Bingo Was Its Name-O

The Texas Lottery Commission brings the hammer down on the El Orbits' Monday-night institution

Seven years ago, back when he still cashed checks from the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, David Beebe hit on a simple idea that would eventually enliven hundreds of Mondays for thousands of people all over south and central Texas. His new retro-lounge band the El Orbits would provide the musical soundtrack to an evening of bingo.

Eureka! Shazam! And, ahem, Bingo! A great idea was born. The FabSat and later the Continental Club would have a reason for being open on Mondays. The El Orbits and their mellow lounge sounds would have a steady gig. One lucky lady -- each week of the month would have a designated bingo caller girl -- would get an open bar tab, and all who came would get to see an attractive woman get drunk live on stage. Lots of people would have something fun to do on one of the most depressing nights of the week, of which there are several.

Sure, Beebe knew that technically bingo was gambling, but he would get around that by not charging a cover and by awarding such prizes as Pez dispensers, dusty velvet paintings pillaged from the art galleries of various Value Villages, and amusing recordings culled from the music sections of same.

Sounds like good clean fun to me, and for seven years it worked, not just at the FabSat and the Continental here but also at Beerland, Flipnotics and the Continental in Austin, Casbeer's and Taco Land in San Antonio, and the Saengerhalle in New Braunfels.

And then the heat found out. Specifically, the Texas Lottery Commission. And they were not amused.

Among the laws Beebe and the El Orbits were breaking: Their bingo cards were nonregulation, they dared allow alcohol to be served where bingo was played, and they were hosting bingo games without a license, which, like some forms of child molestation, just happens to be a third-degree felony punishable by two to ten in the big house and a $10,000 fine.

Let me get this straight: According to the Texas Penal Code, playing bingo with a nonregulation card, sipping Schlitz and taking in the El Orbits' cover of "Frosty the Snowman" was, in the eyes of the law, as grievous a sin as fondling a schoolkid. It's easy to see why -- the dangers of unregulated bingo cards are too numerous and well documented for me to discuss here, and that volatile mix of beer, bingo and Tony Bennett tunes was sure to spark someone to put a cap in someone's ass sooner or later. Glad the noble paladins at the Texas Lottery Commission are finally doing something about this den of iniquity; maybe now Midtown property values will start to rise.

"Yeah, we were a real danger to the developers," says Beebe over the phone from a van in Phoenix. "Still, the guy at the Lottery Commission told me he didn't write the laws, he just enforces 'em, and I agree with that."

Actually, this wasn't the first time El Orbits bingo nights had come to the attention of the Lottery Commission; the first was two years ago, around the time Beebe took the game to Austin. Back then, Beebe found and exploited a couple of loopholes. One such was an exemption granted to bingo games sponsored by newspapers, so Beebe sought and got a nominal sponsorship from the Austin American-Statesman. When the Lottery Commission clarified that this loophole existed so newspapers could play promotional bingo games using inserts in their newspapers and not actual in-person games, Beebe and the Continental mob found another loophole. "Shoeshine Charlie" Miller, the popular, elderly regular at the Austin Continental and the namesake of the Big Top Lounge that bears his name here, was then in failing health, so Austin Continental owner Steve Wertheimer arranged for him to get a room at the nearby Monte Siesta nursing home. Wertheimer got to know Monte Siesta's administrator, who pointed out that nursing homes are also the beneficiaries of bingo exemptions, and that Monte Siesta would sponsor the Continental's bingo night.

Ever since then, all of the bingo nights have operated under this arrangement, even though Beebe says "only two or three" of the Monte Siesta residents ever showed up. But now the Texas Lottery Commission has decided that these bingo games must be held on the premises of the nursing home to qualify for the exemption.

So it's curtains for bingo at the Continental Club, at least for now. Beebe says he hopes that the law will get changed, but the soonest that could happen is a year from this September. Meanwhile, the El Orbits are planning three months of woodshedding, during which they intend to add salsa, tango and merengue tunes to their repertoire, and when they return, they want Mondays to be a one-stop dance party for those who like to strut their stuff in several distinct dance styles. (Both Beebe and El Orbits bandmate the Dazzling Pete Gray reluctantly passed on Racket's idea for a fun new Monday-night game: Stuff a piñata with various illegal narcotics and have blindfolded contestants blast away at it with a shotgun. Seems it would violate even more laws than bingo, even if you only used prescription drugs and the shotgun was a measly single-shot .410.)

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