Ronnie Numbers is explaining bingo, but when he calls the game at One Eyed Jacks, there are a lot more “motherfuckers” than there are in a church basement. Then again, bingo is rarely called in a church hall by a small, aggressive man in a suit with white makeup and rectangles around his eyes. When burlesque artist Trixie Minx hands him the ball marked O 69—comedy gold—Numbers lights up. Mr. the Turk monitors a board tracking the called numbers and tongues O 69 after placing it.
The wisecracks and innuendo have always been a part of the actual game of bingo that’s played as a part of each performance by the New Orleans Bingo! Show, an act that was inspired when Clint Maedgen found a stack of old, reusable bingo boards in a second-hand store in 2002. He started the musical theater game show in the back room of Fiorella’s, where he worked as a bicycle delivery man.
What’s unusual tonight is that there are five winners. Ties happen occasionally, but not five-way ties. The decision is made to break it through a Robot Dance-Off, and as the band settles into a mechanical groove, each winner does a sad version of the Robot. The guy who wins does something closer to the movements of the bear that ran in circles in Carrollton Station’s antique “Bear Hunt” game, but at least he embraces the mechanical concept. The best Robot moves come from a woman who identifies herself as a schoolteacher. Rather than demonstrating them from her feet, though, she did them from her knees, pantomiming a robo-blow job on Numbers.
The New Orleans Bingo! Show began as another outlet for the musically restless Maedgen, a home for his Tom Waitsian heart-in-thegutter songs drawing on New Orleans’ R&B history, but it has evolved. Maedgen now plays sax and sings with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and musically, the Bingo! Show is closer to his first band in town, the rock-oriented Liquidrone. At One Eyed Jacks, they slam through Liquidrone’s “I Got a Harley and a Mail Order Bride.”
The Bingo! Show’s also not something service industry folks are doing in the back room of a fried chicken restaurant. They’re based out of Preservation Hall now, where Numbers—Ron Rona—is the Director of Marketing and Publicity. That association has given the New Orleans Bingo! Show credibility and access it never had before, so it’s not necessarily as guerilla an activity as it once was. In fact, it borders on respectable.
“We did performances at Bushwick, right off the Morgan Avenue stop,” Maedgen says, remembering a Bingo! Show road trip to New York City in 2002. “It was a two-week run and then I think it got extended to six weeks or something crazy like that,” Rona adds.
“We’d get up in the morning and go out to Bedford and 7th and busk,” Maedgen continues. “We jumped around a bit in our bus. We drove an old school bus up there with an old pump organ in the back. We sold out every performance, and ain’t nobody was going out to Bushwick at that time. There was a meatpacking place and not much else.”
These days, that appeals to Maedgen. The Bingo! Show’s not just an improbable, beautifully impractical blend of music, carnival and theater anymore. It makes videos, it has loaned its name and aesthetics to a tent at Voodoo—which the band will close on Sunday night—and Rona’s the tent’s producer. In light of Bingo!’s current semi-corporate status, it’s no surprise that on a morning over coffee, Maedgen talks about idyllic future Bingo! Show plans. “It was always supposed to be a theater company,” he says. “It was always supposed to be a television show; it was always supposed to be an off- Broadway run; it was always supposed to be a Vegas destination.” Over the course of the conversation, he circles back to the prospect of returning to Bushwick-like residencies again in Vegas, L.A., Paris and Singapore—”if we only had the money.” That’s what we’re pretty much steadily trying to get back to, some sort of residency situation where we can walk in, get set up, practice for four hours, go about our day, get together after dinner and practice another two hours,” he says. “Just dial it in, all the lighting keys, all the sound keys. Is your monitor cool? Of course it’s cool, I’m running it myself.”
That desire’s understandable because the Bingo! Show’s not what it once was. It works in Le Chat Noir, One Eyed Jacks and Jazz Fest, but it’s not exactly right in any of those arenas. It’s not a little back-room show with a guest caller nightly—Rona started as one—and it straddles the line between low-tech and cutting edge. The prizes and aesthetic remain rooted in the sideshow, but Maedgen, the band and the clowns — Numbers, Mr. the Turk (Mattvaughan Black) and Trixie Minx—have a clean, professional look, as does the accompanying video. The mayhem of the game may be off-the-cuff, but the framework surrounding it is anything but.
“I want the Bingo! Show to be everything all the time,” Maedgen says, and it’s the sort of broad desire he and Rona share with Preservation Hall’s Artistic Director Ben Jaffe. Jaffe has worked to make Preservation Hall and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band relevant musical forces today, instituting a multigenerational lineup, broadening its repertoire beyond the trad jazz standards, introducing it to DJ culture and joining it with a number of Americana artists for the benefit album Preservation. The band and the hall are rooted in history and place but not limited by them, and that vision is simpatico with the Bingo! Show. It’s no surprise that Maedgen is in the Preservation Hall Jazz Band as well. When he got the gig, he slicked down his then-trademark spiky hair for a look he deemed more appropriate.
Being associated with Preservation Hall’s prestige has subtly changed the Bingo! Show’s image. “I think it makes people a little less hesitant,” Maedgen says. “Angela Hill came to the show at Le Chat Noir and really had a blast.”
The Hall’s professional environment has served Rona well. “It’s really taught me a lot about the inner workings of how to make a project work,” he says. “All those dorky not-rock ’n’ roll things, like being clear about what you’re communicating to the group and responding to emails and doing all those things that a lot of people just don’t do. It’s crucial that you’re kind of on point with things—and being able to apply those things to being a comedian—and really think it out. Think about what you’re presenting.”
His biggest project has become producing Voodoo’s Bingo! Parlour, one of the more eclectic stages at Voodoo. Last year, it featured heavy metal band Down as well as the Japanese Brother Taisuke Mass Choir. “If there is a criteria, it’s people in groups that come in with a punk rock aesthetic that runs into this place and something else happens,” Rona says. “Like with MyNameIsJohnMichael. There’s something there that couldn’t have come out of Seattle, you know? We realized that we played like Supagroup; there’s something that happens, being a rocker in this city. It goes back to classic Bourbon Street burlesque, but they’re doing something completely different. It’s about people who take these traditions—whether they know it or not—and something comes out on the other end.”
The New Orleans Bingo! Show is firmly rooted in New Orleans traditions as well. There’s a burlesque element, but there’s also the broader theatricality that’s in the DNA of a city that costumes whenever it can. That helps explain the diversity of the audience at One Eyed Jacks—the bohemians and service industry friends you’d expect and the seniors and college kids you didn’t. The show is rooted in a punk rock love of confrontation, but it’s a carefully modulated confrontation. Maedgen’s songs draw listeners in, but the antics of Numbers, Minx and Mr. the Turk remind people never to get too comfortable. They’ll turn bullhorns and spotlights on their audiences to create a little visual or sonic chaos, but there’s not a moment where the show seems haphazard, nor when a joke only works on the Mystery Science Theater 3000 level. The effect invites people to play along, even when they know that things rarely end well for bingo winners.
“We were at Le Chat Noir and there’s this group of seven or eight girls,” Rona remembers. “They look like they’re part of a bachelorette party, and these girls were acting kind of funny. You could feel it. They started crossing over to that other place.
“We started doing the second half of the show, and we’re at the bingo table doing our thing, and this girl comes strutting down the aisle. Right before the crescendo of the song, she comes over and straddles me. I’m trying to play the character and avoid it, and she is smearing her face all over me. Her friends came over and pulled her off. After the show, somebody told me this girl was in the bathroom and she’s staring at herself in the mirror covered in my makeup, crying and going, ‘What happened?’
“What in your mind clicks off where you go, ‘You know, I’m going to go straddle that clown?’ And that’s what I think the Bingo! Show does. It helps tap into your inner weirdo.”
The New Orleans Bingo! Show performs Sunday, October 31 at 7:30 p.m. in the Bingo! Parlour.