WILKES-BARRE — The faithful bingo players of St. Nick’s will now return to their lives B-4 bingo.
After a run of 81 years, the longest running bingo game in the U.S., according to unofficial statistics, came to a close Tuesday night.
More than 100 players, armed with colorful daubers and good luck charms, came out to bid farewell to the game they love. They arrived for the early bird specials and lined up card after card of games and ate snacks while they waited for the first number to be called.
Citing decreased attendance and loss of profits, Monsignor Joseph Rauscher pulled the plug on the bingo machine and will now look for alternative fundraising events to help pay the bills.
Familiar faces, friends made over decades of bingo playing, filed into the cafeteria of the St. Nicholas/St. Mary’s Elementary School for the last night amid smells of French fries, hot dogs and coffee.
“This is terrible,” said Jackie Vesek, who called the first half of games. “It’s very emotional. This is a family, really. We’ve all been coming here for so long.”
Vesek, 67, of Wilkes-Barre, said she would be able to call every number of every game, until her last one.
“Then, I don’t know,” she said.
Monsignor Rauscher was moving about the crowd, shaking hands and smiling as much as he could.
“We used the money raised at these games to make major repairs,” he said. “Bingo enabled us to do things that we will now find more difficult to do.”
It’s been a steady decline in attendance, he said, with crowds reaching an all-time of more than 1,000 to less than 100 in recent weeks. The 100-plus crowd Tuesday night represented about twice what has been the normal crowd for far too long.
“We have to start looking at other ways to raise money,” Rauscher said. “We always counted on this income. Expenses continue to go up.”
Pat Matus, 73, of Swoyersville, has been playing bingo at St. Nick’s for more than 50 years. Some nights she would play as many as 100 cards.
“This is a family affair,” she said. “Tonight is just a very sad night.”
Despite the overall sadness, the exuberance only bingo can provide was evident throughout the night. As Vesek called the numbers, people would raise their hands and shout “bingo” and smile ear to ear. Cash prizes of $75 per game were handed out, sometimes split two and three ways when multiple winners heard their numbers.
Christine Falcheck, 79, of Sugar Notch, and Mickey Rutkoski, 79, of Nanticoke, said they will miss their Tuesday nights out to play the game they love.
“It’s terrible, I still can’t believe it,” Rutkoski said. “This is a real nice bingo. I see the same faces every week. We’re all friends. I’ll miss them.”
Rutkoski had a few good luck charms lined up in front of her cards.
“Sometimes they’re lucky, sometimes not,” she said.
Falcheck said the Mohegan Sun Casino at Pocono Downs has hurt the game. They and others said a lot of bingo players now go to the casino to gamble.
“Bingo keeps you young,” said Terry Penkala, 79, of Edwardsville. “After tonight, who knows if I will ever see these people again.”
Helene Chmielewski, 49, of Kingston, said she wonders what she will do on Tuesday nights.
“It’s bittersweet,” she said. “I love the people. I love the game.”
Penkala said St. Patrick’s Church on Parrish Street has a Thursday night bingo game that some may now attend.
Rauscher prepared a flyer for the players that detailed the reasons why he made the difficult decision to bring an end to the bingo game. He said it wasn’t “financially feasible” to keep it going.
“Thank you to all of you who have said this is the best bingo around,” Rauscher wrote in the flyer. “We appreciate all of you and our volunteers.”
Rauscher said at one time the game attracted hundreds to the South Washington Street school gymnasium and cafeteria — the two sites where the game was held. Now, only the cafeteria is utilized because attendance is so low. At St. Nick’s, revenues have barely covered the cost of cash prizes and supplies.
The decades-old game was once the answer on Jeopardy regarding the oldest continuing bingo game in the U.S. Rev. Joseph Luksic is credited with starting the bingo game at St. Nicks in 1933.
“Our records show 1933 as the first year for bingo at St. Nick’s,” Rauscher said. “I don’t know if it was every week then, but it had certainly become a regular weekly thing by the later part of the ’30s.”
Rauscher said the game used to average 200 to 250 players. St. Nick’s is not the only parish to experience bingo woes. Many Catholic churches and other nonprofit organizations that have long relied on the game of chance to generate extra revenue have discontinued the game.
In a Times Leader story last year, Laura Beers, office manager and tax administrator at the Luzerne County Treasurer’s Office said there were 51 organizations licensed to conduct bingo in Luzerne County, but the number of organizations seeking new or renewed licenses has decreased rapidly. In 2010, Beers said the office issued 57 licenses. That number dropped to 51 in 2011 and 40 in 2012. In 2013, just 36 were issued through July.
Rauscher said the St. Nick’s bingo used to generate profits between $20,000 and $45,000, “in the good years.” The money helped pay for such items as masonry repairs and restoration of the aging church’s stained-glass windows.
St. Nicholas used to give out $3,200 in prizes each week. When patronage dropped below 80, the church decreased the prize money to $2,800, Rauscher said. The top prize now is $500. It used to be $1,000.