When the state called Benjimen Blair in for questioning, he decided it might not be prudent to come dressed as his drag queen alter ego, Sylvia O’Stayformore.
“I figured these are the cops, right, so I should play it straight,” he laughs.
Then the agents dropped the word “felony.”
“They had guns and handcuffs,” Blair recounted the other day. “I remember thinking: ‘Uh oh, is this more serious than I thought? Should I have a lawyer in here?’ ”
The reason he didn’t take it all that seriously is that Sylvia O’Stayformore hosts charity bingo events at senior centers around the region. That’s right — this is about charity bingo at senior centers.
Yet the hugely popular Rainbow Bingo events, in which a drag queen vamps, sings and calls bingo numbers to raise money for nonprofit senior centers, somehow ended up in the crosshairs of state agents.
“You must immediately cease the operation of these bingo games that are illegal in Washington State,” the state gambling commission notified Blair last month. This “cease and desist” letter threatened Blair, aka O’Stayformore, with criminal prosecution for a Class B felony and more than 10 years in prison, for allegedly running a gambling scheme without a license.
“Over the past two years, investigations by (special agents) … have confirmed that Rainbow Bingo has held numerous bingo events that were in direction violation of the Washington State Gambling Act,” the letter states.
You read that right. They did a 2-year investigation into senior-center bingo.
“It’s insane,” says Lyle Evans, director of the Senior Center of West Seattle. “I can give you no idea why the state of Washington decided to crack down on nonprofit senior centers.”
The tiny South Park Senior Center in Seattle has now canceled three of its charity bingo nights. A volunteer treasurer, Dagmar Cronn, 73, says she was left in tears when a state agent “blamed me for running an illegal gambling operation” and made her pay a $300 fine.
“A lot of senior centers have cut back on bingo now or stopped holding bingo completely,” says Susan Kingsbury-Comeau, who runs the Mt. Si Senior Center in North Bend. “We’re senior centers, not casinos. The gambling commission just showed up here and started going through our books.”
In West Seattle, the senior center had been raising $75,000 a year on Rainbow Bingo, selling out 200 tickets each for nine events per year. Other centers are more modest, raising $2,500 per event. They are bawdy affairs that you might not correlate with “senior center,” featuring jello shots and O’Stayformore presiding in a blond wig and a bra stuffed with Nerf footballs.
“People come in costumes, it’s a real party,” Kingsbury-Comeau said. “It broadens the senior center out to the wider community. It’s not some big gambling event.”
Under state law, though, it is a gambling event all the same. Each senior center has to get a gambling license and then adhere to a bingo code rule book that is more than 100 sections long, governing everything from the ball blowers to the layout of the cards.
The state says each senior center had the correct licenses. But for Sylvia to call out the bingo numbers — as she is wont to do, flamboyantly — she can’t just be a contractor hire; the state says she technically must work directly for the senior center or have her own gambling license. The state viewed her calling out “B-5” and “G-56” as a covered gambling activity — and therefore punishable by felony charges if not properly licensed.
“The individual (Sylvia) operated bingo by calling bingo balls and/or verifying winning bingo cards at licensed bingo events,” Tina Griffin, assistant director for Licensing, Regulation and Enforcement at the gambling commission, explained in an email to the senior centers. “The definition of bingo in RCW 9.46.0205 requires that only bona fide members or employees of the licensed organization can manage or operate bingo.”
Evans, of West Seattle, said the state never did contend that anybody had been harmed by the drag queen reading out the bingo balls (I can’t believe I just typed that sentence). He’s now getting around this felonious situation by having somebody else call out the numbers, with Sylvia solely doing entertainment.
But his center was also fined, and he was threatened with a different felony charge, for selling advance tickets to the events. Apparently bingo can only be paid for with cash and not in advance.
West Seattle is continuing its Rainbow Bingo, Evans said, “but our attendance is off 25% because I can’t take paid reservations. The state is saying ‘that’s the letter of the law,’ and they’re sticking to that.”
A spokesperson for the state gambling agents said that “Rainbow Bingo is essentially conducting gambling by-proxy, through the senior centers. If we were to turn away and let the activity continue … we might have other businesses pop up with the same type of business model — illegally operating gambling through licensed organizations.”
The senior center directors counter that they weren’t being exploited. Nobody was.
“Congratulations, state, you went after drag queen bingo for two years, and you knocked it down,” Kingsbury-Comeau said. “Society has really dodged a bullet on this one.”
As for Sylvia? She’s trying to stay in character about it all.
“I have learned from my government that I cannot, I may not, touch the balls,” she said, sighing. “I don’t know how I can soldier on.”