Shortly after 7:30 on Saturday night, Rick Allison stood before the crowd gathered at a massive Rodef Shalom community room and asked the few hundred people gathered before him to raise their right hands and take a pledge.
“I promise to remember not to get tense,” he said, words the crowd repeated. Allison is a tallish, thin man of 69 years, and he addressed the crowd with the confidence of someone who’s been doing this for a while, which he has.
“I promise to remember this is only a stupid game and we’re here to have fun,” he continued.
This time, the crowd giggled.
Then everyone got down to the business of experiencing Outrageous Bingo, a Pittsburgh tradition for 25 years. Allison, a co-founder of the event, called out the numbers and letters, and everyone diligently searched their cards, the lucky ones marking off squares with pink markers.
Meanwhile, Sister Petra Pyper Pictapekhov Pickled Peppers (let’s see the editors try and spellcheck that one) glided from table to table, selling raffle tickets. Sister P wore a stunningly elegant dress that seemed to have been grafted onto the remnants of a tuxedo James Bond may have worn in the ’90s. Good luck finding something like this at Macy’s.
People leaned forward over their bingo cards as the numbers were called out. Occasionally, someone would holler “Bingo!” The winners received various amounts of money. One yelled, “I’ve got gas money!” The atmosphere was lighthearted but low-key.
That changed after an hour or so, during an intermission. Everyone leaned back to relax and stretch. Time for some entertainment, Allison called out. Music thumped over speakers, and Kierra Darshell (“Pittsburgh’s first lady of drag”) emerged from behind a wooden door near the center of the community room.
Kierra lip synced to a Whitney Houston song. Maybe it was Whitney Houston; it’s difficult to remember when your eyes are glued to this figure in a clingy black dress spinning and floating among the tables while collecting bills from grateful bingo players.
The song reached its end, and Kierra gracefully exited. The second performer emerged. Jennifer Warner is the opposite of Kierra. While Kierra is elegant and smooth, Jennifer is … well, there’s a lot of Jennifer, in every way. Jennifer occupied a dress that looked like something a salsa or flamenco dancer would wear and roared through the room, strutting, climbing on chairs, shaking her ample presence. The crowd hooted its approval.
Outrageous Bingo got its start after Allison’s friend Allen Jones attended a drag bingo event in Seattle. “He came back all excited about it,” Allison said. The two thought, why not start one here?
The event began at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall in Oakland, then moved to a Strip District warehouse and the South Side Goodwill building before landing at Rodef Shalom in Shadyside 15 or 20 years ago, Allison said. Outrageous Bingo attracts a diverse crowd — young and old (one players was 90), members of the LGBTQ+ community and their supporters. Sometimes entire families attend. The drag show is hoot but not crude, Allison noted.
Before COVID-19, Outrageous Bingo tickets would sell out — 500 tickets — two weeks after going on sale. Now, some of the seats are empty. “It’s been a struggle coming back,” Allison said. “People are afraid of COVID, or the flu.” Some may be concerned for other safety reasons, he added. Drag shows and gatherings of LGBTQ+ communities have been targeted by hate groups and individuals over the past several years. Allison said armed off-duty police officers are hired to provide security. Rodef Shalom security guards also are on hand.
Rob Webb, who coordinates volunteers, said the event is important because it allows members of the LGBTQ+ community to gather “in a safe space where no one will judge them, and where the general community can come out and support us.”
Since its beginnings, Outrageous Bingo has raised $2.5 million dollars, Allison said. The event supports the Shepherd Wellness Community, which assists people with HIV/AIDS, and the Pittsburgh Equality Center, which promotes education, advocacy and social justice for LGBTQ+ people in Western Pennsylvania.