A million Canadians gambled on Bingo in 1945. In Toronto there have been 12,660 at a single sitting
Editor's Note: This description of the world’s biggest Bingo game was on its way to publication when several provinces announced, late in December, that Bingo was outlawed except under one specific condition—where the province believed it served a charitable purpose and granted a permit. A few days after the announcement an Ontario permit was obtained for another of the Biggest Bingos.
THAT fine old nocturnal pastime of snuggling in the parlor has been forced to yield its position as Canada’s foremost indoor sport. The new champion is a five-letter word meaning Bingo. Of course parlor rugby hasn’t lost its supporters in any of the nine provinces, but Bingo has replaced it at the top of the Sit Parade.
In 1945 it was estimated that a million Canadians played Bingo, more than 100,000 paying their rent in
Toronto—the Bingo capital of Canada and one of the world’s hotbeds. Bingo promoters in Toronto claim they’ve paid out more than $1 million a year in merchandise vouchers, and that the annual return ran close to $3 millions.
Toronto had more than 100 Bingos a week, and in Maple Leaf Gardens alone more than 250,000 people have patronized this form of gambling in the last five years, with a gross take of something like $270,000. Since Bingo was played in the Gardens only 13 nights a year, and each session lasted only about two hours, it requires only a three-year course in permutations and combinations to reveal that the gross take works out to about $2,076 an hour.
Two men who have been running Bingo in the Gardens for five years, and have had their fingers reasonably close to the national pulse, are the authorities for the foregoing statistical data. They are skinny, bespectacled, excitable Frenchy Dix and short, bald, gravel-voiced Sonny Higgins. Their words are wisdom, because they hang their hats from 9 to 5 in Toronto’s Bazaar and Novelty Shop, which supplies virtually every Bingo promoter in Canada with the cards on which this gambling game is played. Also, they are the masters of ceremony at many a Toronto Bingo, including the Gardens events—for which they charge $500 a night, provide all equipment needed to play the game, and term “the largest year-round Bingo in the world.”
Bingo is not the easiest game in the world to describe. Even Noah Webster does a lot of scrambling in his attempts to enlighten the masses. About Bingo, he says crisply: “See Beano.” Beano is termed “a variety of Keno” and Keno “a form of Lotto used in gambling.” Only inexorable perseverance gets us
Lotto as “a game of chance played with numbered cards.” •
But to get right down to facts, Bingo is a development of a gambling game called Housie-Housie which was played by Canadian troops overseas in the last war and also by old ladies and small boys around the summer fair circuit in western Canada in the 1930’s. Variations of Housie, like Keno and the rest, have cropped up from time to time. All of these games were played with cards blocked off in squares with numbers on them. A master of ceremonies plucked a number from a hat or some similar container, shouted the number to the players. If a called number was on a player’s card, it was marked—generally with a kernel of corn. The winner was the person who first filled in a given number of squares.
Nobody knows who developed the Bingo version of this pastime. On a Bingo card there are five vertical rows (each topped by one of the letters from the word “Bingo”) and five Continued on page 32
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horizontal rows. Every space contains a number except the middle space, which is free. Under the B the numbers are from 1 to 15; under the I from 16 to 30; under the N from 31 to 45; under the G from 46 to 60 and under the O from 61 to 75. Two-line games have become the rule; that is, a player needs only to fill two straight lines of numbers, vertical or horizontal or diagonal. Thus, because the centre space is free, a player conceivably could
win after eight numbers had been called.
But an eight-number game is extremely rare. Records reveal that it generally takes a minimum of 12 and a maximum of 28 numbers to win. The numbers, of course, are called by the master of ceremonies, who gets them from an ingenious device in which numbered balls in a glass cage are juggled by a draft of wind and emerge, one at a time, into a trough from which the em-cee plucks them.
There is considerable tension as the master of ceremonies slowly calls the numbers. In Maple Leaf Gardens, for
example, there have been as many as 12,660 in attendance for Bingo. They surround the em-cee much like a boxing crowd surrounds the ring, and they bank up into the vast gods high above the raised platform where Sonny Higgins and Frenchy Dix stand; Sonny, the master of the bubbling balls, droning out the letters and numbers like an ancient town crier and Frenchy standing guard over the voucher slips and staring fearlessly into the crowd like Horatius at the Bridge. As he calls the numbers Sonny looks around the great auditorium, awaiting the “Bingo” sign from one of the 22 runners who patrol various sections of the Gardens to check numbers of winners and protests, if any, of losers. These runners carry “master cards” to facilitate their checking.
The game’s implements haven’t changed greatly. Instead of corn kernels, markers today are plastic discs, metal washers, coins and even small square strips of heavy paper which look not unlike milk tickets. The paper squares are issued* but many a superstitious player brings his own markers —lucky pennies and the like. The most popular Bingo cards are made of cardboard and measure 5% x lz/i inches. Other forms are printed on newsprint. “Lap cards” are provided for players using more than one Bingo card. Made of heavy cardboard, they measure 17 x 9 inches, and as many as eight Bingo cards can be paper-clipped to them—although few people can run that many and survive.
While Sonny calls the numbers the Gardens is as quiet as if the opposition has just scored a goal against the Maple Leafs. There is a hushed expectancy as the call goes on, as some lady whose card needs just one more number realizes that there are other ladies whose cards need just one more number. The tension mounts, hands flash across the cards or are still. Suddenly someone shouts “Bingo!” and everyone else mutters darkly. It goes on and on for 20 games, a merchandise voucher the prize in each. The usual prize is $50 a game for 19 games, with one Sweepstake game for $500. When a winner yelps in the $500 game, the others don’t mutter darkly; they simply slide quietly to the floor where they quiver twice and then lie still.
Perhaps the peak in excitement was reached a few months ago by a middleaged woman who attended a Bingo with her husband. It was her first Bingo. Her husband wasn’t interested in playing but he liked to watch the crowds. He felt hungry as the games wore on and excused himself to buy a hot dog. In his absence his wife struck phenomenal luck. Number after number was on her card and finally she needed just one more. To her astonishment Sonny droned that number. Her hand quivered as she attempted to signal the runner. She opened her mouth to shout but no sound came. It was a $500 game and she had won it. She couldn’t move. Sonny called another number. Two people hollered “Bingo!” The woman finally gained a measure of composure and called the runner. But by now the other winners were advancing down the aisle to collect their vouchers.
After a consultation it was decided to split the prize three ways. It was true the woman actually had won all alone but she hadn’t let the officials know. The three winners received $166 and change each.
“But the pay-off,” recalls Sonny, “was that the woman blamed her husband. She refused to talk to him
the rest of the night. She insisted that if he hadn’t gone for a hot dog he could have called her Bingo!”
The crowds playing Bingo are 85% women. Their ages run mostly from 30 to 55. Higgins and Dix, who have watched the crowds for 10 years and more, call them “strictly a streetcar crowd.”
Frenchy, the chancellor of the bazaar business exchequer, thinks the war was responsible for Bingo’s boom. With thousands of husbands and sons overseas or in Army camps, the women swarmed to the game. About Bingo, he says: “You don’t have to think. It’s strickly one hunnert per cent luck. There’s no system, no way to beat the game.”
Bingo has been legal in Toronto since 1937, and in 1940 the Criminal Code recognized its legality when the proceeds were used “for charitable and war purposes.” Until 1937 Toronto police were stopping Bingo games, but Fred Hamilton, then a member of Toronto’s Board of Control, became aware that some Bingos were raising funds for worthy causes and he brought this to the attention of the Board.
“I had seen our mayor at that time, Mr. Robbins, at a Bingo, so when opposition was raised to my point I reminded the mayor that he was a Bingo fan himself,” says Hamilton today. “He stammered and stuttered for a minute but then he admitted there was nothing wrong with benevolent Bingo. We asked the Police Commissioners to check on clubs operating the game. Wherever the money was used for charitable use, games were legal.”
Took it to Gardens
Hamilton was responsible for Bingo’s advent in Maple Leaf Gardens in November, 1940. As chairman of the Sports Service League, which provided athletic equipment for men in the armed services, he approached Conn Smythe, managing director of the Gardens, with the idea of introducing the game in the arena. Smythe favored the plan and for this charitable Bingo the Gardens sliced its usual rental fee of $1,000 a night down to $750, a sum which covered the rink’s expenses. Hamilton’s organization cleared $70,000 for sports equipment for the troops in the subsequent five years.
Not all Gardens’ Bingos now are Sports Service League benefits, by any means. The Kinsmen, Kiwanis and Lions clubs, among other organizations with a charitable bent, have been sponsors. The average net profit is between $2,500 and $3,000 a night in the Gardens but some have gone as high as $6,500. Crowds, over a threeyear period, have averaged 7,000, the most astounding total appearing on the night of Dec. 15, 1944. That was three days after the heaviest snowstorm in Toronto’s history, an avalanche which completely stopped all traffic for several hours and snarled up most vehicular traffic the rest of the winter. Almost all entertainments, meetings and the like were cancelled for a week, and in the three days following the storm the telephones at the Gardens aqd in the Bazaar Shop were ringing constantly. People wanted to know if the Bingo was on or off.
“We didn’t know what to do,” relates Sonny. “We figured if we held it we wouldn’t clear expenses, and if we didn’t hold it there’d apparently be a lot of disappointed people who had supported us for years. So we held it. Through the snowdrifts came 4,800 people!” The boys discovered, in questioning the faithful, that the chief reason they’d come was that they
figured nobody else would and they would therefore stand a better chance of winning.
“They knew our prize list would be the same even if only 20 people showed up,” French supplied, It is estimated that 120 Bingos a week are played in various clubs and halls in Toronto. One of the most lucrative is operated by St. Mary’s Roman Catholic church. As far as the two masters of ceremonies know, no Protestant church sponsors a Bingo.
Frenchy, in supplying cards to every province in Canada, points out that the game is not called Bingo in Nova Scotia but, instead, Radio or Lucky.
By Radio Too
In Ontario some 20 Bingo games are operated via radio by smaller stations. Numbers are read until a listener telephones to claim a Bingo. Games are continued for a half hour. The first person to telephone isn’t necessarily the winner, because a record of the order in which the numbers were read is re' tained by the station—or the sponsor in cases where the program is sponsored —and prizes are not awarded until a specified time limit has expired, perhaps 24 hours or perhaps longer. If a listener can show the winning sequence on his card in fewer numbers than those shown by the player who telephoned, then he receives the prize.
In all Bingos there is no limit to the number of cards which an individual player can employ. Many a nimblefingered matron in Maple Leaf Gardens has been known to use seven cards simultaneously, her hands moving faster than a pickpocket’s in a crowded elevator. A few of them hit eight. The operators never object to such a practice, because part of the “take” is realized by the sale of cards, which retail at 25 cents each. The price of admission makes up the balance of the profit, Gardens rail seats and boxes going for 75 cents and the rest of the house for 50 cents a seat. The average player buys two cards, the occasional one buys three. Only a scattered minority goes beyond. It will be seen, then, that her evening’s Bingo costs a woman about $1. On a house of 6,000, the profit will run around $3,500, the rest of the money going for Gardens rental, advertising, and to Frenchy’s
Bazaar and Novelty Shop. Of the 120 club Bingos operating each week, the average crowd is 400, with a corresponding dip in profits and the size of prizes.
Bingo players are a superstitious lot. Disgruntled devotees have frequently left behind unusual trinkets or luck charms whose luck has run out. Coins, lipstick, horseshoes, rabbits’ feet and even a dog - eared edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (VASE to ZYGO) are among the litter of charms which have had their day. Despite the fact that seats are reserved for Gardens Bingos, women form a queue at the entrance as early as 6.10 p.m. and the first game is not scheduled to begin until 8.30. “They were probably the ninth person into their seats one night when they won,” reasons Frenchy. “They figger it might work again.”
One of the most unusual cases of what the winners do with their winnings was an elderly lady who, face flushed and hair awry, stampeded toward the platform to collect her $500 voucher. She whispered into Sonny’s ear. He consulted Frenchy. He consulted Fred Hamilton. “We’ll see,” commented Hamilton at length. The woman wondered if vouchers were honored by dentists. She wanted to use her $500 to purchase an upper and a lower plate. She’d needed both for two years, she confided. The vouchers weren’t honored by dentists, but the boys were able to sell the woman’s voucher to one of Hamilton’s more affluent acquaintances for cash.
Practically every Army camp and hospital in Canada were supplied with Bingo cards during the war and more than a million cards were sent overseas by war services groups. The Salvation Army alone sent 300,000. In Chorley Park Military Hospital, where Sonny Higgins ran a Bingo every two weeks, the war wounded were lined up in their wheel chairs an hour before game time.
The sponsors don’t deny that parlor rugby will get in its licks in that fine new world of tomorrow, but—if the law allows — they are still insistent that it will run a pounding second to this new indoor sport, whose latest proof of popularity has been a song ! by Bert Pearl of radio’s Happy Gang, j an engaging little item entitled, “Don’t Play Bingo Tonight, Mother, Stay J Home With Daddy and Me.”