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Getting Gambling Wrong: Broadway's Golden Age Lyricists Roll Snake Eyes

By Bennett Liebman
Government Lawyer in Residence, Albany Law School

In the pantheon of Broadway lyricists, names don't come higher than Steven Sondheim and the team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Yet when it came to describing the world of gambling in their shows in the 1950's, these writers threw snake eyes.

Sondheim was the lyricist for the iconic musical "Gypsy", which had its premiere in 1959. "Gypsy" retells the story of the famed burlesque performer Gypsy Rose Lee. The focus of the story is on Gypsy's mother Rose - played initially by Ethel Merman. Mama Rose, simply put, is a monstrosity of a stage mother.

In her first number, Rose's personality is revealed through the song, "Some People." The song starts off with Rose's assertion that: "Anyone that stays home is dead." Roses goes on to add, "Some people can be content playing bingo and paying rent..."
Yet playing bingo was not a possibility for anyone at the time. Based on Lee's life, the time of the song would likely have occurred before 1920, before Gypsy Rose Lee's ninth birthday. Even if you can place the song in the early 1920's (The Internet Broadway Database suggests that Gypsy starts in the 1920's. See http://ibdb.com/production.php?id=2743), this cannot make the bingo lyric work.

While it may seem that bingo has been around forever, its commercial start in the United States has an actual time and date. Toy salesman Edmund Lowe in December of 1929 visited a carnival in Georgia, where he saw patrons getting excited over a game called "beano." People played a lottery-style game where they covered a card with beans. Lowe talked to the person who ran the game and took it back to New York to share with his friends. (See generally Robert Daley, "Bingo Binge Is Big Business," New York Times, December 8, 1957 and Art Harris, "The Bingo Baron," Washington Post, February 26, 1986) He instructed people with the winning card to shout out, "Beano!" Allegedly, the name of the game came about when a friend of Lowe's with a winning hand got so excited, that he or she yelled out "Bingo" instead of "Beano." (Richard C. Firstman, "Original Bingo Promoter Dead at 75," Newsday, February 25, 1986. See also "The Biography of Bingo," New York Herald Tribune, March 16, 1962)

Lowe developed additional cards and "hired a Columbia University, math professor, named Carl Leffler, to help him increase the amount of number combinations in Bingo cards. By 1930, Leffler had invented 6,000 different bingo cards." (Jan Evans, "A Brief History of Indian Gaming," Oklahoma Indian Times, February 29, 2000) Lowe soon began marketing the game, and after he began licensing the game to churches in the early 1930's, the game took off in popularity. Therefore, bingo is a game which popularity dates to 1930.

Nobody in 1920 could have been content playing bingo, because there simply was no such game known as bingo in 1920. While given her threatening personality, many people might have been reluctant to call her on it, Mama Rose got bingo wrong.

"Bells Are Ringing"

"Bells Are Ringing" was another popular Golden Age musical from 1956. The lyrics and the book were again written by Comden and Green. Julie Styne, who also wrote the music for "Gypsy", wrote the songs. In the show, Ella Peterson is an extremely well -meaning, pleasant, but also meddlesome, employee of a phone answering service who gets involved with helping to better the lives of the service's clients.

One of the clients of the answering service is Sandor, who is, "in fact, a bookmaker... he is able to do this by the ingenious means of providing his clients with musical codes - for example, Beethoven is the pseudonym for Belmont Park Race Course, Puccini is the code for Pimlico Race Course, Tchaikovsky means Churchill Downs, etc. Therefore, when the message is received, 'Order 500, 6th Symphony, Beethoven, Opus 3,' it actually means ' Bet 500 dollars, sixth horse, Belmont, 3rd Race.'"

To explain how the bookmaking service works, Sandor sings the number, "It's a Simple Little System," to his employees. He lists the composers and tells his employees the names of the tracks they stand for. Thus, "Berlioz is Bainbridge, Hindemith is Hawthorne, Offenbach is Omaha." (As the song goes: "The composers' names, we list them with the racetracks of the land." The design of the scheme is accomplished by: "We will take those record orders in a very cultured tone. While we're really booking horses over at Susanswerphone." See http://lyricsplayground.com/alpha/songs/i/itsasimplelittlesystem.shtml).

Business for poor Hector Berlioz had to be extremely slow. Bainbridge Park was once a thoroughbred racetrack in northeastern Ohio in Geauga County southeast of Cleveland. The track got its start on July 8, 1928 and ran for a grand total of eight seasons, closing in 1935. By that year, Bainbridge Park had only 15 days of racing distributing purses of $3,113 per race day.(American Racing Manual, 1936) Even for a racetrack in the Depression, this was an incredibly low amount of money. It could hardly be surprising that the track would not be in operation after 1935.

Nobody was betting on Bainbridge in 1956. They weren't even betting on Bainbridge by 1936.

Offenbach probably wasn't getting much play either at the answering service. The racetrack in Omaha was traditionally (See generally http://www.ak-sar-ben.com/), and certainly by 1956 (American Racing Manual, 1957), known universally as Ak-Sar-Ben, which is Nebraska spelled backwards. In its earlier days, the track was occasionally known by a few as Omaha, but even then most everybody called in Ak-Sar-Ben. At the time that "Bells Are Ringing" purports to take place, in 1956, almost nobody would have called it Omaha.

The naming of the tracks is extremely puzzling in "Bells Are Ringing". By all accounts, Julie Styne was a race track regular. Styne, unlike Sandor, actually knew the all the racetracks of the land (albeit it's difficult to believe that most anyone remembered Bainbridge). Why not call Berlioz, Bowie, a track in Maryland that was certainly popular in 1956? Similarly, why couldn't Offenbach be Oaklawn Park in Arkansas?

Spoiler alert. Given the fact that Sandor was arranging for people to wager on defunct racetracks, it should not be a surprise that he eventually gets busted by the police.

It may be hard to dislike Golden Age musical comedy, but couldn't someone have sprung for a gambling dramaturge?

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