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Drag queen packs church hall for Buffalo’s Gay Bingo nights

A call of “B5” on a rainy Saturday evening seals it. Alexandra Hughes cries “Bingo!” and after her board is verified, she pops up from her chair for the moment of truth.

Like all winners at Buffalo Gay Bingo, before taking the cash, Hughes must submit to a chorus of shouts from fellow players inside the dimly lighted hall. They serenade her in unison with a choice word that begins with a ‘b’ and rhymes with pitch. Hughes waves a hand, musters a sheepish smile and quietly thanks the crowd before sitting down again.

“That was weird,” she said afterward, as play resumed. “I did not like that. But I got $150, so it’s OK.”

The taunts are all in good fun, of course, along with the profanity-laced one-liners and rapid-fire innuendo delivered throughout the evening by a potty-mouthed drag queen named Gladys Over.

Bingo has been on a steady decline for years in Western New York, but you wouldn’t know it by walking into the Westminster Presbyterian Church hall on Delaware Avenue on the second Saturday of the month. Players sometimes line up hours in advance to get in, and the hall usually sells out.

Organizers have turned away as many as 100 people at the door because there wasn’t enough room. The games draw a mix of bingo regulars, soccer moms (and dads), young urban hipsters and others who fall outside the game’s traditional demographic. At age 21, Hughes already is a veteran of Buffalo Gay Bingo.

“The first time I came here was with my mom and her work friends,” the Erie Community College student said. “I kind of like people-watching. There’s fun people who come here.”

City bingo inspector Anthony Fanti called it the most successful bingo operation in Buffalo.

Gladys Over describes it – usually with a choice curse word for emphasis – as “not your grandmother’s bingo.”

A teacher by day, Gladys has performed in drag for more than 20 years, including the past 10 as emcee for Gay Bingo.

He marches his 6-foot, 3-inch frame across the hardwood floor in black heels and a blue dress cut well above the knees, commanding more attention than the bingo boards. He wears fake lashes, a short dark wig and chunky earrings that match a bracelet. He looks like a thick, towering version of Liza Minnelli, and he wants to know who in the crowd of nearly 200 people is playing Gay Bingo for the first time.

“Do you know I’m not really a girl?” he asks.

Gladys seeks another show of hands: How many of the bingo players are gay and how many are straight?

The straights are in the clear majority on this night, like most nights.

Gladys grasps the microphone with two hands and leans his head forward to ask why they’re here and to chide them for pushing out the gay people. Then, he lays down some of the ground rules for the evening, including the most important: exiting the building in case of fire.

“Even if you see smoke and smell fire, I leave first,” Gladys says, “because I have polyester on and it will burn, and it will stick to my skin. After I leave, then you can get the hell out.”

The noisy hall bursts with laughter, and the jokes keep coming. On some bingo nights, Gladys likes to tell gay people they can win a new toaster oven by “converting” a straight person in attendance. He encourages players who have a winning card to scream out “bingo,” “like somebody stole your purse.”

On warm bingo nights, Gladys stands in front of a big metal floor fan to cool down.

“Pay no attention to me,” he says, and then he makes an off-color reference to what the wind was doing to him as his dress fluttered.

Penny Tanyi, a regular at Buffalo Gay Bingo, wields a bingo dabber as if she’s playing whack-a-mole. She usually plays 21 cards at a time and sits in a chair closest to the exit. The Buffalo resident has been playing bingo since she was a child, and she plays at some of the more staid bingo venues in town, as well. Tanyi, 58, looks as straight-laced as a Sister of St. Joseph, but she gets a kick out of the off-color humor at Gay Bingo.

“It’s entertaining,” she said. “I look forward to this one, even though it’s just once a month. I wish they did it more often.”

And it’s for a good cause, she added. Many of the people interviewed for this story mentioned that they attend Gay Bingo because it’s for a good cause.

Importing the idea

Michael Warner moved to Buffalo in the mid-1980s for a job in hotel management, as the public health crisis over AIDS spread nationwide.

In 1989, around Christmas, Warner was hospitalized with pneumonia in both lungs and later diagnosed with AIDS, with a 50/50 chance of surviving. Friends connected Warner with Dr. Thomas Cumbo, an infectious disease specialist who was on the leading edge of treatment in Buffalo during the early years of the spread of HIV.

Warner was gravely ill for months, until eventually getting a “cocktail” of drugs that reduced the amount of virus in his blood and eliminated the debilitating symptoms.

Today, his HIV is virtually undetectable. He has lived a relatively normal life for more than 15 years, although the effects of the HIV drugs now are starting to surface. Warner says he recently had a pacemaker installed to counter a heart condition that likely was brought on by the medications.

But he appears fit in golf shirt and jeans, and his 61 years are revealed primarily through a receding hairline of blond wisps that, combined with a neatly trimmed mustache and wire-frame glasses, makes him resemble actor Richard Dreyfuss.

By the late 1980s and early 1990s, HIV and AIDS organizations were popping up all over, including in Buffalo, buffered by state and federal funds aimed at curbing the nation’s most ominous and talked-about health threat. But within a decade, HIV and AIDS largely drifted into the background of public health consciousness. And when government funding for AIDS organizations began to dry up, Warner knew he had to do something. He had seen too many friends die to sit back and do nothing.

“The rate of infection is still up and AIDS is still really prevalent in our society. People are still dying from it,” he said.

Warner, a native of Medina, Ohio, who works in customer service for Jet Blue Airways, had heard about an unusual fundraiser in Philadelphia to raise money for AIDS-related causes. He flew to Philadelphia to check it out. It was a massive bingo game, but with plenty of twists, including campy performances by the BVDs, or Bingo Verifying Divas, a group of men dressed in outrageous drag costumes and doing silly antics and musical bits.

“People were having a lot of fun,” he said. “They were selling out, and I thought, ‘What a great way to start raising money.’ ”

Warner decided to import the idea to Buffalo. Buffalo Gay Bingo debuted in 2005 in a hall at Trinity Episcopal Church on Delaware Avenue and raised 40 cents in proceeds. Warner and other organizers recalled their disappointment, after having put so much work into getting the event off the ground.

“The bingo inspector said, ‘Oh don’t worry about it. Most new bingos lose money for the first three to six months,’ ” said Clyde Phillips-Frey, a volunteer from the beginning.

The returns quickly improved, and Buffalo Gay Bingo never has lost money. After just three months, the space at Trinity became too small, so the event moved to St. John’s Grace Episcopal Church and later to Lafayette Presbyterian Church.

Money for charity

The monthly gatherings initially attracted primarily gay people and their families and friends.

“Now, if we get 10 percent that are gay, that’s a lot,” said Phillips-Frey.

Players are welcome to take free condoms from a basket at the table where bingo cards are sold. And free, confidential HIV testing is offered in a separate room off the bingo hall.

People celebrate birthdays, engagements, anniversaries – and, yes, divorces – at Gay Bingo.

“We’ve had groups of women arrive in limousines,” Warner said. “It’s straight, white, suburban women. They come here and have a ball and love it.”

Buffalo Gay Bingo “would make millions” if its organizers found a venue where they could hold games weekly, rather than monthly, said Fanti, responsible for inspecting about two dozen bingo sites in Buffalo.

But Warner said he’s not sure they could assemble enough volunteers to pull off the event week in, week out.

Warner set up a nonprofit entity, AIDS Plus Fund of Western New York, to collect and distribute the bingo proceeds. Since 2005, more than $200,000 has been donated to the AIDS Network of Western New York and other charities assisting people with HIV and AIDS.

“Realistically, we’re about the only ones left out there when it comes to fundraising for HIV/AIDS,” Warner said.

In addition to organizing Gay Bingo, the AIDS Plus Fund also operates Serendipity Thrift Shoppe on Amherst Street, selling vintage furniture, housewares, books and CDs, paintings and odds and ends like poker chip sets. The Black Rock shop is open Wednesday through Saturday, primarily staffed by Warner. When asked how much time he dedicates to the store and Gay Bingo, Warner stops for a moment to try and piece the hours together, then admits: “I can’t even guess. I just do it. I fit it in my day and just do it.”

Loud as you want

Warner has plenty of help with bingo. Many of the more than two dozen volunteers who show up each month have been doing it since the beginning, working behind the scenes, while Gladys Over struts around for two hours soaking up the attention.

The man who plays the part of Gladys requested that The News not include his name in this story, because he was concerned his performances as a drag queen might be misinterpreted by some parents. The name for the character came about decades ago during a discussion with a close friend who was encouraging him to do drag performances. The teacher resisted the idea at the time, and the two men had a lively debate about it, until the friend finally told him he must do it or he’d regret it.

“He said, ‘End of discussion. I’m glad it’s over,’ ” the teacher recalled. “I said, ‘Gladys Over – that would be a great name.’ ”

Gladys’ act at bingo is toned down from his nightclub drag performances, but it can still get salty and rambunctious.

“I know the limits. I know the boundaries,” he says. “I love entertaining. It’s my persona. I like making people laugh and have a good time.”

At some bingos, Gladys has a partner in crime who goes by the name Patsy DeCline, and adds more silliness to the evening. Patsy chats up a middle-aged man in shorts and T-shirt, only to have Gladys “move in” on the same man later in the evening.

Patsy: “Gladys, what are you doing with my man back there?”

Gladys: “I’m helping him look for his G-spot.”

Bingo players are expected to join in the shenanigans, too, especially by singing along with the jingles associated with various number calls.

“B1” elicits the first lines of “A Chorus Line” song: “Singular sensation, every little step she takes. One thrilling combination, every move that she makes.”

“I16” prompts: “Going on seventeen, what’s a girl to do?” to the melody of “The Sound of Music” tune, “Sixteen Going on Seventeen.”

It’s a bit like “Rocky Horror Picture Show” with money at stake, and anyone looking for a little peace and quiet won’t find it here. Just about every number call comes with a response, aside or wisecrack.

At other bingos, Greg Johnson, 34, of Lockport has been hushed and stared down simply for talking or laughing.

“I almost got kicked out,” he said. “Here, you can be as loud and as obnoxious as you want.”

“It’s an experience. It’s all the things you want to do at bingo but were never allowed,” said Johnson, who keeps coming back with friends even though he’s never won and many of his friends have. “You can go to other bingos and then come here. You can’t come here and then go somewhere else.”