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Don’t call it ‘bingo’ — it’s called ‘bufet’

Local seniors enjoy game, each other’s company during weekly ritual

Posted: October 19, 2009 10:54 p.m.
Updated: October 20, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Lila Mundell calls out that she only needs one number, B-11, to win a game of bingo - or "bufet" - at Home Town Buffet in Valencia on Monday.

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The No. 1 rule at Monday morning's bingo games at a local buffet: Don't call it bingo.

"People think bingo is played for money and we play for gift cards," said Lila Mundell, 77, of Valencia, who is one of the local bingo game's founders. "So we call the game ‘bufet': B-U-F-E-T."

It's not that the bingo players at the buffet are worried about gaming agents swarming the place to arrest any of them. And they shouldn't - Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff's Station officials said bingo games don't rank high on the list of vices they're looking to crack down on.

The name "bufet" is borrowed from the restaurant's name, Mundell said. And that subtle name change from bingo to "bufet" is all that's different in this version of the game.

Winning still comes down to lining up the proper combination of numbers and letters, said Billie Culbertson, a waitress at Hometown Buffet.

And while bingo is a form of gambling, and the restaurant does offer the players complimentary drinks - coffee and orange juice - the scene doesn't do much else to evoke Las Vegas.

There are no booze or showgirls. And there's no profit on the part of the organizers.

"The money paid covers the cost of the game," Culbertson said.

The roots of buffet bingo
The bingo game began 11 years ago as entertainment for senior citizens.

"We wanted to offer them something that would be fun," Culbertson said. "So we came up with ‘bufet,' a game played just like bingo."

The bingo cards were leftovers salvaged from Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church in Newhall, which hosted its own bingo game and donated some old cards that were no longer in use.

But before Hometown Buffet could start dishing out gift cards to bingo winners, it needed someone with some moxie to run the bingo operation. That's where Billie Culbertson came in.

Culbertson made her first bet in Keno, a casino game similar to bingo, when she was 32. She hit a lucky streak that she says hasn't ended.

"I am a lucky person," she said. "I have plenty of lucky numbers."

Culbertson is a strawberry blonde spark plug who calls out bingo numbers with the enthusiasm of an auctioneer. She was picked to run the Hometown Buffet bingo game.

A chance at friendship
"This means everything to the people who play here," Culbertson said. "Their friends are here and they get a chance to socialize."

The socializing must happen between games because when Culbertson starts calling out number and letter combinations, the room invariably turns silent.

Culbertson calls out T-75 and groans echoed through the restaurant. A slightly different number and letter combination would have been a winner for several players.

The game continues and then, after Culberston calls several more letter and number combinations, a voice cracks the silence.
"Bingo!" yells Roanna Woerter, 74, of Valencia.

Her prize: a $10 gift certificate to Hometown Buffet.

"We plan to use this sometime this week," said her husband, Carl Woerter, who was all smiles after his wife's luck turned into $10 off all-you-can-eat meat loaf and unlimited trips to the carving station.

But the Woerters don't dabble in bingo just to score buffet discounts.

"This gives us something to do on Monday morning," Carl Woerter said. "We get to play with and meet people our age."

Bonding over bingo is common, Mundell said. The drone of the bingo caller howling out letter and number combinations doesn't drown out opportunities for the players to build bingo friendships.

"Some of them can barely make it here because of their physical limitations," she said. "But you couldn't take this away from them. They wouldn't know what to do with themselves."

The bingo lady
Some bingo players say the task of following a game full of letters and numbers has staved off the effects of aging.

"It keeps me sharp," said Jackie Melillo, 81, of Canyon Country. "I know the numbers perfect and it's good for my brain."

Melillo is a 30-plus-year transplant to the SCV who is originally from Brooklyn. There is nothing about Melillo that says she needs anything to stay sharp.

She volunteers to work the bingo game and is quick to remind anyone what her job is.

"I collect the money and check the winning cards," she said. "They call me Ms. Bingo."

It's a moniker that Melillo earned through her dedication to the game. She plays six nights a week, traveling as far as the San Fernando Valley to play. Melillo won't call it an obsession.

"I put a limit on how much I play," she said. "But you have to do something. Life is short and boring without friends or something to do."

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