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New bingo hall headed to Concord

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CONCORD — Concord bingo lovers’ number just came up.

The City of Concord will approve a new bingo hall at 1505 Willow Pass Road, said Concord Senior Planner Frank Abejo. The building is just west of Highway 242; it once housed the Velocity gym.

Pop’s Bingo World will host games run by various nonprofit organizations in the area, possibly including the Community Youth Center and East Bay Services to the Developmentally Disabled, both based in Concord.

The hall would be allowed to stay open until 1:30 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights, with earlier closing times on weekdays, said Abejo, who was drawing up the final conditions of approval Friday.

There is one other Pop’s Bingo World, in Richmond, Virginia.

The man behind that hall, Chuck Lessin, is the bingo guru helping get the new Concord hall organized, said Joan Enea-Lopez, whose father owns the property. Her brother spent months talking to different bingo operators, she said.

“Chuck seems to be one of the best people in the country,” she said.

Bingo runs deep in the Enea family — they would all get together and play every Christmas Eve, Enea-Lopez said. And the combination of helping charities and filling a vacant building was appealing, she said.

In California, bingo games can only be run by nonprofit organizations, mobile home park associations and senior groups. The games must be run by volunteers; only security can be paid for.

At the proposed Concord hall, nonprofit organizations would rotate, providing volunteers for different nights.

Players would be able to play on paper cards or use computer card-minding devices, Lessin said. The hall also would have instant bingo pull-tab tickets, he said.

The Community Youth Center is excited at the prospect of running a night at the bingo hall, though it has not yet formally committed, said Executive Director Dennis Costanza.

The center helps about 1,500 children with sports and academics.

“It’s a tough time right now to raise funds,” said Costanza.

Initially he did not know how the organization’s volunteers would react to the idea of running bingo games, he said.

“But they (were) so excited it wasn’t even funny,” he said. “There’s a whole group of people we’ve got motivated.”

State cuts have prompted organizations like East Bay Services to the Developmentally Disabled to look for new ways to raise cash.

“The governor has cut us this past year; the cuts have been pretty significant in our programs,” said Executive Director Sister Marygrace Puchac. “So it’s almost like we’re compelled to look at another way of preserving and sustaining the programs.”

Concord has one other bingo hall, run by the Concord Blue Devils on Nelson Avenue north of Highway 4.

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Concord Blue Devils drive-in bingo helps fill void during pandemic

Players hang out in their cars, hoping for big payoffs

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Update: Organizers say they plan to hold bingo sessions on Saturday and Sunday Dec. 5 and 6, but will evaluate how new county restrictions on gatherings will affect sessions after the weekend. Be sure to check the group’s website for updates.

The sun has barely set over a jam-packed parking lot off Nelson Avenue in Concord when a car horn blares and a set of headlights repeatedly flashes.

That’s the signal for Lucky Kalanges to spring into action. Someone just called “bingo” and wants her cash.

CONCORD, CA – NOVEMBER 14: Kathy Fazil, left, of Roseville, and her mother Sandy Badley, not pictured, of Pacheco, play bingo from their car during a drive-in bingo in the parking lot at Blue Devils Bingo in Concord, Calif., on Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

CONCORD, CA – NOVEMBER 14: Kathy Terry, of Vacaville, and Maureen Sesser, of Fairfield not pictured, play bingo from their car during a drive-in bingo in the parking lot at Blue Devils Bingo in Concord, Calif., on Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

CONCORD, CA – NOVEMBER 14: Kathy Fazil, left, of Roseville, and her mother Sandy Badley, not pictured, of Pacheco, play bingo from their car during a drive-in bingo in the parking lot at Blue Devils Bingo in Concord, Calif., on Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

CONCORD, CA – NOVEMBER 14: Kathy Terry, of Vacaville, and Maureen Sesser, of Fairfield not pictured, play bingo from their car during a drive-in bingo in the parking lot at Blue Devils Bingo in Concord, Calif., on Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

CONCORD, CA – NOVEMBER 14: Blue Devils Bingo volunteer Tina Archuleta, left, and security guard James Greer deliver a prize to an aficionado as people play bingo from their cars in the parking lot at Blue Devils Bingo in Concord, Calif., on Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

As players remain in their cars, the Blue Devils bingo hall in Concord isn’t in use. (Ray Chavez)

Kathy Fazil of Roseville plays bingo from her car (Ray Chavez).

(Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

Kathy Terry, right, of Vacaville, and Mauree Sesser, of Fairfield, play bingo from their car during a drive-in bingo in the parking lot at Blue Devils Bingo in Concord.

CONCORD, CA – NOVEMBER 14: Rory Blankship calls the numbers as people play bingo from their cars in the parking lot at Blue Devils Bingo in Concord, Calif., on Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

CONCORD, CA – NOVEMBER 14: Maureen Sesser, of Fairfield, left, and Kathy Terry, of Vacaville, play bingo from their car during a drive-in bingo in the parking lot at Blue Devils Bingo in Concord, Calif., on Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

CONCORD, CA – NOVEMBER 14: Rory Blankship calls the numbers as people play bingo from their cars in the parking lot at Blue Devils Bingo in Concord, Calif., on Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

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Kalanges, the director of Blue Devils Bingo, sprints toward the lights. Waiting inside a Ford pickup is Shannon Golinveaux, who apparently has scored on an “Early Bird” game. Smiling, she hands her card out the window to a mask-wearing Kalanges so he can verify that, indeed, she has secured the win.

He forks over $300 in crisp bills. Another happy customer.

Like many non-profit organizations, BD Performing Arts was forced to make dramatic adjustments in order to stay afloat during the pandemic. Best known for its world-famous Blue Devils Drum and Bugle Corps., the group has, for decades, funded its programs mostly through popular bingo games held inside a spacious indoor facility. But California’s COVID-19 shutdowns put a halt to that.

Hence, the birth of drive-in bingo.

“When the (money) faucet shut off, it was pretty traumatic,” says Shaun Gallant, the chief executive officer of BD Performing Arts. “We had to pivot pretty quickly, so we got creative and entrepreneurial.”

The solution was to move the games outdoors into the organization’s 90,000-square-foot parking lot. There, on three nights a week and Sunday afternoons, enthusiastic players show up in their vehicles, pay for their game packets and park within traffic cones arranged to maintain social distancing. Tickets must be purchased in advance and include several package options. (See bluedevils.org/bingo for more information).

BD Performing Arts has even shared its business model with Vanguard Music and Performing Arts, sponsors of the Santa Clara Drum and Bugle Corps. Vanguard now runs four bingo programs a week in its parking lot on Space Park Drive in Santa Clara. (See scvanguard.org/bingo/ for more information).

In Concord, players tune their car radios to 91.3 FM in order to hear the letters and numbers being barked out by caller Rori Blankenship. Or they roll down their windows and listen to the loudspeakers as they try their luck in games with colorful monikers such as Wabbit Twacks, Biker Betty and Strip Club.

As the promotional tagline on the Blue Devils website claims, “It’s like a drive-in movie … with big cash payouts!”

You don’t have to convince Kathy Terry of Vacaville. She’s all in. Seated behind the wheel of her Toyota Sienna, she lords over a big clipboard, playing six game cards simultaneously. Next to her in the passenger seat is Maureen Sesser, her pal from Fairfield, who is playing three.

“We’re hardcore,” Terry says. “You can’t keep us away.”

Asked if she’d rather be playing indoors, she replies, “No way. Not with the COVID.”

But Terry admits the outdoor games present certain challenges. For example, she and Sesser arrived at 9:30 a.m. for a session that began at 6 p.m. — just so they could park in the front row where they’d be close to the restrooms and near a big-screen TV that flashes images of the numbered balls dropping. Also, the Subway sandwich shop inside the bingo hall is now closed, so you better bring your own munchies.

There are challenges for staff members, as well. Kalanges points out that he and his crew have much more ground to cover in the vast parking lot as they scurry about, selling game packets and providing payoffs. In addition to Concord, they also run two sessions a week in Suisun City and one in Pleasanton.

“It’s a lot of energy and hustle. It’s go-go-go, non-stop,” he says. “We have to try and get to everybody. But I’m staying in shape. I’ve lost maybe 20 pounds since we started.”

Kathy Fazil of Roseville plays bingo from her car (Ray Chavez).

Vallejo residents Rene and Tootie Lee are certainly glad Kalanges and company are giving it their all. Self-described “bingo-holics, ” the mother-daughter duo routinely drove to Concord every weekend to play indoors. But when the pandemic hit, they went into retreat for a while.

“We just started coming back recently because we were scared of the COVID,” explains Tootie.

Consider it a timely return. Rene has already pocketed $2,500 — and the night is still young.

“Oooh, this will be good Christmas money!” she exclaims as she leafs through a stack of greenbacks.

When the drive-in bingo games began, Gallant expected to see pretty much the same players who turned out for the indoor games. But the demographics have shifted a bit.

“Everyone’s comfort level is different,” he says. “Some of our regulars don’t want to sit in a car for hours. On the other hand, we’ve seen an influx of new people who are simply looking to get out.”

For BD Performing Arts, it has been a brutal year. The pandemic forced the Blue Devils to cancel their annual national tour. So the outdoors bingo games have helped to ease the pain.

“They have been,” Gallant says, “a beacon of hope.”

Concord Blue Devils famed fundraising bingo games go outside to ensure social distancing — and organizers and players are grateful. ]]>