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Monday, Feb 20, 2017

Lipstick meets lady luck at Hamburger Mary's Drag Queen Bingo

It's a Monday night at Hamburger Mary's Bar & Grille in Centro Ybor, and a tall, lithe, flame-haired siren in full-drag is nursing a martini and getting ready to host the evening's event — Drag Queen Bingo. "Get ready, cause this ain't your grandmammy's bingo," Melanie Minyon announces to the enthusiastic crowd. "Ooooooo-69," she calls out from her chair perched on a small stage. "My favorite number," she adds with a wicked laugh, causing the packed house to roar with laughter. After a few more numbers — and sexual references aimed at an 18-and-over crowd — several patrons are close to bingo and yell the drag queen bingo mantra, "It's on, (rhymes with itches)!"
This game belongs to Jere Bird, of Tampa, who darts from his seat ready to claim his prize. First, Minyon verifies he really has bingo and teases him about the consequences — involving water and spanking — if he does not. Then, Bird partakes in the winner's ritual of running up and down the restaurant aisles while patrons pelt him with their crumpled up bingo cards yelling, "Pelt her, pelt her, all the way down, all the way back!" "(Melanie) is the highlight of my Mondays," says Bird, 48, who attends weekly bingo games at the restaurant with his friends. "It's so much fun. I really like being amongst a very eclectic group of people from the community. Even though it's drag queen bingo, it's not just gay people. It's great to come out and support a good cause and have a great time." Hamburger Mary's packs a full house every Monday and Wednesday night for the bingo bash. The club started the event in 2009 as a way to bring in more business. The shows became so popular they added an extra night, and they usually sell out both events. Reservations are recommended. Minyon calls the numbers Monday nights, while Amy DiMilo, a former Miss Gay Florida USofA, is the bingo diva on Wednesdays. "Amy's a little bit tamer than I am," says Minyon, 58, who also is the restaurant's day manager. "This is years of alcoholism and no therapy. We get parents, schoolteachers, seniors; they all come in here, loosen up and the have the best time." But the games are much more than entertainment. At $10 for 10 games — including cards and daubers — each night of bingo benefits a local charity. The games have raised about $400,000 for hundreds of charities and nonprofit groups such as March of Dimes, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and Tampa Unity Church. One evening's proceeds went toward helping a local softball team travel to the World Series. "It just keeps getting bigger and bigger," said Kurt King, owner of Hamburger Mary's. "Some (franchises) do it for fun, others do it for charity. We wanted to do both. And it works." Word spread quickly, and charities began contacting the restaurant to be bingo benefactors. The restaurant currently has charities booked through January 2013, King said. "Its entertainment, but it's for a worthy cause," King added. "(The charities) can walk out of here with a few thousand dollars a night." Tampa Unity Church benefited recently from drag queen bingo. "We raised $1,400 for the church," said an enthusiastic Debbie Allen, co-minister of Tampa Unity Church, who attended her first drag queen bingo recently and endured a little ribbing from Minyon. (Everyone and everything is fair game here). "Oh Lord, lightning is going to strike the stage right where I sit," Minyon announced when learning the church was the evening's benefactor and the pastors were in attendance. "(A pastor) has never been here before," she added. "I'm going to crash and burn. "How offended do you get? How straight-laced are you?" Minyon asks Pastor Allen. "We accept everyone," Pastor Allen responded. "That's not what I'm asking you," said Minyon with a laugh. "My bingo is a little risqué." Allen wasn't a bit fazed. She even joined Minyon on stage to help mix the bingo balls. "A lot of our folks have been here and prepared us for what to expect," Allen said afterward. "I enjoyed it very much. It was so much fun. We hope they will put us back on the calendar." King said while the event is an entertaining evening of fundraising, it also has helped reveal a segment of the community to people who have never seen a drag queen. Grandmothers come here, parents come here, even husbands, everyone comes," said King. "We have 80 percent straight people in here. Some of them have never seen a drag queen. A lot of this is to educate people, show them what drag queens are." Minyon, a Dunedin resident, has been a female impersonator for 30 years. The Montgomery, Ala., native came to Florida in the early '80s, working at the former El Goya and Tracks nightclubs in Ybor City. She also hosts drag queen bingo at Blur in Dunedin. Minyon said she likes to have fun with her bingo audience, and will scope out the crowd to determine what she can get away with. While the event is aimed at an adult crowd, everyone is welcome to attend, sometime, that means children. "I can get a little crass and a little risqué, so I feel out my audience and try to make sure there are no little ones out there," said Minyon, who spends time meeting patrons and posing for pictures after the event. "It's all in good fun. I just want everyone to loosen up and have a good time." That's what Heather Pitcher appreciates. "She's hilarious. She is a real comedian," said Pitcher, 43, of Tampa, who attended with seven women, including her mother. "This is like an escape for us. You come here and you forget everything and just have a good time and laugh. It's a girls' night out for us. Just a wonderful evening."

ccabrera@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7656