News
3 min

Why Bingo for Life left Celebrities

And why Friends for Life hopes the fundraiser's new home will be a better fit

Friends for Life board member Michale Ascher sits in front of a bookcase.
Friends for Life board member Michale Ascher says “it was a business decision” to pull Bingo from Celebrities. Credit: Vincent Matak/Xtra

Low attendance drove Celebrities Nightclub to stop hosting the longstanding drag charity event Bingo for Life, representatives of the club say.

After nearly five years at Celebrities, Bingo hosts say they were abruptly informed on Aug 9, 2017, just hours before they were set to go on, that the event had been cancelled.

Representatives both from Celebrities and from the Vancouver Friends for Life Society (FFL), Bingo’s beneficiary, say the decision to pull the event from the venue was mutually decided more than a week earlier, after noticing a sharp dip in attendance and funds raised over the past year.

All proceeds from Bingo for Life go to FFL to support the registered charity’s wellness programs for HIV-positive and other people facing serious health challenges.

“Ultimately, the organizations assessed the level of interest for the event and decided that it was no longer what had been originally envisioned in terms of turnout,” Hayley Thomas, a public relations representative for Celebrities Nightclub, says in an email to Xtra.

Towards the end of its run, Thomas says, the weekly fundraiser drew in only a couple dozen attendees.

FFL board member Michale Ascher says Bingo struggled to pull in more than $300 on most of its nights. She says FFL saw a considerable decrease in attendance and funds raised since December 2016, and says FFL had been in talks with Celebrities to cancel the event for at least three months prior to its last show on Aug 2.

“It was a business decision,” Ascher tells Xtra.

“For our volunteers and donors, they want [the event] to be a success for Friends for Life. When we only raise $200, it’s a bit disappointing.”

Since the event is entirely volunteer run, she adds, FFL had little time or resources to promote it. “It came to a point where we needed to grow and get bigger and get more people in the doors,” she says. “But we were extremely stretched for resources. Putting on the event every week was like an Indiana Jones adventure. It felt like every week we just slid under the gate.”

Friends for Life has renewed some of its services since last year’s financial struggles. Credit: Vincent Matak/Xtra

As for Celebrities, the club says it was honoured to host the weekly event for several years. “We truly value and support everything that Friends for Life stands for, and want to thank all of the entertainers and community for their participation in bingo over the years at Celebrities,” Thomas says in her email.

Ascher says Bingo will re-open weekly at club XY on Bute Street, above Jim Deva Plaza, starting Aug 23. She says the move should help with promotion too, since XY has agreed to print posters and revamp its website to promote the event.

“It just felt like a really good fit, not only for us but for XY as well,” she says. “They also had the perfect spot available, which was our same time slot we’ve been holding Bingo for years,” she adds.

XY confirmed to Xtra via its official Facebook page that it would host the event beginning Aug 23, but didn’t respond to further requests for comment.

This isn’t the first move for the charity event, which has been running for well over a decade, Ascher notes. Previous venues that have hosted Bingo for Life include The Royal, The Majestic, Score, Oasis and the Fountainhead.

The most recent move comes after a challenging year for FFL, which saw just over a $1-million dive in donations in 2016 compared to the prior year, according to records from the Canada Revenue Agency. The dip pushed FFL to cut expenses and reorganize in 2016, but it still posted nearly a $30,000 deficit, according to those same records.

“It seems to be the climate right now for non-profit organizations — for places that are running to support the marginalized in our community — [it] has been extra hard,” Ascher says.

As it grappled with its financial shortfall, FFL cut staff and suspended services for two weeks in March 2016, while it reassessed its mandate and funding model. FFL also saw several board members resign in early 2016.

“The world has changed around us and, truthfully, Friends For Life has not been able to keep pace,” the board of directors told Xtra in an emailed statement on March 23, 2016.

“This is our time to take stock, to get ahead of the problems and to develop a new approach to programs and services,” the board continued.

FFL has since decided to return to its initial mandate of supporting people facing a variety of life-threatening illnesses, rather than focusing solely on HIV/AIDS support, and has renewed some of its services, including meals and some health care. While more recent financial statements aren’t readily available, Ascher says the society now appears to be on an upswing.

“We are still open, we still provide meals every week, we still provide sessions with practitioners and masseuses,” she says. “So we’re very proud that we’ve been able to survive, really just survive, never mind thrive like we have been.”

Celebrities has no immediate plans to introduce new regular Wednesday night programming to replace Bingo, Thomas says.