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Game Night in the New Country

It’s Thursday night, and that means Bingo at the Annex Club, on the eastern side of New Haven’s harbor. The club was founded by Italian immigrants as a civic center for their community in 1938, but nowadays Bingo Night draws an ethnically diverse crowd of devotees. A woman in a blue hat with Bingomania written in rhinestone across the front and a man with a walker wait in a long line for concessions. In the large room where Bingo players wait at their tables for the game to begin, gold wallpaper and large mirrors fill the walls, and chandeliers dangle from the ceiling. A dark Bingo board lights up to announce lucky numbers, and the tables are covered with bottles of Dabbo Ink Dazzle, the high-tech version of Bingo chips. The Annex Club upgraded about ten years ago.

Behind the concession stand counter, Robert “Bobby” Astorino—the current treasurer and former president of the Annex Club—sells Bingo cards. He stands in front of flowers and a “Family, Laugh, Love” sign and informs me, politely but firmly, that he does not have time to talk. He directs me to a smaller table where a man sells lottery numbers, collecting the money in small tin brownie pans. Joe Tirotello, who is 88, has worked Bingo Night for thirty-five years. He has also served as a coach for the Annex Club-sponsored Little League team and volunteers on Tuesday afternoons when retirement home residents visit the club. He knows almost everyone here tonight by name.

The Annex neighborhood—the club’s namesake—welcomed a constant stream of Italian immigrants beginning in the 1890s. The New Haven immigrants created “mutual aid societies” such as La Fratellanza (“The Brotherhood”) and La Marineria (“The Navy”), to support Italians as they built new lives in United States.

A woman in a blue hat with Bingomania rhinestoned across the front and a man with a walker wait in a long line for concessions.

At the end of the Great Depression, twenty-eight Italian-American men began a Young Men’s Association known as the Annex Club. Its goals were slightly different from those of the original Italian-American societies. A pamphlet from the club’s fiftieth anniversary states the original objectives, one of which was: “to engage in community activities which will advance the interests of this organization and its membership in the community.” Put more simply, the men of the neighborhood wanted a place where, after working or playing a game of football, they could convene, relax, and remind themselves of what Tirotello, a life-long Club member and the son of an original member, still refers to as the “Old Country.”

The club is no longer exclusively Italian-American nor exclusively male, though a large portion of its participants are either original members or descendants of them. Al Balchek, another Bingo Night volunteer and former president of the club, proudly tells me, “We have Irish, we have Polish, we have Jewish, African American, Puerto Rican.”

Balchek himself is Polish-Italian, and as we walk around the club, Italian names still dominate: Astorino, Castiglione, Apuzzo, Berrelli, Ginetti. They line the wall in the members-only lounge, feature heavily on the donors list, and belong to many of the Bingo players. Though their heritage is a source of pride for these people, most don’t dwell on it. The Club was a place for dances and Fourth of July fireworks, as well as for recollections of Italy. In building supportive communities to help their members succeed, the mutual aid societies and the Annex Club also promoted assimilation. Italian immigrants in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries sometimes faced discrimination and prejudice; today their descendants include New Haven’s longest-serving mayor and current United States Representative Rosa DeLauro. As long as the Annex Club has been open, the community it serves has been transforming. But its regulars, who built railroads and coached Little League, still come to the Club.

The men of the neighborhood wanted a place where, after working or playing a game of football, they could convene, relax, and remind themselves of what Tirotello calls “the Old Country.”

The Club’s numbers, as well as its influence, have dwindled. “We donated an awful lot of our time and our expenses to the city of New Haven,” Balchek tells me. “Lots of charity work, fundraisers, offered the place up if people needed a place to host things, say. It’s very difficult for us to do that today. In today’s society, it’s not cheap to open up the doors.”  Beyond the economic burden, the tight-knit community of families has also changed. “I miss the old days,” Tirotello says. “We used to have Saturday night dinners here. We don’t do that anymore. Because nobody wants to come!”

To survive, the Annex Club has evolved. Instead of hosting wedding parties for its members, the Club hosts motorcycle shows and the Connecticut Gay Men’s Choir. They still offer scholarships for Club members’ children, and they still host community events, but Bingo Night, bookings, and Astorino’s careful work as treasurer keep the Club afloat.

On a typical Thursday, any melancholy nostalgia is drowned out by the cheerful chaos of the Bingo crowd. Astorino teases Tirotello, once again, about his age. Balchek says happy birthday to a woman who has just won fourteen dollars. Conversations about children and spouses float throughout the hall. People still come every Thursday for Bingo, and many come more often, for meals or drinks in the lounge. Astorino tells me that they are booked “pretty much every Saturday for the next two years.”

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