Honky Tonk Bingo
WHEN Sun 7:30-10:30 PM
WHERE Pontiac Cafe, 1531 N. Damen
PRICE Free; cash bar
MORE $3 Lone Stars and Wild Turkey shots during bingo
Chad Briggs studied film at the University of Texas in Austin and sketch writing at Second City. He's trying to make it as a stand-up, but for now he pays his bills as a clerical assistant in the accounting department of a local law firm. Durwood Wilkes drinks and swears and nothing much else. He's racked up seven ex-wives in his time and currently works just once a week---as a bingo caller. What do the two of them have in common? They're the same man. Every Sunday after sundown, the 31-year-old Briggs transforms, Jekyll-and-Hyde style, into Wilkes, the loudmouthed host of Honky Tonk Bingo at the Pontiac Cafe.
Honky Tonk Bingo was introduced in February 2004 to stir up business on slow winter nights at the Wicker Park bar. Owner Bud Eggert says he wanted to play up the bar's hillbilly aesthetic--it's in a former gas station--with a game that combined country music and barroom fun. To his mind, bingo was "a redneck thing to do." He recruited Kevin Brennan, who already hosted live-band karaoke on Fridays, as his caller. Other bars with bingo nights--like Charlie's Chicago, home of "It's Just Bingo Bitch!"--had charismatic hosts like drag queens Frida Lay and Lauren Jacobs, and Brennan, an aspiring actor from Texas, decided to come up with a character of his own: Elston Yates, a raunchy Texan hick.
It took him a while to find his audience. "The first year was dark days," recalls Brennan, who moved to LA last year. "Sometimes I'd be calling bingo to the bartender and the cook." But the cafe's large patio area was a big draw in summer, boosting turnout on bingo nights. Summer folk who got turned on to the game became year-round regulars. Word of mouth did the rest.
Briggs, who grew up in Port Neches, 90 miles east of Houston, and now lives in Humboldt Park, heard about the gig from Brennan in January 2005. "Yeah, I started this bingo night at Pontiac where I dress up like this character and do this Honky Tonk Bingo," Briggs recalls his buddy saying.
"That sounds kinda retarded," he replied.
But two weeks later, he was up there with Brennan, calling the numbers in a plaid shirt, a beat-up Bears cap, and aviator shades. For one thing, he needed the money. For another, it was free booze. But most of all, Honky Tonk Bingo gave him "the chance to get paid to act like a jackass," he says, "which is essentially what I want to do."
Today the Pontiac has a whole roster of bingo-calling characters, including J.W. Puckett, the duo Country Bernie Mauskawitz and the Bear, and Charley Brown, the group's lone woman. With Elston gone, however, Durwood Wilkes is the senior jackass. The character has evolved over time: Briggs started with a Texas accent, upping the camp factor with a whistling s inspired by a great uncle of his. "Sometimes the s whistle would be so bad he'd short out his own hearing aid," he says with a laugh. "It was supersonic." Then he worked out a backstory: Wilkes hails from the fictional town of Henshit, Texas, where his philandering father taught him all he needed to know about bingo. "I'd hate it if he was a teetotaler or a Jesus freak, because I have to, you know, be Method," Briggs says. "Durwood just happens to be a drunk who enjoys smoking copious amounts of cigarettes and, coincidentally, I am too."
The local honky-tonk band Fulton County Line provides music every week, and the vibe, says Eggert, is "kind of, shall we say, R rated." Women who sit near the callers, for example, are likely to be subjected to catcalls and recitations of the joys of O 69, a favorite ball among the bunch. Other balls prompt stories of bingo nights past. "One winter night last year this girl--let's just describe her as a 'handsome' woman--started flashing us," Briggs recalls with a wince. "Then she came up and wrapped her shirt around my head and gave me the whole Renaissance Faire treatment. Then she stuck one of the balls down her pants." That ball, O 72, is now known as the "filth ball."
On any given Sunday there are between 50 and 100 players, including tattooed country fans, packs of giggling twentysomethings, Wicker Park hipsters, and the yuppie summer crowd. Players use old-fashioned shutter cards--wooden boards with red plastic sliders over the numbers. Winning patterns play off the country theme: Texas T is the top horizontal row and the N row; Oklahoma Sonofabitch is the middle horizontal row and a block of six flush against the bottom right-hand corner to form a shape vaguely like the state of Oklahoma. Other winning patterns are named after famous country stars, including Waylon Jennings (the form of a W), Johnny Cash (a J), and Hank Williams (H).
Prizes come from the dollar store: "We just gave away some douche and some potted meat," says Briggs. And there are penalties for calling bingo at the wrong time: ten push-ups for boys, ten squat thrusts for girls. "Public humiliation is part of the shtick," he says. In fact, callers and patrons regularly exchange words: "People yell at me all the time," says Briggs. "And, you know, that's fun. I personally think that's good theater."
One recent Sunday night, every table was full and every bar stool occupied. It was too chilly for the patio, so players crowded together in the bar's dim interior. Briggs heckled a group of tourists from Boston near the front of the bar, ridiculing their matching Wrigley Field sweatshirts; they shot right back by dissing Texas. When a group of girls took a nearby table, Briggs looked them up and down. "They came to sleep with me," he informed the crowd. One of the girls shifted in her chair and looked down sheepishly, another gave him a devilish smile.
Then he pulled a small white ball from the hopper. "O 62!" he cried, the s whistling like a teapot. As the players scanned their cards, he surveyed the bar over the rim of his whiskey glass, his Bears cap shading his face.
"Bingo!" cried a man at the back of the room. The crowd stifled a collective groan and took the opportunity to drink. Briggs checked the man's card and smiled. The game was Texas T, but what this poor schmuck had was more like a lowercase t--the N row and the second horizontal one.
"Twenty push-ups!" Briggs shouted, upping the penalty for entertainment value. The guy looked down at the barroom floor. "It'll do you good," Briggs drawled. The crowd drank some more and laughed as the offender dropped to the floor. This is Honky Tonk Bingo, and whatever Durwood Wilkes says goes.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Rob Warner.