Dee and Raymond Smith tell their friends they go to church every Sunday.

"It's no lie,” she says with a grin. “We go to play bingo!"

The Smiths, who live in Rancho Sahuarita, aren't church members but they "religiously play bingo" Sunday evenings at Our Lady of the Valley Catholic Church in Green Valley.

Flashing her Lady Luck calf tattoo and wearing her lucky sequined visor, Dee gets down to business in the shadow of a huge Last Supper wall hanging.

This night, she would win $250, and the winnings are shared.

"We do everything together, including sharing our money," she says of Ray. "That makes a happy marriage."

They aren't alone. Hundreds of people across Green Valley and Sahuarita play a handful of venues every week, many of them regulars on a circuit that runs from an American Legion bar in Sahuarita to a parish hall in Green Valley.

The die-hards can drop a hundred bucks a night on cards. Everybody's out for a win.

If you're new to the game, brace yourself. Learning the culture is a must, and sometimes it comes at the price of ruffled feathers if you don't know the ropes.

First-time players at a bingo venue should be on their guard. Once you've settled into your seat don't be alarmed if you are tapped on the arm by a chagrined regular who has been sitting in that space every bingo night for years.

"It's just like in church," Elks Exalted Ruler Cheryl Ponzo says about the Elks' weekly games at the Green Valley Elks Lodge. "You don't sit in anyone's regular seat in the pew at Sunday Mass and you don't sit in a bingo player's sacred lucky spot. Believe me, I learned the hard way."

Yelling out "Bingo!" especially prematurely or if your numbers don't match the bingo caller's, is another way to invite icy stares and boos. Maybe even name-calling.

This is serious business. 

Get there early 

If it's Tuesday, die-hard bingo players are at the Elks Lodge, where the game has been an afternoon fundraiser for more than 20 years and players vie for a $1,000 prize.

Elks bingo is open to the public and you'll always see many more women than men there.

"The earliest players start arriving at about 11:30 a.m. to get a good seat," says longtime bingo caller Joe Carlone, whose wife, Pam, is in charge of the games. "The play doesn't start until 1 p.m., but people come early and socialize. I'd say about 90 percent of these folks are regulars and I know a lot of them by name."

Michele and Bill Cummins are regulars. With a history of managing games for almost 10 years, they rarely miss a day unless they are on vacation.

"We've played bingo in every state including Alaska," says Bill, who is 75. "The real pro is Michele, though. She'll play four times this week and is incredibly lucky. Everyone knows her."

Michele, 72, doles out $50 to $100 at each bingo location.

"I may spend a little more if there are specials, but I really love it," she says. "I've met lots of friends and it's all just social to me."

Red is her lucky color — at least this month — so it's a red dauber she's using this month to mark her cards. She and Bill sit side by side at the same table in the same seats week after week.

"I know my bingo and I do win, not all the time, but a lot," she says."When I don't win, I'm happy that my friends do. But, of course, it would be nice if it was me instead." 

Lucky charms

Players filtering into the Elks Lodge and stop by to purchase bingo sheets from Pam, who also has daubers for sale, though most regulars come prepared. You can play for a dollar a card at most venues; some require a three-card package. Many people play far more.

Pam mentions that bingo players are “superstitious.”

"Seating them in the spot they demand is theirs has always been a problem," she says. "I try to put names at the places where the regulars want to sit, but I don't always get there in time and people do fuss if someone is in their seat. I think it's a combination of habit and superstition. Everyone has a lucky seat, although I don't care where I am when I play."

There's no missing the lucky charms that line the bingo tables. A parade of colorful trinkets arranged in patterns can be seen on almost every table. Some players choose to hide their lucky charms because, according to one player, "I don't want the person next to me winning on my good luck charm so I keep it in my purse."

Joe says the most difficult part of calling out numbers "is not screwing up."

"If you call the numbers too slow they get mad or if you call too fast they get mad," he says. "It's all in fun and the money goes to a good cause, but when it comes to winning money, people are out to win."

All bingo games have to be licensed through the state Department of Revenue, and volunteers have to sign affidavits.

The Elks gross about $35,000 a year from bingo, all of it going to Elks scholarships and other charitable programs, including the University of Arizona Steele Children’s Research Center.

Joe is almost popular as the game itself. He can be found calling numbers at Quail Creek and at Our Lady of the Valley Catholic Church.

Gil Lusk, who sits on Quail Creek Property Owner's Association board, started monthly bingo games there three years ago. The game, reserved for members and guests, attracts 200 to 300 players.

They take in about $35,000 a year, which goes back into the game, Lusk says.

While waiting for bingo to begin at Quail Creek, friends Curt Summers and Butch Flewellin are playing cards and saving seats at their table for "our wives, girlfriends and significant others."

"We've been doing this for about three years, and we don't really mind because we play, too," Flewellin says. "I don't really care where we sit but the women want to be together."

You won't have to look far to find Michele and Bill Cummins sitting in their special seats, guests of Quail Creek friends, and ready to play. 

Good friends

Some of the Elks players can be found at Friday night bingo at the East Social Center, where the Green Valley and La Canoa Lions clubs sponsor and run the games. Lions volunteers and callers can be spotted wearing their yellow vests, but the players' tables are just as colorful, piled with trinkets.

Alyce Finn, 87, and Dora D'Amario, 89, can be found at the front of the room with an ideal view of the lighted bingo board.

"I play about three times a week and spend about $30 at each place I play," Finn says. "So far I've made enough money to break even on what I spend on playing – at least I want to believe that."

D'Amario spends about $25 a bingo session.

"Her maiden name is Italian, so we are both Italian and this is how we like to spend our time when we're not eating," D'Amario adds. "We've made a lot of friends playing bingo, but I still want to beat them, so watch out."

The Lions' bingo proceeds go to their charities, says Irene Kosik, who heads up the weekly games. She estimates the Lions bring in about $13,000 a year.

"Our games are open to the public, but we'd like to get more Lions to play, too. We have lost a lot of members because of their age and our bingo contract only allows for Lions to volunteer at our games," Kosik says. "The Lions donated more than $30,000 a year ago to a lot of organizations from bingo proceeds and our recycling, so this is very important."

The Lions offer what no other local bingo venue does: oversized bingo cards and braille cards.

"There's no reason why anyone who loves bingo and still wants to play, even if they can't see too well, should not come here,” Kosik says. “We'll take care of them."

Evelyn Larson, 93, and her son, Ron Larson, 66, play Lions bingo whenever they can.

"My mother can actually see the oversized numbers on the Lions cards, although I have to help her because she might not hear all the numbers called," Ron says. "It's a night out for her and, of course, she has her lucky three-legged pig for luck." 

Belly up, have fun

American Legion Post 66 in Sahuarita hosts "bar bingo" for members and guests on Saturday afternoons.

Started six years ago by Post 66 Auxiliary member M.J. Gooch, who still oversees the post's bingo games, it's as popular with the men as it is with the women.

Special Legion games include patriotic bingo, where players form the shape of a flag to win.

"It helps that we can drink and socialize with our Legion friends and come and go as we like and support the Legion," says Cathy Hisman, 66, a regular player. "It's a relaxing and inexpensive afternoon as long as nobody sits in my spot at the bar."

Friend and fellow bingo player Connie Petersen, 64, agrees.

"It's part of my Saturday routine," she says. "There are more men here than at other bingo games in the area and it doesn't hurt that they sell alcohol."

Regina Ford | 547-9740

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