British Invasion

James Flames brings the unique theatrics of Underground Rebel Bingo to the Hilton

Where else would a bingo club start but in an old church? “We found a bingo cage and the balls in the basement where we stored the booze,” says party promoter-turned-head bingo caller James Flames (real name James Gordon). He had been using a London church as a venue for his “debauched” End of the World Parties, but bingo soon took over.

True to its name, Underground Rebel Bingo Club (URBC) really did start out “underground.” Flames, 28, and his co-conspirators squatted in empty spaces, always trying to stay one step ahead of the cops, and sometimes failing. They were soon kicked out of that church by “a new vicar who thought we were too noisy,” and when the party had grown beyond England, 800 eager bingo players were booted from a New York warehouse.

Of course, the stories of getting busted for bingo only added to the insolent allure. Having found tremendous success in London, various cities across England and in New York, the question is: Will this unique form of party performance art find success at the Las Vegas Hilton, in a city where it’s neither underground nor particularly rebellious?

Flames thinks Las Vegas is a natural fit. “It’s controlled anarchy in the crowd,” he says. “We have DJs, a high-energy stage show, a nod to gambling, and it’s utter filth. It’s not so much that we chose Vegas but, I mean, how could we not do it here?”

So what actually happens at these things? Acting as emcee, Flames guides his audience with a cult leader’s yell that borders on psychotic. His two assistants—burlesque dancers Luki Luck and Anita Win (real names Luki Goddi and Anita Bravin)—are foul-mouthed number callers who are dressed as if they are going to an ’80s dance party. The ladies, both 23, announce the numbers with a bawdy rhyme: “When it comes to abortions I prefer a coat hanger to a knife, 25.” Even when they don’t rhyme, their points are still clear: “The age I was when I first got fingered, 5.” Flames repeats the number slowly, helping those who might not understand their British accents, and adding his own spin on things: “88, the speed at which a DeLorean has to travel to go Back to the Future!” All the while, loud music (house, techno and sometimes hip-hop) plays in the background as strobe lights and fog fill the air. You’re one glow-in-the-dark pacifier away from a full-fledged bingo rave.

Like normal bingo, winners are rewarded. But these prizes are unconventional: an inflatable kiddie pool, a video camera, a box of cupcakes and an iPod speaker.

However, it does seem an odd fit—the mayhem of Rebel Bingo at the hotel that once housed Star Trek: The Experience. Credit entrepreneur Doug Taylor for helping the Hilton make good on its desire to slant younger. Taylor read about URBC in The Wall Street Journal, and pitched the idea to Las Vegas Hilton executive vice president Ken Ciancimino. Taylor became executive producer of URBC’s Vegas show and brought the performers to the hotel.

So is this risk working? Hard to tell. Whereas about 2,000 people attend events in other cities, the first week (Nov. 5, $25-$35 admission) in Vegas drew about 50. Perhaps because of their desire to keep it “underground,” URBC didn’t advertise. “We are definitely considering telling people that we are here,” Flames said at the time. “Maybe we should make posters or fliers or something.” 

Flames, Luck and Win spent the next week promoting, going to parties, clubs and even a dodgeball game. It worked. On Friday, Nov. 12, the room was packed with more than 200 eager, young patrons. Six high-energy bingo games were played, and people were writing dirty words and drawing pictures on each other with bingo markers (a key participatory component of Rebel Bingo in other cities). If the URBC can regularly create this energy with this attendance, they might succeed. The catch: This Friday, admission was free.

With its forced sense of wild-eyed rebellion, URBC does feel a little like it’s trying to bring Vegas to Vegas. Will it prove redundant? Or, perhaps, amid the gloom of our down economy, it’s just what we need.