By Andrea Barkan
Bingo games in Brookings, Smith River and Crescent City have drawn area residents for decades.
Even as loyal players age, the allure of their favorite game shows no signs of fading.
Winning a jackpot is the obvious motivator, but most died-in-the-wool players say the real prize laughter and camaraderie swirling around often smoky bingo halls is what brings them back game after game.
Lucky 7 Casino's bingo manager Marilyn Bray used to play bingo all the time, but when her husband died two years ago and left her without much income, Bray had to tighten her bingo belt.
So she found another way to get in the game by working it.
Now Bray calls and manages bingo nights (Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday) at Lucky 7.
"My son talked me into doing it," Bray said. Her son works security at the casino.
"I was like a natural," she said of her first time calling.
Now Bray only plays once a month, but finds being involved on another level just as satisfying.
"I love bingo and I understand it and I want to be a good bingo manager," she said.
Bray, who works during the day as a cook at United Indian Health Services in Smith River, isn't the only player-turned-worker at Lucky 7.
Many employees are bingo players who decided to make money instead of spend it, Bray said.
Tanya Crowe started as a caller at Lucky 7 three months ago. She still plays every night of the week she isn't working.
"I love bingo," Crowe said. "I love my job."
Since staffers aren't allowed to play where they work, Crowe usually goes to Crescent City to play at Eagles Lodge or Elk Valley Casino, where she recently won $300.
Her mother got her into bingo 27 years ago, Crowe said.
It provides a social outlet, especially important for elderly people, she said.
"I know just about everybody's name in here," Crowe said at Lucky 7. "A lot of these people I've known for years playing bingo.
"It gets like a big family," she said. "A lot of the same people come ... three nights a week."
Dixie Sloat and Millie Van Waveren, both of Brookings, sat together during a recent Tuesday night bingo game at Lucky 7 Casino.
They swapped jokes and laughed heartily but always paid close attention to the numbers being called, ink daubers clutched in hands poised to mark paper cards.
"You want to just try it?" Sloat taunted. "You may get hooked."
Sloat and Van Waveren play together once a week.
"It's fun to have somebody to go with," Van Waveren said.
They started about two years ago, after Sloat moved to Brookings.
"Since I moved here, that's all there is to do," Sloat said.
"My husband said, "If you don't start winning soon, you're going to have to get a job,'" Sloat said with a laugh.
"But when we're winning, they'll say, "Are you going to work tonight?"'
Sloat said her biggest win at Lucky 7 was $150. At Elk Valley Casino, she once won $500.
The atmosphere might be jovial, but the players are serious.
"There are people here that play every night that they have bingo," Van Waveren said.
Sloat talks about the "bingo blessing" given by employee Lori James, a.k.a. "the bingo goddess" at Lucky 7.
"Since I'm the bingo goddess, I come around and bless you," James said. "It's just a little bingo magic."
Sloat said she's used it at times. "When I'm not doing real well I'll say, Lori, come over and give it to me.'"
Bray, who's played bingo for eight years, said other superstitious behaviors are common among bingo players.
"You don't sit in someone's seat," Bray said.
Crowe said she learned that first-hand from her 83-year-old mother, who still plays bingo regularly.
"My mom got very mad a long time ago at Eagles (Lodge) because she came in and someone had her seat," Crowe said.
"These people have been playing for years," Bray said. "They take it very seriously."
Jim Snead, bingo manager at the Elks Club in Brookings, made similar observations.
"They really are ... serious," Snead said. "They might laugh and joke, but boy they are serious when it comes to their bingo."
The buzz in bingo circles is that Elk Valley has the biggest game around, offering the largest jackpots, the most varied costs and the most nights.
Regular games begin at 2 p.m. Sunday and 7 p.m. Monday, Thursday and Friday.
The cost for a regular pack, or the "buy-in," on Monday and Thursday is $10 and the jackpots are $200.
On Fridays, a $12 buy-in could yield a $250 jackpot. To play for the $500 pot costs $20.
Sundays feature four total buy-in and jackpot options.
Every other Sunday the casino offers a $6 buy-in for a $150 game or a $10 buy-in for a $250 game.
On alternating Sundays, the cost for a $250 game is $12, while a $500 game costs $20.
"Our people seem to like the variety," Elk Valley receptionist Dianne Moore said.
Moore said an average game draws about 150 people.
Lucky 7 Casino offers two buy-in and pay-out options: $15 for the $125 game and $20 for the $175 jackpot.
Their "hot ball" costs $1. Hot balls are a common bingo feature. A ball is chosen at the start of the night. If a player "bingos" on that ball, they win the accumulated hot ball pot, which ranges at Lucky 7 from $200 to $900.
Elk Valley hot balls have become worth more than $1,000, Moore said.
"We're a lot smaller than our competition," Bray said. "But I think you feel more comfortable at our bingo."
A recent Tuesday night Lucky 7 game drew about 75 players, a high for the casino. But Lucky 7 isn't the smallest game in town.
The bingo at Star of the Sea Catholic Church in Brookings has drawn a small, loyal crowd for at least two decades.
"It's still kind of a little hidden secret," director of bingo operations Rochester Hood II said.
"We're the smallest one, but the people who come have a good time," Hood said.
The game starts at 1 p.m. Sunday. Buy-ins cost $11 and pots vary between $50 and $100. Hot balls cost $1 and Hood said the pay-out has gotten up to $1,000.
Hood said crowd sizes vary, but considers full capacity between 50 and 100.
"We do have a small group that comes from Gold Beach rain or shine," he said.
Hood said he tries to keep the mood light, often telling jokes between calling numbers.
"I really do have a ball with it," he said. "It's a really fun crowd. We act more like a bunch of teenagers who are brothers and sisters.
"It's an intimate group," Hood said. "It is the funest bingo experience I've ever had."
Bingo at the Elks Club in Brookings is another mainstay, pulling an average of 50 players during the Wednesday night game, which starts at 7 p.m.
Snead said Elks Club buy-ins usually cost $15, though someone could buy just one card pack for $5.
Jackpots range from $20 to $700 the prize for the nightly blackout winner.