I read up on Rebel Bingo before I went. I learned that threats of embarrassment are prominent features of the experience, and I imagined Rebel Bingo veterans as a drunker version of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” cult, so I wanted to be sure I wouldn’t fall prey to whatever humiliation the old guard had cooked up for me.
When I arrived at the Boulevard Pool, on the fourth-floor east roof of The Cosmopolitan, I met with the first clue that this event would be different than I had predicted. Much ado had been made about my ticket — where to pick it up, who to call if anything went wrong at the box office — but there was no one at the entrance to collect any ticket. (It turned out I had gone to the wrong door, so my ticket wasn’t there anyway.)
I spoke to a door attendant who offered to take down my name and email address on a napkin and get it to the event organizers. (I know. What?) But he knew nothing about Rebel Bingo. With a shrug, he suggested I just go ahead in.
I was leaning against a planter waiting for something to happen when I remembered that my confirmation email had directed me to a small box office on The Cosmopolitan’s third floor. When I got there, no one could find my ticket. I offered to show the box office folks the confirmation email, but they just handed me some promotional cards (not actual tickets), whispered, “Just take these” and waved me off to the elevator that would take me back the Boulevard Pool.
I told my friend Jorge, a veteran of the event, about the non-ticket incident. He replied. “That’s so Rebel Bingo.”
He was so right.
Back up on the roof, things were starting to happen. A woman handed me a magic marker and two newsprint bingo cards and told me to “have fun.” Jorge was with me now, so I resisted the compulsion to return to my planter, but I eyed the Cosmo marquee, which was counting down the minutes until “It gets real,” with trepidation. I had read that people at Rebel Bingo drink and smoke and yell, so naturally I believed that when the clock hit 00:00:00, the crowd of about 200 that was milling quietly on the covered pool would jolt into a frenzy and rush the stage, sloshing absinthe everywhere and blowing opium smoke in my face while I tried to make it through their stampede of crazy back to the planter, where I’d be safe.
Actually, when the clock hit 00:00:00, almost nothing happened. The music stopped and the lights went down, and everyone kept doing what they were doing.
After about a minute of lag time, Rebel Bingo founder Freddie Fortune (his real name is Freddie Sorensen) arrived on stage and, shouting in his northeast London accent (at least that’s how “LA Weekly” reporter Paul T. Bradley describes it when he suggests that Freddie might be faking).
Freddie welcomes the crowd by getting them riled up to rage against a totally absurd imagined enemy: the unquantified group of traditional bingo enthusiasts who don’t want people playing Rebel Bingo.
“We are in now in the heartland of bingo and already we have experienced some interbingo hatred,” he says.
He reads from a “letter” that he says he found outside his hotel room door that morning. It’s supposedly from “Rose” Something-or-other, who claims to be the secretary of the Las Vegas Senior Citizens Bingo Association or Organization or Guild or Whatnot. (I jotted down part of the name, figuring I could Google it later for correct spellings, but Google doesn’t know what I’m talking about.)
“Rose” writes, “What you people play isn’t even bingo,” calls Freddie some foul names, and tells him to “get a real job.”
I can’t figure out what’s real. Yes, there is an actual person who runs Rebel Bingo and is probably actually named Freddie. I think I believe the story he tells of how Rebel Bingo began. (Freddie and a friend were drunk. They were in a London basement. They invented it.) And I welcome as acceptably absurd the speaker’s description of how the phenomenon gained its global fan base. (“It’s a bit like Scientology, but more bingo-based.”) But there are two girls on stage dressed in sequined leotards that look like they were dug out of a thrift store clearance bin. One of the girls is wearing a translucent pink cape, and she whips it around a little and sometimes does a slow-motion can-can. She looks like she only half-planned to show up tonight and isn’t really sure what she’s doing on stage. The other girl is wearing a red-and-white feathered headdress that hangs down past her butt.
I think I’ve misled you a little. I think that when you started reading this article, you might have been hopeful that I would explain what actually HAPPENS at Rebel Bingo — that I, with the memory of Rebel Bingo virginity still fresh in my mind, might deign to bring you into the fold and spare you the panic you might otherwise feel when you yourself go to the event for the first time. So you kept reading. But then I started talking about possibly fake women, and slow-motion can-cans, and headdresses and butts, and now you think I’ve definitely been compromised.
I have NOT been compromised. I’m sitting here at my desk at VEGAS.com, and I don’t have a robot face or an octopus living in my brain. I have not stopped drinking coffee and started drinking oxblood cocktails with little umbrellas in them.
I will still be your spirit guide. But you have to accept that I. Have. Nothing. To tell you.
I’m going to do my best to walk you step by step through a game of Rebel Bingo. But I PROMISE that by the end, you won’t understand. However, I also promise that you will have a great time if you go, and you will NOT be embarrassed, no matter how many times Freddie Fortune tells you you will be.
If you accept this nonsense, read on.
Here’s how a game of Rebel Bingo goes.
(1) A DJ plays dramatic music.
(2) Freddie shouts out the rules of the game. Circle the numbers as they’re called. If you get BINGO, you have to run up to the stage and hug Freddie. (There’s a lot of hugging in Rebel Bingo.)
The first two people to hug him get their cards checked. If the girls confirm that you have correct numbers circled and they’re in a line, you get to compete for the prize. If you are mistaken, you will be embarrassed beyond repair and be a loser forever. If you’re correct, you will compete for the prize. The prize is something ridiculous. It’s something you have never wanted — but once you see it, you want it REALLY BADLY.
(3) Freddie promises that the prize will have some kind of incredible impact on your life, and you believe him. (The first prize last night was a stuffed panda, which all 200-some bingo players TRULY BELIEVED would be their best friend forever and never leave them lonely.) A video promoting the prize plays. It features happy-looking people using the item and jumping with joy in a field of grass and flowers.
(4) Play begins. The girls on stage call out numbers. They rhyme the numbers (roughly) with raunchy little phrases. (When they can’t come up with something, the default is something like “F*** me at the (some location that rhymes wit the number)” — like “zoo” for “42.”) Freddie repeats the number in digits then in full: “Four and two. Forty-two.” There are letters on your BINGO card, but no one calls out letters.
(5) Someone gets BINGO and runs to the stage, or a couple people do, and they race. Someone hugs Freddie, and their cards are checked.
(6) Once their BINGOs are confirmed, the two finalists do something silly to compete for the prize — stuff you would do at an 8-year-old’s birthday party. (The panda competitors tried to be the first to hug a balloon until it popped.)
(7) Someone wins. The prize is awarded, and the winner and the crowd go nuts. They scream and yell and jump around. They hug their friends and strangers. (See? I told you. Lots of hugging.) They uncap their magic markers and get ready for the next game. But they are so excited that they can barely hold the pens in their hands. So they flail around and scream some more.
(8) Freddie explains the rules again, and the madness goes another round.
No one was belligerently drunk.
No one made anyone else feel bad. (Several strangers approached my friends who had gone up on stage and lost, saying they had been rooting for them.)
Most incredible of all, Rebel Bingo was allowed to commandeer The Cosmopolitan’s giant Strip-side marquee, and project its nonsense to all the tourists on Las Vegas Boulevard. The sign showed the countdown to start time and the corny videos that touted the prizes, and during the head-to-head rounds, displayed “MAN THIS IS TENSE” in giant white letters. And the Cosmo let it happen.
So here’s the bottom line: Rebel Bingo is senseless and dorky, but it’s incredibly fun. There is an infectious energy that comes from a whole bunch of people willfully committing themselves to groupthink, and you should experience it. It’s really good. And I really, really wanted that panda.