Bingo is in trouble on Monday nights at the American Legion Post 257 in Vineyard Haven.

The social function that always drew a good crowd and a crew of volunteers and raised money for the veterans group is fading. There are also bingo problems at the American Legion Post 186 in Edgartown.

Last month, organizers at the Vineyard Haven legion hall had to cancel one night for lack of participants. They needed at least 12 people at the tables and they fell significantly short. Another June night was cancelled when there were not enough volunteers to run the game.

It is either one problem or another, organizers report. The seesaw of troubles spell a change and both legion halls are trying to grapple with ways to raise money.

Bingo night at the Gen. George W. Goethals Post No. 257, American Legion Hall on William street in Vineyard Haven was once the event of the week for many. Dozens of people came for hours of fun. They’d come early to get a favorite seat and they’d come early to hold a social before the games began.

It is one of the few, if only, places on the Vineyard where you can consistently get a hot dog on a bun for a dollar. Coffee is free and service is with a smile.

“I think Monday nights is a big night for television sports. During the winter the Patriots usually played. There is baseball. I think the guys would prefer to watch television,” said Eugene DeFelice, 87, a World War II veteran, who has volunteered for the legion for at least 20 years and is a retired educator from Canton.

“Maybe we just can’t get the younger crowd. The younger people are interested in other things. They’ve got their own plans, I know they are aware of our situation,” Mr. DeFelice said.

The lack of interest in bingo is a far more serious issue when it comes to legion economics. The money that used to come in and helped pay the bills isn’t there anymore.

The last two monthly issues of the American Legion newsletter printed in Vineyard Haven has focused on the need for volunteers.

Commander Kevan Nichols wrote on the front page: “I have explained our predicament, several times, it is up to you, the members, to give us ideas and suggestions and help.”

Ed Colligan, a past commander of the hall and chairman of bingo nights said he is not sure what can be done. He said the legion used to get as much as $13,000 a year from the Monday night event. These days they are getting around $9,000 a year.

“We are getting maybe $200 a week. That is important and helps us with our bills,” Mr. Colligan said.

Mr. DeFelice said: “It is like the economy, nothing goes down in price. Everything is going up.” The post has a $9,000 annual insurance bill that needs to be paid.

“Bingo is our major fundraiser,” Mr. DeFelice said.

For the patrons of bingo, it is a night out. The hall is a cozy place. The walls are decorated with drawings, photographs and symbols of the role veterans have played in the country’s wars going over the past century.

“I like bingo. I have a good time,” said Rita Meyer of Vineyard Haven, who was at the hall on Monday night, June 16. “I’ve been going for at least 30 years. It is relaxing for me.”

Ms. Meyer is a cashier at Cronig’s Market in West Tisbury. While she prepared her cards for the game, she told those seated next to her about her plans to make a trip to Foxwoods with a Vineyard senior group.

Seated next to her is Kim Thomas and next to her there is Ms. Thomas’s aunt Joan Andrews, both from Vineyard Haven. The three came early to get their favorite seat and sit close together.

Wearing a baseball cap, Joe Figueiredo of Vineyard Haven, pokes his head out of the kitchen to see how many people have shown up. Mr. Figueiredo is charged with making the coffee and the hot dogs. On this night, there are enough people for the evening, so he starts cooking the hot dogs.

There are a lot of regulars this night, but there are at least a few new faces.

Jennifer Finley and her husband Tom brought a couple of friends for a night of playing. The two are on the Vineyard for a week of vacation. Mr. Finley said this is the only place they play bingo.

“We don’t play it at home,” he said. Home is Edwardsville, Ill.

Mr. Finley said he and his wife came a year ago last June and discovered the Monday night event.

With only minutes to go before bingo night begins, the level of conversation in the old wood panel room gets quieter. The regulars have spent as much as $30 for the slips they’ll need to play. Nearly every one of the participants has a color assortment of large magic marker called daubers. One popular version is called Dab-O-Ink.

When Bob Falenburg picks up the microphone to start calling, all the conversation in the hall stops. Except for Mr. Falenburg’s voice, the hall is as quiet as a library.

“When they get down to playing, it is all business,” Mr. DeFelice said. There are really two events on a Monday night: the big social that precedes the game and then the game itself.

Mr. Colligan said a lot of emphasis goes into making sure the patrons are treated nicely. If someone is having a birthday and word gets out early enough, there is cake.

Mr. Colligan said his wife, Lillian, usually makes a cake to be shared every other week, alternating with Theresa Baptiste. “People donate cake. We’d like to make this a family thing,” Mr. Colligan said.

Rita
Rita Klingensmith. — Mark Alan Lovewell

Mr. DeFelice said the legion has taken steps to try to raise public awareness about the Monday night event.

Years before, the legion used to have a “bingo tonight” sign posted on State Road advertising their event, but discovered that it was in a violation of a town zoning bylaw.

Mr. DeFelice said they’ve taken some steps to advertise.

Problems with bingo at the Vineyard Haven hall isn’t isolated. There once was bingo in Oak Bluffs on Wednesday nights. When bingo was held on Tuesday nights in Oak Bluffs by the Catholic Church, the church raised $100,000 over 12 years, but the church no longer holds bingo.

Attendance also is way down on Thursday nights at the American Legion post in Edgartown.

Alfred Noyes, past commander of the American Legion Post 186, on Katama Road, in Edgartown, has his own theory about the decline in attendance.

“We are in the same boat as Vineyard Haven,” Mr. Noyes said. “I think the older people have unfortunately passed away. Or, they are older and just can’t get out. The younger ones just don’t have the interest.”

The pool of players is getting so small that their interest is having a swinging impact at the bingo halls in Edgartown and Vineyard Haven.

“For us it is a roller coaster ride. It is unbelievable. One week, they cancelled bingo in Vineyard Haven because they didn’t have enough players and then we get 35 people on Thursday,” Mr. Noyes said. “The following Monday, they have a fairly good crowd and we get only 15 people.”

bingo board
Lit signboard tracks bingo numbers. — Mark Alan Lovewell

Mr. Noyes is a first vice commander of the legion and is charged with overseeing the Thursday night game. The decline in interest in bingo has had a big impact on how the Legion in Edgartown pays their bills.

“We used to take in $10,000 a year in rent from bingo. It helped us pay our insurance and fund our scholarships. Now if we get $4,000 a year, we are lucky,” Mr. Noyes said.

He recalls when there was a bank account for bingo that had money to spend. “We spent $13,000 in equipment one year, and right after that attendance dropped,” Mr. Noyes said. “We are running the legion hall now just to break even.”