Inside the wood-paneled walls of the old Lipsey Gypsy Steakhouse and Sports Bar in Lake Worth, glass bingo balls mark the way to the lower floor near the bingo caller's booth. A billboard-size electric board lights up when numbers and letters are called out.
Early birds have already staked out their spots at one of the many folding tables. Walkers and wheelchairs are pulled up to tables. Cigarettes smolder in ashtrays. A few players have found their way to the nonsmoking section, sealed off in the back of the hall. And tonight's snack bar special includes a slice of chocolate cake and ice cream for $1.85. Most players have brought their own food and drinks to nosh on -- they don't want to step away from their cards.
Here and there youth blossoms -- a young married couple, a middle-aged daughter with her mom, two 20-something college students with Taco Bell takeout.
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A brunette with a razor haircut and platinum-blond layers, dressed in a pink tank top and jeans, weaves through the tables, taking pictures, scribbling names on a notebook and gabbing with the players before the game begins.
"You have to leave as soon as they start daubin'," or you get shushed and evil-eyed by serious players, says Missy Mouser, the 28-year-old founder, publisher, editor and photographer of Bingo Gossip. She's here tonight gathering new photos and musings for next month's edition of the free monthly magazine.
A newlywed from Mesquite, Mouser buzzes from bingo halls as far away as East Texas in a white minivan packed with copies of Bingo Gossip. She handles everything from payroll to layout, and updates the Facebook fan page and the Web page (www.texasbingogossip.com).
Mouser represents the changing face of bingo -- younger, equally enthusiastic and adamant about one thing: This is not your grandmother's bingo.
"Bingo is trying to cater to a younger crowd," Mouser says with a strong Texas twang. And Mouser (her married name is Kemp, but she's still a Mouser to most people) is behind that push. Her magazine has an alt-weekly feel. It's full of musings: "If Santa Answered His Mail Honestly." Jokes: "Love thy neighbor all through the day ... but first make sure your husband's away." There are also horoscopes, recipes, puzzles and upcoming legislation important to the bingo community. Bingo Gossip is the go-to publication for early birds at Lake Worth and dozens of other bingo halls from Central Texas to Tyler.
"People come here and have nothing to do," Mouser said. "This is what they do."
Mouser started Bingo Gossip in 2005, shortly after graduating from Stephen F. Austin University with a communications degree. But she wasn't what you'd call a bingo fanatic. In fact, Mouser hadn't really played bingo until she started the magazine. "It's crazy the things you don't know," she says.
While outsiders might think it's odd for a young 20-something to invest so much time in a form of entertainment that appeals to people 20, sometimes 30-plus years her senior, Mouser sees it another way. "This is my baby. This is what I got pregnant with and had." Besides, "You don't see a lot of young girls burning up the highways starting a newspaper," said Mouser, who always wanted to own her own publication and credits her college newspaper for helping her gain the necessary experience. "I just kept on that same little path," she says.
Mouser worked in the advertising department of her student newspaper, The Pine Log, and used her newspaper skills to create a content-driven, advertising-supported magazine targeted to a market of bingo readers. And with a circulation of about 20,000 a month, she has doubled ad sales each year and is now in a place where she can cover expenses, her salary and a little bit extra. "I worked as a waitress and worked [for the magazine] really, really cheap" when things first started, Mouser says.
Mouser is the primary staff, but she uses contributors with pseudonyms such as Lady Tagloff and Betty Whacker and content from readers, including jokes. There are a handful of similar publications, but advertisers dot virtually every one of Bingo Gossip's 24 pages. The half-page, full-color ad at $325 is the most popular. Advertisers are trying to capitalize on bingo's main draw: Play cheap, win big.
Bingo halls are trying to reach out to a younger audience and are using publications like Bingo Gossip as well as advertising in college newspapers, sponsoring college nights and incorporating upbeat music and strobe lights between games. Gay bingo is equally rowdy and loud, targeted to a different crowd of daubing enthusiasts, and it includes theme nights and drag-queen appearances.
Since Texas is a charitable bingo state, proceeds raised in Lake Worth support the Kennedale Community Action Council and Greater Fort Worth Area Civic Leaders Association. When people play, they're supporting charities, said Sharon Ives of Fort Worth Bookkeeping. Last year, $35.8 million bingo dollars went to Texas charities statewide.
But bingo halls and monthly charitable games are trying to compensate for the economic downturn; players keep coming, but they're playing fewer games and spending less money, Mouser said. Texas bingo is also fighting off "racinos," racetracks vying for gambling rights on their premises. "It would be hard for bingo to survive," Mouser said. "We won't be on an even playing field."
Not just for Grandma
"Most people think that it's strictly for the elderly," said Ives, nodding to a crowd of gray-hairs at a nearby table. "And that's not always true." While the bingo base may still be dominated by senior citizens widely stereotyped as old ladies with a bag full of daubers, five lucky troll dolls and pictures of their grandbabies spread around them, the truth is that the bingo audience is wide-ranging demographically, and most players are drawn to the halls for varying reasons -- fun, the chance to win, charity, social interaction.
"I think [younger people] almost find it humorous," Mouser said. It's a retro experience, something different and quirky. The chance to win money doesn't hurt, either, agreed Whitney Greiner, 22, a full-time college student at the hall for the first time. Her bingo winnings will go toward "a computer for sure."
In truth, the average bingo player "is a 45-year-old woman," Mouser said. "I don't consider that old." And as long as she can keep Bingo Gossip in the hands of players, Mouser will keep printing her publication. The session is about to start, and she has to grab more photos, pass out copies of Bingo Gossip and chat up the memaws and nanas at each table, including 73-year-old Evelyn Dawson of Chico, who has been playing bingo for 15 years and is here tonight without her husband. "I'm retired," said Dawson, who has a favorite section and preferred bingo buddies. "It gives me something to do."
Dawson also reads Bingo Gossip. "I've been in there before," she said, referring to a picture Mouser took of her and published.
But cheap fun and the chance to hang out with a friend are what brought Kassie Ramsey to Lake Worth this Wednesday night. "You should see this place on Friday," said Ramsey, 24, from nearby Springtown. "It's rowdy and loud with younger people, and not a lot of old people on weekends." It's BYOB Fridays at Lake Worth, and for $10, you and your buddies can get your buzz on and win a bingo pot.
Bingo is laid-back but fast-paced, plus, "you get to hang out with people, and it's a fun game," Ramsey said. But although youth is creeping in, everyone follows the same rule, Ramsey said. "You don't mess with old people and their bingo!"
For Mouser, she says bingo has blessed her. "My love of bingo came from the players and meeting the people ... and the love that I received back," she said. After she married, readers showered her with questions and congratulations. "I went to bingo hall and everybody asked me, 'How was your wedding?' 'How was your honeymoon?'"