First published in the Sept. 17 print issue of the South Pasadena Review.
English poet Robert Browning wrote in 1843, “Oh, to be in England, now that April’s there.”
Today, I write — with a bow to Mr. Browning and tongue firmly in cheek — “Oh, to be in South Pasadena, now that Tiger Bingo’s there, again.”
You have to be there to believe that a Bingo game has been going on in town for more than 30 years called Tiger Bingo, which really captures some of the spirit of this community.
The high school annually nets about $200,000 in profit from the games, which supports every athletic team and extracurricular activity. That includes uniforms, travel expenses for school groups going to conventions or special activities, and helping with the school newspaper and yearbook to get published.
The game had been held weekly on Saturday nights with as many as 180 players who lined up to grab their lucky seats and to dine with friends before getting down to serious Bingo playing. All the work is done by volunteers — either students in various activities, or parents of current or former students.
Two years ago, the game moved to South Pasadena Middle School, while the gymnasium at South Pasadena High School was being refurbished, and about six months later, the pandemic suddenly brought the games to a screeching halt.
And since then, no B-I-N-G-O.
This Saturday, Tiger Bingo returns.
“It’s been so long,” said DeeDee Kelly, who has been a longtime Tiger Bingo player and, before the pandemic, sometimes played three games a week at different sites around South Pasadena.
Like many of the players this Saturday, she’d carry her lucky dolls and hobbits and place them around her seat. She once won $10,000 playing bingo at the San Manuel Casino in Highland, but her real reward is the friendships she has made over the years.
“I’ll have my trolls and my lucky frogs which have been hibernating for almost two years,” she said. “I know I’ll be emotional. I can’t wait to get back and see everyone.”
A few months after starting to play Bingo at the high school, Kelly’s mother died.
“Many people turned into moms and grandmas to me,” she said. “It was so lovely to see.”
I went to Tiger Bingo the last night it was held at the high school, and before it would move to the middle school. I was immediately struck by a few things:
Almost everyone had a lucky seat and the space in front of them was littered with all sorts of lucky charms and stuffed animals. Some people used “Star Wars” themes. Others had hobbits. People take these games very seriously; there are even “early bird” games. Doors this Saturday open at 2:30 p.m. at the Diamond Avenue entrance of the gymnasium. Early bird games begin at 5:30 p.m. and regular games begin at 6:30 p.m.
There are a wide variety of ways to purchase bingo cards. The regular game pack (which is the minimum buy-in) is $17.
Almost everyone told me that they loved the inexpensive food — which is on the house this Saturday — and seeing the people.
The pandemic and subsequent shutdown brought all of that camaraderie to a halt. Kelly tried bingo online, and she even did a drive-in bingo. But she said it just wasn’t as much fun without friends to share the moment.
“I need the people,” Kelly said. “It has been missing from my life.”
COVID-19 isn’t gone, and there will be changes. Players will have to show proof of vaccination and wear a mask. There will be additional space between seats in the newly renovated gymnasium.
“We’re happy that we’re going to be getting the gang back and hopefully a lot more at some point,” said Tiger Bingo Chairman Dave Zeigler. “It is going to be a big scene and we’re looking forward to seeing forward to seeing everyone’s face again.
“Plus,” he added, “there are a lot of people who weren’t at the high school two years ago or have parents who…weren’t involved or didn’t know what Tiger Bingo was all about.”
Zeigler explained that the high school principal sent out a letter seeking both students and parents to volunteer as well as to encourage parents to play. Club members who volunteer get a share of the profits and the rest goes to a general fund to support all school activities.
“We’re a little shaky because of the Delta strain [of the coronavirus], but pretty confident people will see that we’ve taken all the chances that we can,” said Zeigler, whose wife teaches at the high school and who uses money from the games to help finance a group trip to Washington D.C.
Volunteers did a trial run three weeks ago, and the South Pasadena Chinese-American Club contributed $1,000 in gift certificates. Part of that went as prizes for the test run, and the rest will be used for prizes on opening night.
You can see how devoted players and volunteers have become by the number of years they have been participating. Some people proudly boast of coming back to help for over a decade. The Jontz family passed on the tradition from father (Dave) to son (James), who is on staff at the high school.
Marisa Lee, of South Pasadena, has been helping for a dozen years, since her children were participating in high school activities. She is now chairperson of one committee and participates in another.
“I’ve missed it tremendously,” Lee said. “My self-fulfillment was taken away by the pandemic not to mention the fact that I miss the exercise. It certainly is a steppingstone” toward normalcy.
Lee does, however, admit to having some mixed feelings about this Saturday’s return of her friends.
“You wonder if we are going too quickly,” she said. “I hope for the best, as the saying goes. We’re going to be keeping our fingers crossed, but you do have to worry, ‘Are we going back too early?’ But I’m very excited to be going back and seeing everyone again.”
Zeigler admits he, too, is hoping for the best and looking forward to seeing if Tiger Bingo can get back to its former self, or even something better in the future.
“People started calling me a year ago about when we were going to be coming back,” Zeigler said. “And calls have been coming faster since January. And now we’re coming back with a new gym, and an improved sound system and hopefully some new players.”
What’s old is new again.
Let the games begin.