Bingo feels the profit pinch

Gambling: Arundel's four commercial bingo parlors would get a little respite from competitive pressure if the County Council limits licenses.

March 04, 2000|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

Liz Donegan eyes her bingo card through a curtain of cigarette smoke, silently imploring the announcer at Wayson's Bingo to utter two syllables that will make her day: B-5.

If she wins, Donegan will pocket $1,000 in prize money and bragging rights from the wisecracking crew on the van back to Annapolis. She'll also renew her faith in the southern Anne Arundel County institution where the 61-year-old former housekeeper has whiled away the hours -- and thousands of dollars -- for years.

All around some 450 people hope to deny Donegan the pleasure, ink-filled daubers poised like daggers above their bingo sheets.

Surveying the scene is George Wayson, manager of the 40-year-old family business that is among the few remaining commercial bingo operations in the United States. His gray hair teased into an Elvis-style pompadour, Wayson patrols the big hall in a purple sport coat and tinted glasses, seeing who's lucky and who's not.

"They cuss you one minute and smile at you the next," he says with a throaty chuckle.

Despite loyal customers extending from Baltimore to Northern Virginia, Wayson's has seen better days in Wayson's Corner. Opened in 1960 when slot machines dotted Southern Maryland and nearby Charles County was Little Nevada, it and other for-profit bingo halls have always faced competition.

But never has it been fiercer than today, with charity bingo, state lotteries and Delaware slot machines luring the same gambling dollars.

Now, in something of a twist, the County Council is expected to throw a lifeline to Wayson's and its three Anne Arundel competitors -- Bingo World near Brooklyn, Treasure City in Annapolis and Daily Double Bingo in Laurel.

Under a plan that might be adopted Monday, the number of for-profit bingo licenses would be capped at four. Current law allows six.

For a time, the council appeared headed down a different path. A bill filed in January called for exploring whether commercial bingo should be abolished. It came at a time when Broadneck Peninsula residents feared a fifth proposed bingo parlor's impact on the area's image and traffic. Since then the bingo hall has been rejected, but its developer, Bay 50 Inc., is appealing.

Talk of outlawing commercial bingo ended in February after council members noted that a tax on the businesses has pumped $3 million into county coffers since 1995. As important, some members did not want to deny residents -- particularly the elderly -- a key source of entertainment.

Lula Mae Butler, a retired Naval Academy laundry worker who has made the half-hour pilgrimage from Annapolis since 1960, couldn't agree more.

"I don't smoke. I don't drink," she says. "I play my bingo. Everybody's got something they like to do."

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Butler clambers aboard the 25-seat van that ferries customers courtesy of Wayson's from some of the city's poorer neighborhoods down Route 2 to the bingo parlor. Normally, Butler spends about $80 per trip on bingo, but this day she brandishes a secret weapon: a glimmering ATM card.

"If my husband knew I had this, he'd die," she says, laughing.

Seated nearby are Donegan, affectionately nicknamed "Dizzy Lizzie"; Dorothy Howard, a 78-year-old retired cab driver unbowed by kidney and heart ailments; and Jeanette Brown, a 32-year Wayson's veteran who recently cut back from four nights a week to one.

"I was trying to get full religion," Brown explains. But now she wonders whether a spate of bad luck since the switch is a sign she should abandon Wayson's altogether.

As the van passes farmhouses and red barns, the women banter and trade good-natured jibes that would stand out in the most raucous locker room. Between verbal jabs, all agree the numbers haven't been falling their way at Wayson's. Howard says she hasn't won in so long, "I wouldn't know how to holler `Bingo!' "

Even so, with its three $1,000 payoffs and the potential to win $5,000, Wayson's holds more appeal than less lucrative charity games run by churches. And it's their country club, their Elks lodge, their American Legion post -- a place full of friends and familiar faces.

"When I don't go, I cry," says Shirley Mullen, 60, a regular on the "good time bus" to Wayson's.

Wayson's prides itself on showering customers with personal attention. When Butler got sick, Wayson's sent her a plant. When Perry's birthday arrived, she found a coupon in the mail.

The concept was pioneered at Wayson's more than 30 years ago by Stephen A. Wynn, who now runs casino giant Mirage Resorts Inc. It was his father, Michael, who started the bingo operation with Edward Wayson Sr. When the elder Wynn died in the early 1960s, Stephen took over and launched the first membership club.

In those days, the area near Wayson's Corner had a Wild West feel. Slot machines catered to vacationers who summered on the Chesapeake Bay's western shore.

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