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One night in the late 1990s, Eric Wichner, then the executive director of AIDS Fund, invited Robb Reichard to join him for a happy hour at Woody’s in the Gayborhood.
Reichard was an active volunteer with the fund at the time.
Over the course of the evening, Wichner told Reichard about an idea to host a Bingo fundraiser with drag queens.
“Honestly, I thought he was nuts,” said Reichard, now the executive director of AIDS Fund. “Until you actually go and experience it, you don’t grasp it.”
It’s been 20 years since the first night of GayBINGO in 1996, when local performers Carlotta and Chumley, along with a band of Bingo Verifying Divas on roller blades, entertained hundreds of people at the Gershman Y on South Broad Street.
The event became legendary with traditions like standing any time “O-69” is called.
GayBINGO has raised .3 million in the last two decades for AIDS Fund to distribute among 30 regional organizations that provide direct care services, education and prevention programs to people living with HIV or those who are at risk of contracting it.
Each season raises between 5,000-0,000 at nine monthly games, Reichard said.
To celebrate this year’s milestone anniversary, AIDS Fund is reaching back into the vault to repeat some treasured GayBINGO themes. Normally, the organization only uses new themes.
“We have some things that are really throwbacks,” Reichard said. “We’re excited to take a look back, not only at GayBINGO’s history, but the history of pop culture and what was going on at the time in society.”
“A Very Martha Stewart Christmas” from 1997 was one of the most popular GayBINGO themes and will be repeated in December.
May’s theme of “My Big Fat Gay Wedding” still bears the tagline “Massachusetts, here we come!” from 2005, to commemorate the landmark legalization of same-sex marriage in the state.
The annual Black-Tie GayBINGO is set for March at Loews Philadelphia Hotel in Center City, and the season culminates in June with a “20th Anniversary Spectacular” that boasts a new Roaring ’20s theme.
Dominic Scudera and his husband Brian Strachan are happy to be part of the 20th-anniversary season. The Collegeville couple has served as Bingo Verifying Divas for the past eight years.
“We’re hoping it’ll be just as much fun for people as it’s always been,” said Scudera, who goes by the name Summer Clearance during GayBINGO.
Strachan, who works as a theater costume designer, performs as Thunder Showers.
Scudera said one of his favorite memories happened during a 2011 game when the theme was “Always a Bridesmaid, Never a Bride.”
A couple got married during the game’s intermission and the BVDs served as bridesmaids and ushers in the ceremony.
Scudera said he was surprised at first by how large a crowd the event draws.
“It’s so wild and raucous and fun,” he said. “You don’t think of Bingo being like that. I didn’t realize how theatrical it was. It’s just like a party every month.”
At his first GayBINGO, Scudera dressed as Madonna, in a bejeweled cone bra.
The popularity of the event has enabled the AIDS Fund to keep people aware of the changing needs of people living with HIV, Reichard said.
“We’re constantly getting new people out each month and that’s mostly by word of mouth,” he said. “They come to have a good time, but we take the opportunity to remind them HIV is still an issue.”
Reichard noted that an HIV diagnosis may not be the death sentence it once was, but there are still issues in the LGBT community regarding living with the virus.
“Thirty years ago, we were helping people to die with dignity,” he said. “Today we’re helping people to live with dignity and making sure they have access to the services to live a long, healthy life.”
Many people with the virus need guidance with legal, medical and housing issues, as well as anti-discrimination advocacy.
Reichard said educating people about the latest prevention methods is a big part of the awareness campaigns run by the AIDS Fund.
He highlighted the successes with the use of pre-exposure prophylaxis, called PrEP. The treatment is meant for people who do not have HIV, but are at a high risk of contracting it.
PrEP combats infection with a pill, taken daily. The pill contains two main medicines, tenofovir and emtricitabine, which are used in combination with other medicines to treat HIV, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“The treatment now really is prevention,” Reichard said.
Mark your calendars
20th anniversary GayBINGO season to benefit AIDS Fund
Doors open at 6 p.m. Games start at 7 p.m. at the Gershman Y, 401 S. Broad St., unless otherwise noted.
Dates and themes: Sept. 12, Rocky Horror
Nov. 21, Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy
Dec. 5, A Very Martha Stewart Christmas
Jan. 9, Divas Las Vegas
Feb. 20, Lace, Leather, Feet and Feathers
March 19, Black-Tie GayBINGO at Loews Philadelphia Hotel
March 26, Totally Awesome GayBINGO, 1980s
April 23, Beauty School Dropout, Grease
May 21, My Big Fat Gay Wedding
June 11, 20th Anniversary GayBINGO Spectacular, Roaring ’20s
Tickets for the September game cost for a reserved seat on the floor or for balcony seats. It goes up to or in November and later. The cost for black-tie tickets has not yet been determined.
For more information, visit www.aidsfundphilly.org or call 215-731-9255.
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This monthly, themed event, raises money for the AIDS Fund. Each of 11 rounds of Bingo (if you buy the extra sheets at 3 for ) is announced by a local group that supports, or is supported by, the AIDS Fund. In between sessions, entertainment and education highlight the night, from illuminated bras to condoms on the tables. Even though none of us won, we felt fine leaving knowing the money goes to such important work. Thank you to all the people who dedicate their lives to the sick.
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