Bingo is gone from St. Nicholas Church in Wilkes-Barre, its reputed fund-raising birthplace and home for about 80 years. But the old game has been pronounced dead before, and no one should be surprised if someday it comes roaring back.
Proof? Look at what happened 72 years ago this month when local officials declared war on the popular pastime and called down all the forces of law on its players.
During the Great Depression the people of Wyoming Valley couldn’t get enough Bingo. Not only was it a major fundraiser for clubs, churches and other nonprofit organizations, but money-making commercial bingo halls had sprung up, drawing huge crowds. Some games saw an estimated 1,400 to 1,700 people.
Americans did have more to worry about than entertainment in March 1942. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was only three months in the past, and our war effort against the Axis powers was just beginning.
Still, local people were shocked when Mayor Charles N. Loveland announced that Bingo would be banned after one more week because it had strayed from its original charitable purpose and become big business.
“If those who are attending these games will buy U.S. defense stamps and bonds with what they are spending, they will be doing a patriotic duty and providing for possible hard times in the future,” he said, according to the Wilkes-Barre Record.
If people have so much time on their hands, the mayor added, they should “knit and roll bandages.”
The announcement set off a firestorm.
Proprietors of the St. Rocco’s Party at the Hotel Sterling Annex stirred up the crowd with announcements over the public address system and called for deluging City Hall with post cards of protest. Operators of the games citywide said they would meet to plan strategy against the mayor.
“I never got off of Welsh Hill (Edwardsville) until they started Bingo,” a woman told the Record. “Now I can’t wait for my night of Bingo.”
Why should we fight tyrants abroad “when we have a dictator right here in the City of Wilkes-Barre,” said one citizen’s letter to the editor in the Record.
Charles Noyes Loveland (1872-1964) was a descendant of a pioneer local family. A graduate of Yale University, he ran unsuccessfully for mayor three times before finally gaining the office when named by City Council to succeed the deceased Mayor Dan Hart in 1933. He served until 1944.
In any case, he did not back down from the fight. When commercial Bingo proprietors tried to move the games across the city line, he enlisted Luzerne County District Attorney Leon Schwartz in his crusade.
Schwartz also pulled no punches, linking Bingo with the growing popularity of slots and pinball machines that paid off in cash and vowing to support local authorities’ raids. Gambling bosses would be “arrested or their establishments padlocked,” he warned.
Despite all the wartime uproar and strong language, though, Bingo – at least Bingo for charitable purposes – survived as times changed and laws changed. By the 1950s, Bingo was again riding high in Wyoming Valley, with money prizes advertised in newspapers, though the dollar signs were never placed in front of the numbers.
Perhaps in our current era of casinos with valet parking and glitzy entertainment church-basement Bingo has lost some luster.
So is the old game really about to call its final number forever?
That sounds like what they were saying 72 years ago.