After only five weeks, Monday night bingo is sold out. There is not a chair or a bingo card to be had in Mo Pitkin’s dining room cum bingo hall. On the tiny sweatbox stage, downtown “It” boy Murray Hill and his cantankerous drag-queen hostess Linda Simpson explain the rules while burlesque star and resident prize-girl Dirty Martini flaps her gingham dress to battle the heat.
In the midst of the game, the crowd bursts into riotous laughter at the appearance of Madame, a puppet made famous by her frequent appearances on Hollywood Squares. Tonight, tickets to Madame’s current show at the Cutting Room, A Comeback From Abroad, have been provided as prizes—or maybe punishment. “I think the lesbians are afraid of Madame,” observes Hill as Madame and her partner Joe Kovacs squeeze through the crowd.
Luckily, prizes—which also include a copy of the premier episode of Project Runway, a silver Patsy Cline belt, tickets to see Taylor Mac, and a cash jackpot culled from bingo card sales (tonight’s booty is $180)—are not the point. People come for the instant amity and camaraderie created by healthy competition and abundant alcohol intake.
“Are you kidding?” asks 25-year-old Patricia Kilhan. “There’s cash money at stake here.”
“First time here, first game,” says 27-year-old winner Rick Ross with a smug smile. “I like it because it reminds me of playing with Grandma.”
A young woman, confused by the rules of the game, prematurely calls bingo and is openly mocked by Linda Simpson. “We only explained the rules about a million times,” says Simpson with a roll of her eyes that sends the contestant slinking back to her table. Still, a chant of “Punish her! Punish her!” rises from a corner of the room. The bloodlust is, of course, taken in stride.
“It reminds me of being in church,” says 21-year-old Kirsten Escobar with a big grin.
The Latin root word for supercilious is supercilium, which means eyebrow. What, you might ask, does that have to do with arrogance and haughtiness? When next you look down your nose, suggests Jennifer Dziura, try raising an eyebrow just to drive the point home. Now consider the Latin root word of eminence: eminere, meaning to stand out. This is probably what Eminem was thinking when he chose the name, don’t you think? “After all, Eminem is a pretty smart guy,” concludes Dziura, comedienne, writer, teacher, sarcastic sex-toy blogger, and co-host of the ever edifying Williamsburg Spelling Bee held at Pete’s Candy Store.
Offering less spectacle and spume than Monday night bingo but more opportunity for individual disgrace and grammatical tirades (last week, it was the flagrant misuse of the subjunctive), the Williamsburg Spelling Bee was created by Brooklyn singer-songwriter bobbyblue soon after he watched the orthographic thriller Spellbound. Since then, the Williamsburg Spelling Bee has been syndicated (fans are rumored to have started similar bees in Seattle and London), sponsored by a major Broadway musical (The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee), and featured in The New York Times and on NPR, making it the bar game of choice for self-proclaimed geeks and well-groomed lovers of logorrhea. However, in the cozy Pullman-car atmosphere of Pete’s back room, intellectual acumen does not trump kindness.
Unlike traditional spelling bees, contestants are permitted three misspelled words before they are knocked out of the game, and during the opening interview round, when they are asked personal questions like “If you suddenly found yourself pregnant with devil spawn, what would you do,” no competitor is eliminated, even if they should misspell frittata. And after the competition heats up with words like toponymy, somnifacient, hesperidium, commissariat, and thalassocracy, the casualties of cacography are still excused with great sympathy and loud applause.
“You know, I’m up here telling jokes about words,” says Dziura after a particularly funny riff about the reconstitution of chicken meat and Scarlatina, a Latino drag queen named after a disease. “At a spelling bee. For adults. In a bar. In Williamsburg. Just so we keep it all in perspective.”
“The paper plates help,” says Felix Aronoff, a 24-year-old bio major, chuckling at the contestant’s number hanging around his best friend’s neck. “A great ego leveler.”
‘You guys suck!” shout the friends of three contestants on Dick Swizzle’s Sudden Death Game Show.
Despite the intimidating title of Magnetic Field’s trivia night, the questions are almost Boeotian: In what building does Congress meet? From what musical was Gwen Stefani’s “Rich Girl” adapted? And my personal favorite: How many seconds does a head stay conscious after it’s been decapitated?
However, unlike the Big Quiz Thing at the Slipper Room where teams write their answers on a sheet of paper, Swizzle’s players must contend with bright lights, buzzers, and hecklers.
“The more the crowd heckles me, the funnier it is,” says the Brooklyn bar’s co-owner William Crane, whose Swizzle persona sports a blond perm, a smoking jacket, and Elton John glasses.
If and when the crowd decides to spare Swizzle, fellow entrepreneur Lee Greenfeld picks up the slack as KooKoo the Mindkey, a Crispin Glover–type scorekeeper who acts as game show sidekick. The well-conceived set includes three contestant podiums with buzzers that illuminate their corresponding lights, an applause track, drum rolls, a video screen for bonus rounds, and, of course, Swizzle.
“Who sang the hit song ‘Pass the Dutchie’ in 1982?” asks Swizzle with a lounge-lizard leer.
“That would be my testicals, Dick,” replies a bar regular, choosing offense as the best defense.
While no one leaves the stage empty-handed (there are Budweisers for all), such a cavalier attitude leaves more room for serious players with their eye on the cash.
“We are fiercely competitive and have a lot of useless knowledge at our disposal,” proclaims 28-year-old Marlena Bittner.
Among this gaming crowd, the advantage of age is obvious. Here, the ’80s category might be considered somewhat ironic but the ’70s category is perceived as downright arcane.
“What kind of car was the Dukes of Hazzard‘s General Lee?”
“A Corvette?” comes the tentative reply.
“Fool!” shouts someone in the back of the room. Just when you begin to wonder why anyone would subject their deficiencies to such public scrutiny, the whole room—contestants and hosts included—bursts into laughter.
“It’s all about group participation,” concurs Crane.
‘It’s all about gorgeous people of every jurisdiction,” says 26-year-old Sasha Gichner, scanning the glittery crowd at the sixth-month anniversary of Love Ahoy, a live dating show held at Galapagos once a month.
Tonight’s installment, a special bisexual edition, features the comely 22-year-old bachelorette Miriam Levin and her suitors—21-year-old Asia Dillon, 24-year-old Barbara Seifert, and the sole male, 27-year-old Gidalya Tashman—who find themselves sensually eating éclairs, making badger noises, and describing their intimate grooming habits. The questions, like the decor and the contestants, are chosen by Ahoy’s fabulous roller-disco girl Erin Cambell.
“We have a sign-up sheet, but I post on Craigslist and MySpace,” explains Cambell. “It’s not as easy as I thought it would be to find contestants, but I try to put compatible people on the same show.”
“Most of the people in the audience don’t have the guts to get up onstage,” admits co-host Miss Allison, “but they love to watch.”
During the talent portion of the evening, Dillon and Seifert both sing songs, but Tashman makes a cocktail that curls Levin’s toes.
“I think she’s leaning towards him,” says 26-year-old Antonia Wright with a note of disappointment. “When they spun the wheel, he got to kiss her,” concurs 30-year-old Rachel Sontag.
To their great surprise, Levin selects Dillon. Still, it’s not a complete loss for the runners-up. In fact, they leave with consolation prizes—and each other.
Thrilled by the news, co-host Jake Stronghorn exclaims: “That’s it! We’ve got to get everyone hooked up. The audience, the staff, the tech crew, everyone.”
Looking out over the crowd gyrating on the dancefloor, it’s not difficult to imagine.