Retired Cal Fire Chief Ernie Loveless was hot on the bingo scene one a recent Tuesday in Sonoma, neon ink dauber in hand, eyes and ears intent on every number being called.
He and his wife, Deborah, a retired legal secretary, are regulars at the weekly Sonoma Moose Lodge events, when the fraternal organization transforms its modest building into a bingo hall offering cash jackpots, a gathering place for friends and a fundraising opportunity for local charitable causes.
With fuzzy-haired troll dolls, sprightly leprechauns and other good-luck trinkets in tow, players gather early to claim their regular seats, grab a bite to eat and mingle with fellow players, each hoping to yell out “Bingo!” and win some greenbacks before night’s end.
The Moose Lodge games are open to the public and draw a cross-section of the community, from 20-somethings hoping to pick up some cash to octogenarians who just enjoy a fun-filled night away from home. Players can drop in early to purchase classic diner fare prepared by kitchen supervisor Dianna Mowery and her crew — hot dogs, hamburgers and turkey sandwiches are $5 or less.
“A lot of it is the social aspect,” said Deborah Loveless, explaining the appeal of bingo. “We only knew one person here, and now we have lots of friends.”
She and her husband enjoy bingo so much they visit area bingo halls two or three times per week. It’s fun to win, they say, and they have taken nightly pots totaling $1,000. But it’s also an enjoyable way to spend a few hours together.
The Sonoma Moose Lodge is one of about a dozen all-volunteer bingo operations around the Redwood Empire that serve as fundraisers for various charitable causes. Players in Sonoma donate at their discretion, and the lodge matches those funds. Additional proceeds support local and national Moose projects.
Players and administrators alike can suggest beneficiaries, some plucked from newspaper stories or from talk about people or projects in need.
Most recently, $2,000 went to the Sonoma Junior Dragons football scholarship fund and more than $1,700 was provided for medical expenses for a local teen battling cancer.
“It’s a very generous town when it comes to pouring our hearts out,” said Bill Bragg, administrator of the Sonoma Moose Lodge. “And it’s a financial foundation for this lodge, for sure.”
Although organizers declined to state the annual profits, they say that at least $1,000 per month is raised for causes within Sonoma Valley.
Members and guests routinely gather at the lodge for dinners, dances, breakfasts, a bar lounge and special events, but bingo is the lone weekly activity that welcomes the public.
“When you come and play, you’re having fun and hopefully winning some money and supporting a local charity, too,” Bragg said. But don’t think for a minute that players don’t take the game seriously.
Once bingo caller Michael Shoemaker announced the first bingo number of the evening — “N-44, that’s N four-four” — friendly chatter quieted and players seated along rows of folding tables got down to business, watching as numbered balls popped by blown air were randomly drawn.
“These are real gamblers,” said Norma Myer, who manages the games. “They come to win. They’re serious when the games start.”
Using cards with 25 numbers laid out in a square grid, players attempt to match numbers and create patterns that change with each game, from a horizontal line under the B-I-N-G-O header to a T-shaped pattern or full-card blackout.
The lodge has been offering bingo for nearly a decade. Longtime volunteer Gerry Farr said attendance has fallen about 25 percent since the economic downturn, but credits regular players with keeping the game afloat.
“A lot of the bingo halls are the same way,” he said. “What we decided to do is cater to the locals.”
Weekly attendance ranges from about 55 to 85 players. On this Tuesday, about 60 players gathered to test their luck.
At 86, Eleanor Saylor is among the oldest regulars. She arrives in time for dinner and socializing with a Betty Boop case packed with good-luck charms and colorful ink daubers, and spends about $30 for four hours of fun.
The longtime player concedes there is no skill involved beyond paying attention to the letters and numbers called out and knowing the specific patterns of each game. The only way to win is by carefully listening and watching numbers appear on the TV monitors and electronic flashboard.
“It’s luck,” Saylor said. “Some days you have it and some days you don’t.”
The games are regulated by the state, with organizers adhering to strict rules. All players must be 18 or older, and minors are not permitted on site.
“It’s not a casino,” Bragg said. “There’s a certain wholesome aspect to it.”