The great bingo revival has started in Lake Tahoe


When Rusty Reams takes the stage to host a bingo game, he wears a vintage tuxedo with a felt tip over his thick curly red hair. A pair of enveloping Pit Vipers protects his eyes. He keeps his handlebar mustache neat. An entourage surrounds him: go-go dancers (“BINGO-go dancers”, says Reams) sparkle with golden glitter and a DJ plays a soundtrack of funk, disco and soul.

Reams is the host and reverend of the Great Bingo Revival, a version of bingo that evokes a 1970s game show. A glass bowl spits out balls, each labeled with a number that Reams calls the crowd. He dances. He mixes some improvisations. He shakes his tambourine.

Then someone gets up, waves their card and shouts the magic word: BINGO.

The Great Bingo Revival started late at night in North Lake Tahoe around 2012. But over the past five years or so, Reams has spread the bingo gospel, as he likes to say, all over California and around the world. He played on a cruise ship sailing to the Bahamas. It has a midnight Sunday night slot at festivals like Dirtybird Campout and Lightning in a Bottle. Backstage, VIPs walk past a red velvet rope to sip champagne in the limousine that travels with the Revival. Some of Silicon Valley’s biggest tech companies have hired him for corporate retreats. He graced the San Francisco scene at clubs like the Monarch and the Great Northern. He told me he hosted a game of bingo at an ideas conference called Summit in 2018, the same day as speakers like Al Gore, Eckhart Tolle, and Ram Dass.

“We specialize in one brand of motivational bingo,” Reams told me in August when I called him at his home in Alpine Meadows, just north of Lake Tahoe. “You know, part bingo card and part life coach. You should feel like you can do anything with your life afterwards.

Reams continued, “What I’m offering is something very different, it’s a lot more funk, rhythmic, soul oriented.”

Reams is the reverend behind the Great Bingo Revival, which he describes as a culture of disco, funk and rhythm.

Ryan Salm / Special at SFGATE

Long before Reams became the Reverend of Bingo, before the International Bingo Federation named him Best Bingo Caller of 2017 (although, when I was checking this story, Reams told me it was actually a prank. ), he was just another skier in Tahoe.

But Reams’ call to a life of bingo really begins on his 30th birthday, which he spent in Eugene, Oregon. While celebrating his birthday solo, he ended up in a pub that was hosting a casual match on Monday night. Reams got a bingo card, started playing, and ended up winning. On stage to collect his prize, he told the announcer it was his birthday, and the whole crowd sang happy birthday to him. It was then that he says he realized that bingo could be so much more than a game that people in nursing homes play – it was a way of feeling a part of something. bigger, an icebreaker for meeting people and creating camaraderie. Bingo could be a blank canvas to go wild. Reams imagined it as a party.

A few years later, Reams was serving tables at a Tahoe restaurant and skiing as much as he could. This is around the time I met him. We both worked at Jake’s on the Lake, a lakeside restaurant in Tahoe City, and like most of the restaurant staff, skied as much as we could.

Reams rented a room from one of the restaurant’s managers for $ 400 (a pretty standard rate ten years ago, but now rooms in Tahoe easily cost triple that amount.) At breakfast, Reams said he convinced the manager to let him organize a bingo night. It would be a fun, family-friendly event that catered to Jake’s clientele, but also something the people of Tahoe could possibly participate in.

“I didn’t know anything about bingo,” said Ryan Rambo, who worked with us at Jake and is a longtime friend of Reams. “He was telling me his big vision for this thing, and honestly, I was a little skeptical. I was like, really? Bingo? “

Rambo was a quick convert, however. Now he makes regular appearances on stage with Reams as a DJ. He described the event as an embodiment of Reams’ personality.

“It’s an explosion of rhythm, funk and soul,” continued Rambo. “It’s a 70s game show that meets wild party and fabulous prizes. And it’s just a little unpredictable. You don’t know what’s going to happen.

For these inaugural games, Reams went to Pass It On Thrift in Tahoe City to research prizes he could give out to the winners. As Reams says: “We don’t give prices. We offer surprises.

A winning prize at Great Bingo Revival can be anything, and I mean anything (except cash). Reams donated a wedding dress, sex toys, one-piece snowsuits, funky art he finds in thrift stores, trashy romance novels, a cardboard cutout from Fabio, fur jackets . He even offered a car: an old-fashioned Subaru circa 1998 – a model ubiquitous around Tahoe. He bought the Subaru from a friend for $ 69.69 and painted it gold. When he gave the car to a bingo game, go-go dancers were dancing on the hood and roof.

“It was like a party in a car,” Reams said, “and we gave the keys.”

When I worked with him, I remember Reams as someone who always uplifted the energy in a room. His Reverend persona isn’t so much a character as an extension of himself – but when he takes the stage, he amplifies it a few notches. The tambourine adds sparkle.

“The Reverend is the center of a community that preaches that there is hope,” Reams said, “and bingo saves.”

Reams has driven his Subaru to bingo games before.  Now he often shows up in a limousine.

Reams has driven his Subaru to bingo games before. Now he often shows up in a limousine.

Ryan Salm / Special at SFGATE

The bingo that Reams plays is not the game your grandma plays at the retirement home. The rules are the same, but after that the party can go in any direction. That’s not to say that Grandma wouldn’t like the Reams version, she just needs to be ready to play her card by dancing to ABBA all night long.

During those early years, Reams drove his own Subaru to his concerts. He eventually got too big for his first site – this became evident when he said in two tiebreakers whoever jumped into the lake first had won the game. When the winners returned from the water – “with their phones soaking wet, their bundle of fumes like a sponge,” said Reams – restaurant management suggested Reams take his group to a new home. “It was a nice boost,” he said, and he found a bigger bar in South Lake, which led to a connection that allowed him to play at Dirtybird Campout.

Reams describes the Dirtybird Campout as a summer camp for adults, with games like catching the flag, but also DJs and raves. Bingo was scheduled for Sunday at midnight, to relax after the big headliners. As Reams describes that night, by the time he started performing, nothing else was happening throughout the festival. All of a sudden, 500 people showed up to play bingo. Then the rain began to fall on the crowd. Reams kept calling the numbers and the dance party raged until dawn.

“We are the fire emoji when it comes to bingo,” he said. “We are everywhere to do all things.”

Now bingo is a full time gig for Reams. He hires employees to help him book concerts, set up travel logistics. His agent organizes larger events with companies and festivals. It happens at bingo games in a limousine, or sometimes, in a private jet. Everywhere he goes, he brings a taste of Tahoe’s après-ski scene – dusted with dust from Burning Man – to people far beyond the Basin.

“I do limo cruises and private jet flights. Like, it’s no joke, ”Reams said. “It’s definitely like an atmosphere that I organized a bit. I mean, come on, I do concerts in limos, I take private jets, like that, it’s fucking unreal.

I guess it can be said that the success of Reams relies heavily on word of mouth. He doesn’t do a lot of marketing beyond his own social media accounts. But bingo is also spiritual for him in a way that fits his life in Tahoe. He told me he could never have imagined how bingo would change his life, because it’s been such a rapid rise, it’s unimaginable.

“But that’s where bingo has been that thing for me,” Reams said, “where I was able to, like, use it as my spiritual practice and use it to manifest in my life. it’s financial opportunities or opportunities, it’s really cool to see that all of a sudden I dream that I want this experience – and then the experience happens.

Reams told me that many concerts start with a wish or a dream. If he wants to participate in a festival, he will be riding a bike in the mountains and will continue to focus on that dream. And of course, this festival concert will materialize. But it’s also the routine of most days: skiing the backcountry on the west coast, thinking about a game he is hosting that night in South Lake Tahoe. “Then, while I’m going down, I take that energy and bring it to the next gig,” Reams said.

Last winter, Reams skied 115 days between two bingo games.

Of course, COVID-19 has slowed its momentum. But Reams didn’t let the pandemic shut him down completely; his energy and his dreams have shifted to the virtual event space. An anti-smoking campaign sponsored a game at a high school graduation party in West Virginia. It has scored gigs with insurance company and other corporate clients, as well as private events and birthdays across the country. (Reams has also hosted a ton of events for nonprofit groups. He says he’s raised tens of thousands for charity.)

At one point, Reams started mailing bingo cards to anyone who sent them money through Venmo. He included a note in the delivery that said, “Don’t give up hope, the bingo will be there for you. ”

The pandemic also allowed Reams to launch its website, finally, in March 2020.

Now, the regular in-person concerts are resuming at Tahoe, Palisades Tahoe Ski Resort, and Alibi Ale Works. Next week he returns to the Dirtybird Campout. His next dream? Play bingo for national publicity.

“And bingo [will] re-enter the consciousness of America, ”said Reams.

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