Someone once told me that the heating is so high in Wetherspoons pubs to keep their old patrons alive, and that they use bingo to keep their brains alert; but bingo isn't just reserved for walkers and white perms, not anymore at least. As London is ever hankering for new and unique events, there's one high-octane sport that's kicking off with its own roster of quirky nights, and that's good ol' fashioned bingo. Host to some of the best in the business, we got chatting to Rebel Bingo and American Bingo Club creator James Gordon about what is making his events such a city success:
- Tell us a little about yourself.
About ten years ago I moved to New York and became involved in the cabaret and burlesque scene. Not as a dancer though, as a producer and promoter of crazy shows. I have always loved music hall and vaudeville, and so did the writers of the Daily Show with John Stewart. I got them to host a show at the Players Club in NYC, and it was a huge success. After that I really got the bug of producing live stage shows.
- It all started with Rebel Bingo, how has the name grown since?
While I was in New York, a famous nightlife promoter called Earl Dax took me to a Monday night ‘industry’ bingo event, where all the drag artists and vaudevillians and burlesque dancers would go to socialise. It was outrageous fun, and I remember thinking, ‘why is bingo not more popular’?
When I came back to London, Freddie and I tried out bingo in our church hall (where we used to host variety shows) and it was an instant hit. The first time we tried it, we dressed up a comedian called Charlie Partridge in a robot suit and he dropped the bingo balls out through a robotic willy. We didn’t know the rules of bingo though, and the first game went on for over half an hour. It was a disaster really, but you could see people were hooked. We took time to figure out the gameplay with Luki and Anita (the bingo callers), and eventually The Underground Rebel Bingo Club was born. At first it really was underground, but we quickly outgrow the church hall and started selling out warehouses in East London, then all over the UK, and before we knew it, it became the phenomenon it is today.
I moved back to New York, and toured up and down the East Coast from Toronto to Miami with Rebel Bingo. Luki, Anita and I eventually moved to Vegas for a bit. It’s hard to brush over this whole experience in such short sentence, the stories would make your jaw drop on the floor - we lived like bingo rock stars. We are lucky we have all survived intact. London is still going wild for Rebel Bingo, Spain and Portugal are still going wild for Rebel Bingo and it’s clear that Rebel Bingo is a very special experience and everyone should try it at least once. Rebel Bingo is an unstoppable force and it hasn’t reached it’s full potential yet.
So in short: Rebel Bingo has grown from an idea I had in a Brooklyn gay bar, into robotic willy, into a massive international phenomenon that’s showing no signs of stopping.
- How was American Bingo Club born?
American Bingo Club is all the best bits of my bingo experience, served up in a slightly more urbane way for Monday nights. It’s a thrilling, interactive ‘social activity’ but I am not ashamed to say it’s a little bit more grown up. We have a chef, we serve bottles of fine wines as well as cocktails, and even coffee if you like. We have seats and tables and candles and it’s underneath the Ace Hotel in Miranda, an unmarked nightclub. I wanted a place where people could say ‘it’s Monday night, let’s go and relax and play bingo after work.’ We currently open at 6pm but I want to start opening at 5pm.
We’ve been running for six weeks, and it’s been jam-packed every Monday with a really friendly fun crowd. We’ve had rock stars, movie stars and very famous fashion designers down, but it would be gauche to name names!
- Tell us, why bingo above all else?
Everybody in the room is engaged and focused on one thing at the same time. Playing can be a little euphoric, and the level of focus can induce ‘flow’, a meditative state. Anybody in the room could win, and it’s freaking hilarious at the same time. Even if you’ve never met anybody in the room you do feel part of a club and a community. Anybody could win, and it’s got that competitive vibe that lifts the room.
- Explain American Bingo Club in three words.
Bingo Never Died.
- Can you tell us one of the weirdest prizes you’ve ever given away?
We give away helicopter flights, dinners at Hoi-Polloi (at the Ace hotel), clay pigeon shoots, bungee jumps, artists paintings and loads of ‘must have’ prizes, but the most unexpectedly popular is this sort of kitchen gadget for pineapples – you get a pineapple, stick this thing in, wiggle it around and you magically create a tower of perfect pineapple rings, as well as transforming the pineapple into a tropical cocktail vessel. It’s mind-blowing and people go crazy for it.
- Your co-founder once said that running Rebel Bingo was like running a cult, what would running American Bingo Club be compared to?
He’s right! Rebel Bingo IS like running a cult. It’s a big responsibility taking all those people on an emotional, booze-fuelled journey through bingo, the customers hand over control to you, and you take them on a journey. That is very cult-ish.
At American Bingo Club, the customers lead the journey and control the night. They can drop in drop out, get stuck in all night or just watch. So if Rebel Bingo is like a cult, then American Bingo is like a crime fighting squad where everyone has different powers but are all trying to play bingo.
- If you were a bingo number, what bingo number would you be?
Let me think, I wouldn’t be 1, which according to Rebel Bingo is the number of happy people in most relationships, and I wouldn’t be 3, which again, according to Rebel Bingo, is the minimum number of people you need to make a functional gang. I think I would have to be 75 which is the highest number in American Bingo.
- If you could give one piece of advice to those looking to launch a unique event or night out in London, what would it be?
Running an event is unbelievably hard work, it’s impossibly hard work, so make sure that you absolutely love it. I absolutely love bingo, and the DJ and club promoters I know love music, and the band promoters I know love bands. So whatever the event is, just remember to be in love with it and believe in it, because at 4am in the morning when you’re loading out heavy things from a dodgy warehouse and the van’s broken down, or it’s nearly opening time and you are up in the ceiling doing electrics (which you know nothing about) to fix the PA and 500 people are queuing outside, or perhaps worst of all, 8 people have shown up, instead of 80, you’re going to have to draw on your passion and you can’t fake that!
Looking to get stuck into London's bingo and boozing scene? Snag tickets to American Bingo Club right here.