Just take those old records off the shelf; and while you’re at it, fetch your bingo dauber.
It’s Friday night at the 4th Line Pub and Grill, 3025 Ness Ave., the first establishment in Winnipeg — check that, the province — to offer a fast-paced, interactive game called Music Bingo. Because there isn’t a soul in the packed house who has played Music Bingo before, emcee Tim Grant, who doubles as the hockey-themed locale’s events co-ordinator, wants to ensure everybody present is on the same page.
After getting the crowd’s attention, Grant, decked out for the occasion in gold MC Hammer pants and matching bling, explains that Music Bingo is similar to the type of bingo played in church basements and seniors homes with one major difference: instead of calling out numbers from 1 to 75, he’ll be serving up 30 to 45 second snippets of popular tunes from a wide variety of genres, all of which are stored on an officially licensed tablet.
If you recognize the song being played at random and it’s listed on your bingo card by title and artist, mark that space with a coin or provided felt marker, he instructs, stressing this isn’t a trivia competition: if you’re not familiar with what you’re listening to, feel free to ask a neighbouring table or utilize a music recognition app such as Shazam or BeatFind to help you out. Also, if it’s a ditty you’re particularly fond of — as a warm-up, he cranks the volume on Sweet Caroline — don’t be shy to sing along or, better yet, get out of your chair and shake your moneymaker.
The first game of the night will centre on country and western music, he continues, pointing out prizes in the form of restaurant gift certificates will be awarded to the first three people who cover two lines in any direction. (While all attendees are granted a free bingo card prior to the start of each game, an extra card can be acquired by ordering a designated food special — tonight it’s a concoction called Big Mack Poutine — or, if they’re not hungry, purchasing one for $5.)
Game No. 2 will shift the focus to ’80s hair bands — cue Poison — while tonight’s finale will be dance music, when we can expect to hear everything from Brown Eyed Girl to Stayin’ Alive to Gangnam Style.
"So without further ado, here’s the first selection of the night. Under the B…" he shouts into his microphone, straining to be heard above the opening notes of Kenny Rogers’ The Gambler.
Vancouver resident Sean Constable may have come up with the idea for Music Bingo just over 20 years ago but the diversion’s origins go back a bit further than that.
Music Bingo, a prime-time game show that combined bingo and tic-tac-toe, made its debut on NBC in 1958. Every week, a pair of contestants squared off in an attempt to identify whatever tune an in-house orchestra was working its way through. The first person to answer correctly was given a marker to place on an oversized bingo board. Cover five spaces in a row without being blocked and they went home $500 richer.
In 1998, Constable, a graduate of the British Columbia Institute of Technology’s radio broadcasting course, was fired from his job running a weekly name-that-tune trivia contest in a bar in Coquitlam. He wasn’t overly upset, he says, as he’d grown frustrated by the same group of music nerds winning week after week, which had resulted in dwindling crowds.
Deciding to strike out on his own, he began tossing around ideas for a different activity that involved music, something that would make everybody playing along feel like they had a fighting chance. That’s when he learned about the old, Music Bingo TV show and, with the help of Alan Alabela and Lonny Bastien — fellows he met through a young entrepreneur program — went to work, putting his own spin on it.
Constable’s first client was a Vancouver bar called Quincy’s, where once or twice a month he hosted four games a night, comprised primarily of songs from the classic rock canon: Jump by Van Halen, Smoke on the Water by Deep Purple, and similar fare. Twenty-two years later, his company’s catalogue has grown to more than 8,000 song clips covering 80 separate categories, including TV Tunes, Grammy Winners, Oh Canada and — ho, ho, ho — Christmas.
"I find that most of my accounts will double, if not triple, their sales by following the Music Bingo program," he says, noting he currently has clients in six provinces, Manitoba being the latest to join the fold.
"There is no magic bullet in this industry, so you can’t expect to automatically bring in Music Bingo and find instant success, but I can’t think of the last time an account of ours quit or cancelled."
Last summer, a regular at the 4th Line Pub and Grill was having a drink at the SunnySide Bar in Emma Lake, Sask., when a round of Music Bingo broke out. Knowing the owners of the 4th Line were always in the market for unique promotions, she asked a few questions on their behalf. When she returned to Winnipeg, she put them in touch with Lisa Barton who, along with her sister Robyn, controlled the rights to Music Bingo in Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
"Over the phone, Lisa explained the game to us, then directed us online to watch a Music Bingo video to better figure out what it was all about," says Todd Ritchot who, along with his brother Len, opened the 4th Line in September 2018.
"In October, Lisa came to Winnipeg to host a trial run in our bar. One of the first songs she played was (Queen’s) We Will Rock You, and the second it kicked in, everybody started banging their fists on the tables in time with the music. Almost immediately we were like, where do we sign up?"
Johanna Hansen wasn’t sure what her friends were talking about when they texted her earlier in the day, asking if she wanted to join them for Music Bingo. She’d been to 4th Line before, once for karaoke and another time for open-mic night, so while she was receptive to the idea, she didn’t know exactly what she was getting herself into.
Imagine her surprise, then, five hours later when, after Grant asked if there were any volunteers for an in-game air-guitar contest, Hansen found herself at the front of the room with an inflatable, plastic axe slung over her shoulder, rocking out to Mötley Crüe’s Kickstart My Heart.
"So far it’s been a ton of fun," Hansen says, seconds after being crowned the air-guitar winner, based on crowd response.
"Like I said, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived but the combination of bingo, music and singing and dancing is right up my alley. I’d do this any time."
During a break in the action, Grant says he hopes to make Music Bingo a regular event at the pub, the same way he and the Ritchots routinely host meat draws, trivia nights and pay-per-view events.
"Next month, we’ll be running full-on Music Bingo nights Feb. 7 and 21, and on Feb. 14 we’ll host a single round of Valentine’s themed Music Bingo, in conjunction with our game-of-the-month event," he says, referring to a date on the calendar when the Jets play host to the San Jose Sharks. (Anyone interested in reserving a spot can do so through the restaurant’s website, 4thlinepubgrill.com)
Additionally, because the Ritchots acquired the Manitoba rights to Music Bingo from their counterparts in Saskatchewan, they’ve been putting their heads together with Grant in an attempt to figure out how else they can promote the game.
"Now that we have the cards and the software, we’d love to rent ourselves out to anybody interested in playing, whether that’s at a wedding social, office party or family get-together," Grant says, pausing to high-five a fellow belting out Bon Jovi’s You Give Love a Bad Name at the top of his lungs.
"If there’s a certain type of music you enjoy, you can let us know ahead of time and we’ll tailor the night specifically for you. We’re pretty pumped we’re the first place (in Manitoba) to get it, because in this line of work you pretty much have to separate yourself from the crowd, or else you don’t get the crowd."
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.
Updated on Saturday, January 25, 2020 at 1:26 PM CST: Corrects Len's name