Until last Tuesday, there was little indication that the 78-year tradition of bingo night at the Tonawandas Post 264, American Legion, was about to come to an abrupt end.
“I was really brokenhearted,” said Rose Courtney, who, as she has every Tuesday night over the last decade, traveled from her West Seneca home to pick up her sister for a family night in the historic post’s bingo hall on Main Street in the City of Tonawanda. “It’s hard to believe.”
Now, following Tuesday’s night’s games, the bingo lights went officially dark in Tonawanda.
Gone is the family atmosphere that brought folks such as Linda Quinn, Emily Felger and her husband, Marvin, to the hall week after week, the thrill of calling out a winning card and just spending a fun evening with friends.
“Out of a clear blue sky, they said they weren’t making it,” another added.
Attendance dropped substantially, post directors say, when the Erie County Health Department decided that smoking inside the bingo hall had to stop. The number of bingo players plummeted by a third, down to about 80 patrons per week.
The sudden decrease took the endeavor from slightly profitable into the red.
“It’s sadness on our part that we had to close it, but we couldn’t put the post in jeopardy,” said Dave O’Bryan, a member of the post’s board of directors. “We’re sad ourselves.”
O’Bryan said the board decided in recent weeks that it had to stop the bleeding. The board estimated that it was losing “several hundreds of dollars” every week. A full vote of the post’s membership went along with the board’s recommendation.
“You can’t throw good money after bad,” O’Bryan said, adding that the post leadership tried everything to recruit more patrons, from giving away free pizza to increasing the payouts. “Young people just don’t play bingo anymore.”
There were, admittedly, but a few youthful faces in the crowd Tuesday evening.
Twenty-year-old Emily Ertel, a University at Buffalo junior, was one of them. Ertel, a member of the women’s auxiliary at the post, has been volunteering at bingo nights for six years.
“Bingo is from a different era,” said the saddened Ertel, whose grandfather, Dick Weber, a World War II veteran, got her involved in helping out at the games. She has volunteered collecting money, working in the kitchen, handling payouts and calling numbers.
“It’s a second home,” Ertel explained.