B2, N44, B6, N37, O74.
Daubing green and pink ink on the numbers of their paper bingo cards at The Bingo Haus, Wilma Unrein and Ollie Billinger sat side by side Friday night as they have for three decades.
But not for much longer. The Bingo Haus, 1218 Canterbury, closes its doors forever March 22, say its founders and owners, Deb and Linus Pfannenstiel, Damar.
The closing marks the end to a long run of community bingo in Hays. At one time, there were 16 bingos a week in Hays, says Linus.
“Now we’re the last ones in town and we’re down to one night a week,” he said. “It started out fairly good, then peaked in the 90s, and now there are about a third the people who were playing back in the 90s.”
Like others at The Bingo Haus Friday night, Unrein and Billinger can recite the litany of places they’ve frequented through the years, each with its own regular night, and each one fundraising for a cause: American Legion, VFW, Lucky Bucks, and churches too numerous to mention.
“I have not missed a bingo, unless I was sick. I just love bingo,” said Unrein, who grew up in Munjor in a family of nine. “We played it at home when we were kids, we had little cards and we played with candy corn.”
She used to drive and come by herself, but now her son, Steve Unrein, brings her. Sunday and Friday nights won’t be the same.
“She’s going to be bored out of her mind,” Steve chips in. Wilma admits that now she might be able to stay two weeks instead of just one when she visits her daughter in Topeka.
Billinger played the Pfannenstiel’s first bingo when they started up in the old Ben Dreiling car dealership in downtown Hays on 12th Street. That was 33 years ago, April 22, 1986, says Linus. When others were paying much less, they offered $1,200 in winnings, with a $500 blackout.
“We had some friends in the business in eastern Kansas and that’s how we got interested,” said Linus. “Nobody in eastern Kansas thought Hays was big enough to support a commercial bingo business. But it did, it worked for us.”
Linus points out that among the more than 60 pages of Kansas statutes governing bingo, there’s a regulation that the games be sponsored and operated by a nonprofit, with the bingo hall owning the equipment, managing concessions and taking a percentage of profit to pay rent and other costs.
The Pfannenstiels have had as many as 50 sponsors over the years. Among their first was the Hays Baseball Association, but others have been the Tri Sigma Sorority at Fort Hays State University, the Knights of Columbus, the Ellis County Association for the Blind, Thomas More Prep-Marian and many more.
For the past three years on Friday night, the sponsor has been the Fort Hays fraternity Alpha Gamma Rho. Besides locals at the games, hotel and motel guests traveling through come in to play bingo.
Calling the bingo Friday night from the caller’s console was Alpha Gamma’s Hunter Hyatt, a sophomore majoring in construction management. There are 75 numbered balls, but the first game, someone bingoed after nine.
“That is one good bingo, are there any others?” Hyatt said into the microphone. “If not, the game is closed.” Friday was his third time to call. Last year was his first.
“I was just flying by the seat of my pants and I got through it,” he said.
Alpha Gamma’s Hunter Helget, a senior studying agri-business, walked the floor and brought up the winning cards Friday night. He’s been working bingo for four years.
Susan Legleiter, Hays, won the first game. Helget handed her $30 cash. She’s been coming by herself for the past 10 years, spending $25 for the stack of paper cards for the night.
“I come for the fun, it’s my night out,” she said Friday, admitting disappointment the hall is closing. “It’s kinda said, because there isn’t a whole lot to do in this town for the elderly,” she said, gesturing to some of the folks around her.
Clara Korbe, Hays, started playing when the Pfannenstiel’s were on 12th Street.
“I came three nights a week,” she said, mentioning her mom, Amelia Glassman. “I took my mother, she played til she was 99.”
Friday was the first time at The Bingo Haus for Fort Hays sophomore Sydney VanCoeave, a buddy of Alpha Gamma’s Helget. An animal science major from Fort Collins, Colo., she brought her friend, sophomore Hanna Cross, a special education major, also from Fort Collins.
“We’ve been best friends since middle school,” said Cross, who brought her boyfriend, Austin Hall, a freshman agronomy major from Lamar, Colo. When a player across the room shouted bingo, Austin, who says he’s never played before, looked at his card and mumbled, “Oh, I was so close.”
The suggestion the three appear to know what they’re doing makes Cross laugh, “Oh, we do not know what we’re doing,” she said, but admitted, “I used to play with my mom, we went to the bingo house in Wyoming.”
Earlier, Annette Wooldridge, Hays, and a friend had joined the three students at their table. A cashier at Fort Hays’s McMindes Hall, Wooldridge recognized Hall from the cafeteria.
“I said ‘I hope you don’t mind sitting next to a couple old ladies?’ And they said ‘No, but we might need your help,’ so I showed them the ropes,” Wooldridge said. She’s only been playing three years.
“I waited til my kids were grown up,” she said. “Now I’m a regular. I love playing and getting out and winning. And I like to meet people, I enjoy that.”
Andrea Hoss, Hays, started going to bingo when she was a little girl, one or two nights a week with her grandma, Thelma Gross, Hays. “I played everywhere,” says Hoss.
The Pfannenstiels remember when Hoss was pregnant, then later brought her own daughter. Hoss, who was playing 18 cards at once Friday night, also brought her husband one time.
“He said ‘never again,’ because playing a six-pack stressed him out,” she said. A licensed day care provider, Hoss finds bingo relaxing. What happens after March?
“I don’t know, I’ll miss the camaraderie of the people. I like hanging out with my people,” she said, gesturing around her. “I hope another will start. The elderly need it, some of them is all they have to do is go to the grocery store, the post office, church and here.”
People come out early to eat and play cards, driving from WaKeeney, Russell, Victoria, Hill City and Osborne, she said.
“I feel sorry for them. It keeps their minds sharp, they’re playing with numbers. When they don’t show up for two weeks, I call and see how they are,” said Hoss. “This has been my life. I’m going to miss Deb and Linus desperately.”
Bill and Cindy Level, WaKeeney, have been coming for 15 years. Friday nights won’t be the same.
“I don’t know, just watch TV,” said Cindy, shrugging and shaking her head. “We made a lot of friends from here.”
At the concession stand, Nancy Bergman, Hays, is making a fresh batch of popcorn. She’s worked the stand for 18 years, serving everything from ham and cheese sandwiches, polish sausage, taco pie, chef salad, nachos and hot dogs to ice cream and large dill pickles.
“I love the people,” she says. “This has been my dream job, I will miss it.”
Alpha Gamma’s Helget says getting volunteers to work the bingo is hard, and it’s hard to get the crowds too. Still, he hints that someone, he won’t say who or where, may try to start up community bingo again in Hays.
Deb Pfannenstiel is skeptical.
“It’s hard for sponsors to get the volunteers to work the bingo,” she says. “And we can’t find sponsors. We’ve advertised for months and months. People don’t want to volunteer anymore.”
Plus, says Linus, bingo draws people who come out to socialize and talk to people. Times have changed, and people are playing faster paced games on their phones and video consoles.
“Face-to-face communication is not something people are interested in anymore. They prefer texting or tweeting,” he said. “Most of the people who will be the saddest or broken hearted are those who come to get out and see people and visit. We’re going to miss them. It makes it very hard for us, people we’ve seen for 25 or 30 years. Some of these people we remember when they were born.”
With the space going up for lease, all the equipment and supplies will be auctioned at 10 a.m. Saturday, March 30 by Schneider Auction Services, Hays. The Pfannenstiels are planning a special evening for the last bingo on March 22, Linus said.
By 8:30 p.m. Friday night, friends Wilma Unrein and Ollie Billinger had both bingoed.
“Them two are both very lucky,” said Donita Schwager, Hays, sitting at their table with her husband, Raymond.
Over the years, Unrein admits, she’s won the $500 blackout four times, and Billinger acknowledges she’s taken it home five times.
“It’s all luck,” said Unrein.