By Jonathan Phelps
---- — BEVERLY — Margaret Sullivan sat ready to play bingo last night with a few lucky charms — a plastic leprechaun, a statue of Buddha and a bobblehead turtle.
Sullivan, 91, of Beverly, has played bingo weekly at the Beverly Senior Center on Colon Street for about 20 years. But her tradition came to an end last night after a nonprofit group decided to stop hosting the weekly event.
“This is a sad day for Beverly,” Sullivan said. “They will all be crying before the night is out.”
The group, Beverly Senior Citizens Club, was the only organization with a bingo license in Beverly.
Sullivan said she looked forward to bingo every Wednesday night to gather with friends.
“We have a lot of fun,” she said. “It was a blessing for us older people to look forward to this.”
The room filled with more than 100 people had a somber feel last night as the caller announced that it would be the last session at the center.
At its height, bingo would draw more than 200 people each week to the senior center. But with increased gaming opportunities at casinos in Connecticut, attendance declined to the point that it was no longer viable, said MaryAnn Holak, executive director of the senior center.
The average attendance each week was about 140, she said.
Beverly Senior Citizens Club was also losing money, according to a 2011 annual report from the Massachusetts State Lottery Commission. Holak and organizers declined comment on the group’s profits.
Holak said that many of the Senior Citizens Club volunteers were ready to step down from their leadership roles.
“If they were able to find a younger, more robust group of volunteers, they would like to have kept it going,” she said. “They never wanted to see it end.”
She credited the volunteers with making the event a success for the past 20 years, noting that the state does not allow municipalities to organize gambling activities. Donations from the group allowed the senior center to make many improvements over the years, she said.
Mabel Hubbard, 83, of Beverly has volunteered for bingo at the senior center since it started.
“It is too bad it has to close,” Hubbard said. “There is no one to take it over. They wanted to keep it going, but they couldn’t get people.”
For many, bingo was more than just a game, it was a place to catch up with friends over a meal before the games began.
“The best part is seeing all your friends,” said 87-year-old Jennie Napolitano of Beverly. “Now we say, ‘What are we going to do on Wednesday night?’”
Napolitano has been playing since the nonprofit group began offering the games.
“We are all sad it is ending,” she said.
This is part of a larger trend of bingo halls closing across the state and country because of increased gaming options and lack of interest from younger generations. Bingo was legalized in the state in the early 1970s, according to Beth Bresnahan, director of communications for Massachusetts State Lottery.
At its height in 1981, there were 925 bingo venues across the state, making more than $162 million. In 2011, the number decreased to 191 organizations, making $38.8 million, Bresnahan said.
“It was very popular back in the 1970s and ’80s because there wasn’t a lot of options in terms of gaming entertainment,” Bresnahan said. “It is a very social activity.”
Many also consider bingo a generational activity, which fails to attract younger players.
“The younger generations have a lot more options for their entertainment,” Bresnahan said.
Salem resident Peter Plecinoga participates in bingo on Thursday, Friday and Sunday nights at St. John the Baptist Church in Salem and the Knights of Columbus in Peabody.
“They are all declining,” said Plecinoga, who is the director of bingo at St. John’s.
“When bingo started (at St. John’s), well over 200 people were coming,” Plecinoga said, noting that the group varies each week with an average of about 130 people.
Plecingo said the three groups he’s involved in do continue to make money, with much of it going back to the organizations.
Despite declining numbers, bingo remains a popular activity at St. John’s, with people lining up at the door each week, church secretary Marilyn Costa said.
“There is a good crowd every week,” she said. “People look forward to coming.”
St. James Church on Federal Street in Salem also hosts weekly bingo games on Wednesday nights.
Holak said her biggest concern is loss of social activity for many seniors.
“My job is to encourage them to come out to some of our daytime activities,” she said.
Plecinoga said the increase of gambling in the state could lead to the demise of bingo all together.
“If slots come into the state, we’re dead,” he said.
Staff writer Jonathan Phelps can be reached at 978-338-2527 or by email at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at JPhelps_SN.