'Not your grandma's bingo:' old game finds new life in Seattle

SEATTLE - Forget about reservations at Canlis. Seats to a Seahawks playoff game? Piece of cake - comparatively speaking.

The toughest ticket in town these days may just be where you'd least expect it: at a local senior center.

"I'd say by 11 o'clock in the morning (the day tickets go on sale), they're gone," said Ann Bowden, development director of the Phinney Neighborhood Association. "It's wild, crazy lots and lots of fun."

Dressed in a reindeer headband and wearing jingling bells, Bowden bounced around the senior center on a recent Friday night. The line out front - of mostly 20- and 30-somethings - stretched around the corner and down the sidewalk. One volunteer poured craft beer from a keg, while another manned a popcorn machine.

The scene could've been out of a hipster bar on Capitol Hill, or maybe an indie music venue in Ballard. Instead, it was for something else: a monthly event called 'Bingo Karaoke' at the Greenwood Senior Center. (Organizers fondly call it, 'not your Grandma's bingo.')

"We wanted to play on the bingo stereotype and turn that on its head," said Cecily Kaplan, director of the Greenwood Senior Center. "Someone I knew had a home karaoke machine and it went well, so I said 'let's put this together (with bingo) and see how it goes.'"

That was about five years ago. After the first event - which drew a few dozen people - staff members began inviting their friends - who then began inviting their friends - and by October of that year, the senior center sold nearly 200 tickets to a Halloween-themed event.

"There was this huge number of people. This one guy came dressed as Cher and did this amazing rendition. And from that point on it started to sell out," Kaplan said. "It's been this hot ticket and we just are very humbled by it."

December's event - dubbed 'Jingle Bell Bingo Karaoke' - sold out all 224 tickets for a holiday-themed evening. In the crowd was Adam Clarke, a 20-something from Kirkland, dressed in a giant green costume as a life-sized Christmas Tree.

"It should be fun," said Clarke, who said he was a first-timer at bingo karaoke, as he waited for his friends to arrive. "As we found out, it sold out rather quickly. We actually signed up and got about 20 or so people coming."

Calling the games each month is Jeanne Barwick, former owner of local restaurant Mae's Phinney Ridge. Barwick, who turned 66 years old in April, has achieved a small degree of fame, she said, mixing in humor with a heavy dose of salty language at each event. If you listen closely over the roar of the crowd, you'll probably hear a dirty joke or two.

"When I go to the grocery store, (I hear) 'oh, it's the bingo lady!'" she said, laughing. "It is like a built-in party on the last Friday of every month."

Barwick calls the numbers for all eight rounds of bingo. Winners take home $35 each round (or split the pot if there's multiple winners). And if you win, you better duck: losers typically ball up their lightweight paper game boards and toss them at the winner.

In between rounds of bingo, another volunteer mans the karaoke machine. At December's event, a group of about dozen women dressed in reindeer antlers sang the hit song "I Will Survive."

Proceeds from each event benefit the senior center, to help fund arts programs, social services, and even a part-time social worker. Kaplan said that bingo karaoke is the center's biggest fundraiser, bringing in about $4,000 each month.

"I'm not sure that everyone who comes to bingo karaoke understands how important this is to the senior center," Bowden added. "(I'm) grateful. Just grateful."

The event typically starts at 7:30 pm on the last Friday of every month, and runs for about three hours. More information can be found here.