Once upon a time almost 20 years ago, when I was a fairly impressionable new resident of paradise, friends took me upstairs to the Cabaret above the 801 Bar, where I’d already seen several very cool drag shows, for Drag Queen Bingo. I can honestly say I’ve never been quite the same.
This isn’t your ordinary bingo in the church or synagogue social hall. Drag Queen Bingo is smutty and irreverent and hilarious. (You gotta hear the ruckus when 69 is called.) And — even more unusual — it’s still going strong. It takes place every Sunday afternoon, still benefiting local charities and good causes, maybe even “after 32 years, who knows?” estimated the local bigger-than-life current caller, QMitch Jones.
He is the latest in a long line of very colorful but also philanthropic individuals. Many of the charities and good causes around town have benefited from six- or eight- or 12-week stretches of Sunday Bingo proceeds, currently the Xena fund, which pays veterinary bills for disabled residents.
Apparently there is no historical timeline listing of Drag Queen Bingo callers. QMitch was hand-picked by his predecessor, the late, beloved 801 Cabaret star R.V. Beaumont, a professional potty mouth of the highest order.
Long ago, when I was a “bingo virgin,” the games were being called by a fellow named Chip and his partner, Dale. No, they were not chipmunks. Neither were they professional drag queens; they were just two very sweet youngish men who were active in the gay-founded Metropolitan
Community Church. They were, however, irreverent and funny. The progression, near as memory serves, is that after their tenure some of the 801 queens took turns for a few weeks — I remember a particular favorite, the late Margo, “the oldest living drag queen in captivity,” a 60-ish gay single dad who had never done drag before he got involved with the 801. Then R.V. settled in for the duration.
“In October it will be six years since R.V. passed,” remembered QMitch, a Rocky Mount, N.C., native who described himself not as a drag queen but a 6-foot-3 bald man in a dress. “I used to come every Sunday and I wasn’t so quiet. I yelled out. R.V. just knew I needed to be in the spotlight. He told me I really needed to be up front and he tapped me … a bequeathment.”
Longtime local and publisher Sheri Lohr remembers that the original games, during the time of the plague, often benefited MCC’s food pantry and Cooking
With Love, which provided meals to those who couldn’t get out and shop and cook themselves — in those days, people living with (and sadly, back then, mostly dying of) AIDS. More recently, however, beneficiaries have been as varied as Literacy Volunteers, Sister Season Fund (“Locals Helping Locals”), the Cancer Foundation of the Florida Keys, Visiting Nurse Association/Hospice, the SPCA and surely more.
Bingo is “very important” to the budget of Xena Fund, said past president Alice Senturia, but the generous QMitch also supports them in another way. He’s “been Queen of Hearts several times,” she said, referencing a Valentine’s competition that benefits the fund. “He also always recognizes and honors cancer survivors in the audience. QMitch is one of the reasons Key West is special and so is Drag Queen Bingo.”
A warning, though: QMitch is huge, not only in stature (although with heels and headgear, occasionally a tutu, on his bald pate he probably nears 7 feet tall), but mostly in Don Rickles-style stand-up comedy, tossing ridicule and outrageousness at audience members who enjoy every minute of it. He is the epitome of an equal opportunity offender: The routine last time I visited was peppered with profanity, including a profusion of the “f” word, and began with an audience survey. Turned out attendees were mostly straight and visitors; there were cheers when he asked who was from Philly, then New Jersey. But the loudest cheer was for “heterosexual redneck crackers.” He continued, “Where are my black people? Jews? Germans?” Other good lines were “Let’s hear it for drinking on the job!” and a whole riff on unexpected uses of a panty liner.
You don’t have to take my word for the —um —uniqueness of the game; the 801’s own advertising bears the exclamatory, embellished disclaimer, and we quote: “**This is NOT your Mother’s Bingo!!**PARENTAL DISCRETION ADVISED — Strong language & Sexual Innuendo/A multi-decade tradition where each week benefits a worthy local cause. /A truly unique, Key West twist on Bingo! /Not for the faint of heart….” In other words, if you have a pretty fair tolerance for raunchiness and insults, check out the hilarity.
Drag Queen Bingo, hosted each Sunday by QMitch, begins at 5 p.m. Doors open upstairs at 801 Duval St. at 4 p.m. Bingo cards are reasonably priced at three for five bucks, six for $10. ¦