With state on the cusp of casinos, bingo halls may be facing last call

With Beacon Hill poised to pass the sweeping new casino law, another game of chance with a long history – bingo – appears on the decline.

Though bingo might seem as much a part of the Massachusetts social fabric as clambakes and sports bars, the game was legalized in the state 40 years ago, after a veto.

The state had legalized raffles in 1969, but Gov. Francis Sargent kept pushing back against the Legislature’s plans to legalize bingo, then referred to by the older name of beano. Sargent vetoed an earlier version before finally signing the “Beano Bill” on July 1, 1971.

“I believe this year’s bill, in its present form, provides at least the minimum safeguards necessary to have a proper operation of beano games,” Sargent said in a press release.

The game is familiar to many and consists of a caller reading out randomly selected numbers as players, often gathered in church halls, try to find matches in a row on a printed card.

Beano was a variation on an old Genoese gambling game that was modified and introduced to America by a carnival pitchman in 1928, according to “Roll the Bones: The History of Gambling,” by historian David G. Schwartz. The game was popularized by a toy salesman who brought the game to New York City, according to the book.

In 1934, two years after legalizing charity bridge and whist games, Beacon Hill sanctioned beano for the first time, as long as the games were operated by churches, men’s clubs or charities. Gov. Joseph Ely asked that the law be put into immediate effect “for the immediate preservation of the public convenience,” according to legal records.

Nine years later, as the country mobilized for World War II and Massachusetts was preparing against the potential of an Axis invasion, beano was once again banned. Gov. Leverett Saltonstall also made that ban take effect immediately.

“The manner in which the games of beano have been and are conducted in many parts of the Commonwealth has been and is detrimental to the public welfare,” Saltonstall wrote in his emergency order.

Nevertheless, the game was always a “staid” type of gambling, according to Schwartz, director of the Center for Gambling Research, in Las Vegas.

“I think it’s always had that reputation,” said Schwartz.

Despite the ban, the game lived on in church basements and fraternal halls throughout the state, according to press clippings and interviews. Then, in 1971, Sargent signed the beano bill – which required each city and town to vote on whether they wanted to permit the game.

That vote was overwhelming in Boston, where 27,007 people voted in favor of bringing beano to the city against 6,771 who opposed it, according to vote records at Boston City Hall. However, 24 of the state’s 351 cities and towns still ban bingo, according to the State Lottery’s 2010 annual report.

In Everett, a group of fathers at Pope John XXIII High School got together after the law passed and decided to set up their own game to benefit the Catholic school’s sports teams. “We didn’t know how to spell bingo. We opened on a Thursday night and it was a godsend,” said Dan Doherty, 80, who still helps out with the twice-weekly game.

The 1971 law was more stringent than the 1934 version and the law that stands today. In 1934, there were few controls on bingo, but in 1971 bingo operations were required to keep books and pay taxes.

Sargent, who had his say in controlling bingo in the summer of 1971, was powerless to stop the State Lottery, which was created that fall with two veto overrides. The following year, the State Lottery was given control of bingo games.

Since then, the maximum bingo prize amounts have increased on five occasions, from $50 when the law was first passed to $3,000 in 2000, according to state law records. Churches and non-profits are allowed to host bingo twice a week, but in 1983 “golden age clubs” of senior citizens were allowed to hold small-stakes bingo games during the day.

In 2010, the 196 bingo games throughout the state grossed about $43 million, netting about $34 million, paying $2.1 million in taxes, according to the State Lottery.

“It’s on its way out as far as I’m concerned,” said Doherty, who helped establish the bingo game in Everett when he was 37. Even before bingo was legalized, Doherty said, he knew of a game played at the American Legion. At its height, the city had five bingo games, but now it has one, Doherty said.