Last bingo: Danish Hall hosts only game in Mason County

LUDINGTON, Mich. (AP) — Once upon a time, there was somewhere people could go to play bingo every night of the week in Mason County.

Now, the Danish Hall in Ludington’s Fourth Ward is the only one that remains.

Every Thursday, the doors open at 4:30 p.m. Players get their bingo cards, set up their tables and get ready to win some money.

Rob Jensen, a 53-year Danish Brotherhood member, organizes the event. He took over when long-time bingo organizer Keith Koegler had to step down due to health reasons.

“My dad joined the Brotherhood in 1930. I promised him that I’d keep it going,” Jensen told the Ludington Daily News.

The Danish Brotherhood purchased the Hall in 1895. It was previously a Methodist church.

“We started bingo through the state in 1973, but as far as bingo goes, we’ve had it here for 60 or 70 years,” Jensen said. “Before the state organized it, they used to do it for canned food and stuff like that.”

Bingo was immensely popular. Twenty years ago, the Danish Brotherhood bingo night used both the main floor and the basement.

“We had 120 people in here,” Jensen said.

And it wasn’t just the Danish Brotherhood. Clubs all over the county used to hold bingo nights — the Eagles, Elks, Moose, the Optimist Club. So did the American Legion and several churches.

“It used to be you could play bingo every day of the week and twice on Sunday in Mason County,” Jensen said. “Now we’re the last one standing.”

Jensen said bingo was the main support for the Brotherhood for years. It all changed when the casinos were built and offered bingo.

“Until probably the 2000s. That’s when it really started going down. The casinos came in… and people liked the glitz, the glam, the bells and whistles,” he said. “There’s no new people anymore. But we have our regulars.”

The Danish Brotherhood bingo night was canceled for all of 2020. Jensen said numbers were down from 2019, so they decided not to have it for the first three months of 2020. Then the pandemic hit and the hall was closed.

It started back up this January.

Last Thursday, Feb. 25, there were 32 players.

When the players trickled in, they started at the volunteer table where they purchase the cards.

The volunteers said the players come for the camaraderie.

“They need that. They come to be around the people they’re used to seeing,” said Pam Anes, who has volunteered for two years.

The number of players is down compared to when Anes started, but she said they are coming back.

“There are fewer people because of COVID. Also, there’s a cut off,” she said. “We didn’t have it at all last year. When we started again, people were ready. They were lined up out the door.”

Joanne Reed and Becky Cornett had a lucky night, each winning bingos.

“We’re so happy that it opened up again,” Cornett said.

“We like to support the Danish Brotherhood,” Reed said. “Even if you don’t win, it’s still fun. It’s safe and fun entertainment, and cheaper than going to the casinos.”

Dan Jankowski calls the numbers. He’s been helping for 10 years.

“I came to play one night and I’ve been stuck ever since,” he said.

The night starts with the bingo balls, when a number gets drawn for the chance to win cash.

The bingo games began at 6 p.m.

There’s the “early birds,” the lightening rounds, the specials, when players have to form a specific pattern or fill the entire card. These were on disposable paper. The players used colorful ink-filled daubers to mark the numbers.

Then there were the hard cards — the traditional cards that the players fill using their bingo chips.

During the night there is also the chance to win the big jackpot, which slowly grows each week until someone gets it. Then it starts over at $200.

But it’s not just about the prizes. For many, it’s a chance to get out of the house and spend time with family and friends.

“I started coming because of my sister,” said Patricia Calkin. “It gets me out of the house. I have five grandchildren living with me.”

She came for the first time in 2019. Her older sister Shery Billings has played for more than 40 years.

“I do it for the entertainment. I love playing,” Billings said.

Calkin joined Billings when their sister, Mary, who also played bingo, passed away. They both put photos of her by their cards.

They share their winnings, too.

“When I won $150 last week, I gave her $25,” Calkin said.

“She’s seeing what she missed all those years,” Billings said.

There are 29 rounds each night. Bingo can last until 10 p.m.

Linda Stewart said she’s played bingo since she was old enough.

“My mom used to come all the time and I came with her,” she said. “We played all over. Mason County. Muskegon. Reno. I like playing here, plus I live down the street.”

Stewart said she doesn’t have a strategy.

“It’s all in the numbers. There are 26 different ways to win,” she said.

Bingo requires quick reflexes. Her advice for new players is to start out slow.

“You might want to start out with just six or eight cards,” she said. “When you get used to doing it, you can increase your (number of) cards.”

Todd and Dottie Eastway come for date night.

“I find it relaxing,” Todd said. “We had friends who came, so we came.”

Those friends were Kay Castonia and her daughter-in-law Brooke.

Dottie said there’s a misconception that it’s an “older person’s game.”

But Brooke’s daughter, who is in her 20s, comes regularly. They call it “girls night.”

“We have a good time. We love coming. The workers are awesome,” Kay said.

“It means a lot to spend time together as a family, to spend time with grandma. It’s a big deal for us,” Brooke said.

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