Ben Brazil at 2011 AGPC Convention: Bingo! The Odd and Religious History of an American Pastime

At the AGPC’s annual convention in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Ben Brazil was our featured speaker, tantalizing us about the curious history of the game of Bingo, what drove its development, and how it has evolved throughout the years.  Ben is a PhD. candidate in the Graduate Division of Religion at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.  A former journalist and freelance writer, Brazil first became interested in bingo after a high-school friend—and bingo hall employee—told him about the amount of devotion and wagering that surrounded the game.

The conversation launched an article on, and trip to, the world’s biggest bingo hall (Foxwoods Casino, Connecticut). While the article did not sell, Brazil’s continued interest led him to do Master’s degree research on bingo, through which he discovered the game’s fascinating religious history. Though his dissertation research is on religion and travel, he continues to work on bingo in his spare time and hopes to write a book on the subject.  Before his academic career, Brazil worked for The (Charleston, S.C.) Post and Courier and the Buenos Aires Herald.  He has also written for the travel sections of the New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times.

When you think of bingo, what comes to mind?  Smoky VFW halls? Monotonous, droning callers? Knots of grandmothers hunching over a couple of cards?

Whatever your image, chances are that it did not involve inter-religious conflict, organized crime, and political controversy. During its American history, however, the lowly game of bingo has involved all these things.  With obscure European origins, the game entered the American mainstream during the Great Depression, popularized, in part, by the enterprising son of a Polish rabbi turns New York real estate developer.  From the 1930s into the 1960s, the game became a major source of Protestant-Catholic controversy—Catholics relied on the game to fund parochial schools and other projects, which Protestants campaigned against “gambling”.  On occasion, even the mob was involved—attracted by an all-cash game with wide popularity.  While this story is too big to be told in one sitting, Brazil’s talk hit the high points.

 

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