashioned game, held four times a week (and once a month at the Magnolia Lounge in Pasadena), turns 15 this year — that's 30 in drag queen years.
To help celebrate, founder and producer Jeffery Bowman is hosting a three-day party, which kicks off at Magnolia Lounge April 8 and continues at the WeHo hotspot April 9 and 10 with bingo games, a champagne toast, drag and burlesque performances and celebrity guests, including the casts of ABC's Suburgatory, CBS' Golden Boy , Sheryl Lee Ralph from Smash and others.
The popular bingo nights have been attracting long lines of players outside the restaurant for nine years now. Bowman co-hosts with a rotating lineup of drag queen and transgender entertainers, nearly all of whom perform their own shows at the venue. They simultaneously call out the numbers while making lewd wisecracks like, “If you wanna play on Sandusky's team you must…B14. Don't worry. He's in jail.” Winners get gift bags donated by the night's charity, but not before they're ordered to run around the room while being pelted with crumpled up bingo cards.
Bowman has been presiding over the games since 1998. The Orange County native has previously worked as an events coordinator for AIDS Project Los Angeles and as a publicist for Hollywood Squares. (Bowman is also a playwright, having won an L.A. Weekly Theater Award for his Deep Throat-inspired Lovelace: The Musical). It was for AIDS Project Los Angeles that he created the first incarnation of the game at the Stonewall Gourmet Café in WeHo.
“It was just me standing at the counter with a little bingo wheel,” Bowman says. “The first night there was like ten people and I think I charged like a dollar a game.”
He moved to two other locations, including the now-defunct Du-Par's branch on Santa Monica Boulevard, before settling in at Hamburger Mary's. “Everything in there is arranged around bingo,” Bowman says. “That event started bringing people into the restaurant that wouldn't normally go there. I like to say egotistically that Hamburger Mary's is the restaurant that bingo made.”
His first celebrity ball caller was actress Jean Smart from Designing Women. “I remember watching the show and thinking, 'This is so cool,'” Bowman says. “This is like being in Jean Smart's living room. She sat up there eating a sandwich and she was just having so much fun. To be honest with you, I never wanted that to change. I still use the same type of bingo wheel. I've never gotten better equipment. It's now become a monster.”
And a raucous monster it is, even on relatively calm Wednesday nights. But Bowman isn't afraid to quiet down rawdy patrons, especially for charity's sake. “It's hard when there's women sitting at the bar and they're trying to be louder than me,” Bowman says. “There have been nights where I've stopped and said, 'Hey, Shut Up! We're raising money for charity.' We're not party clowns. That's not us. We will kill you.”
Up next: when Anna Nicole Smith showed up
In 15 years, Bowman estimates that he's raised nearly $4 million for various non-profits. He's also amassed an impressive list of celebs who've copped a few balls, a mix of old and young film and sitcom stars from Tippi Hedren to Ed Asner to Jane Lynch. Then, there are regulars like Lily Tomlin, Rachel McAdams and Jennifer Love Hewitt who like to come in just to play. A few weeks back, Molly Shannon even reincarnated her “Sally O'Malley” character from Saturday Night Live.
Bowman's most memorable guest? Anna Nicole Smith, who appeared at the restaurant twice in 2006, the year before she died.
“When she showed up she was pretty sober,” Bowman recalls of Smith's first visit. “But as the night went on she got worse and worse. I remember sitting in the booth next to her and I couldn't understand what she was saying because her lips weren't really moving. She wound up making out with one of the female bartenders, taking her home, handcuffing her to the bed and giving her hickies. The next day, she [the bartender] tells people at the bar and somebody sold it to The National Enquirer.”
For her second visit, Bowman tried setting up a gag with the reality star. “She comes walking in, she's wasted and she grabs the mic from me. To this day I say, 'I will give anyone a million dollars if you could tell me one word that came out of her mouth.'”