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My Corner of Boston: North End Gambling and “Friday Night Bingo”

“Friday Night Bingo” is the sixth in a series of 1990 skits from “My Corner of Boston” performed at the North End Union, produced by resident Rosaria DiFinzio. See all the scenes here.

Without a doubt, the biggest and most profitable industry in the North End when I was a child was gambling. It blended into the background to such an extent that you didn’t even notice, but it was an integral part of everyday life and was as common as confetti at weddings.

Many North End families, my own included, made a substantial portion of their income from gambling and I knew scores of guys who bought homes in the suburbs and educated their kids on money made from gambling.

During Prohibition, the North End was the center of the illegal liquor business and when that ended in the mid 1930’s another source of income was needed. The numbers racket filled the bill. This was a lottery based picking numbers in the correct sequence. Every day four numbers were obtained from horse racing results at one of the big race tracks Aqueduct in the summer or Hieleah in the winter. The results would be printed in the evening Record American and would be based on the fourth horse in the first four races. For example if the race results for the first race were, 4-9-7-3, the three would be the first number, the “lead”.

Everyone played the numbers game including priests and cops. Bookies went crazy with all the old ladies who wanted to play twenty numbers for five cents each which involved a lot of book keeping for very little return.

Odds varied if you played one (the lead), two (box cars), three or all four numbers. A lot of guys went broke playing the lead and doubling up every day their number wasn’t picked. The loan sharks in the Florentine were always there to help them out. There were also gambling parlors, Bee-Gee’s on Prince Street, Woppo’s in the Cafe Vittoria, Fiore’s Barbu game on Garden Court Street, Chigelo’s on Endicott Street and many others. The guys who ran the games would cut the pot, take a small percentage of each pot in return for keeping the players supplied with booze and cold cuts and paying off the cops. When he got out of the Army in 1945, my father helped his best friend Minnie run a floating craps game in the South End.

There were also gambling parlors, Bee-Gee’s on Prince Street, Woppo’s in the Cafe Vittoria, Fiore’s Barbu game on Garden Court Street, Chigelo’s on Endicott Street and many others. The guys who ran the games would cut the pot, take a small percentage of each pot in return for keeping the players supplied with booze and cold cuts and paying off the cops. When he got out of the Army in 1945, my father helped his best friend Minnie run a floating craps game in the South End.

These gambling parlors were patronized exclusively by men, I never saw a woman in one, and if one showed up she wasn’t there to gamble. There was always the risk the game would be held up by some wise guy trying to make a quick score. If you were held up what could you do, call the cops?

Women wanted to gamble as well so Bingo games became popular. They were safe because they were often held in church halls and were social events where the ladies could schmooze with their friends.

In this skit, Rosaria portrays a clueless but very lucky lady who breaks the bank much to the chagrin of the other players.

If you missed the previous sketches from Rosaria’s My Corner of Bostonsee all the scenes here.

Nicholas Dello Russo is a lifelong North Ender and columnist. Often using vintage photographs, Nick tells the stories of growing up in the North End along with its culture and traditions. It was a time when the apartments were so small that residents were always on the streets enjoying “Life on the Corner.” Read more of Nick’s columns.

18 Replies to “My Corner of Boston: North End Gambling and “Friday Night Bingo”

  1. I remember a small store on the corner of Charter and Foster st. I think the owners name was Bobby Parker. There were a couple of boxes of candy in the window and inside a bubble gum machine. When inside the store there was always a lot of men coming and going from behind a curtain. Although we were young we figured out what was going on.

  2. Nick, brought back so many memories, B Gees where my Dad used to deposit his paycheck on a weekly basis.

  3. I remember “Brother Gerard” making his daily visit to B.Gees with his collection tray & you would always see plainclothes detectives walking out with an envelope in hand & a smile on their face.

    1. Everyone thought Brother Gerard was a holy man because he used to hear “voices”. He thought the statues in the church spoke to him. He was the friar who started the Peace Garden next to the church.
      There was one detective named Cashman who used to try and arrest Blouser Mike. Chased him all over the North End. Blouser used to call him Jimmy the Jet because he was so fast. His other nickname was Arrow Head because of the Pork Pie hat he wore.

  4. Hi Nick,
    I lived a couple of floors above BeeGees at 36 Prince for the first 12 years of my life. It was an interesting “Cigar” store. Bee Gee , I never knew his real name would always be standing in the entrance way. Casey the policeman who walked the North End beat would go in on cold days to keep warm. He was a pretty nice guy, friendly to everyone. In back of 36 Prince was a small wall with a playground beside it next to the Christopher Columbus Youth Center. I must have been 9 or 10 years old playing there with friends when we noticed a group of young men scaling the wall behind BeeGees back entrance running from what must have been a police raid. One of the men who ran by us lobbed several pairs of dice to us and said , “Here kids have some fun with these!. ” Further down Prince next to Roma Pharmacy was a coffee shop that never had customers and like BeeGees there was always a man in the doorway. You could also play the “numbers” at any numbers of grocers on Prince Street. Enjoyed your article, brought back many memories.

    1. Hi Sal, I think BeeGee’s real name was Biagio Nastasi. You remember his brother Dominick who also worked in the store. There was another brother Natale who had his own bookmaking business. A fourth brother, Boots, died young in Las Vegas. He was a really nice guy and one of my mother’s best friends.
      BeeGee had a short wave radio in the back room to pick up the racing results from out of state tracks. Sometimes a wise guy who was at the track would try and beat the system by trying to call in a bet after the race went off especially if one horse was leading by a lot at the first turn.
      Do you remember Henrietta who used to take action from all the old ladies? Two cents on this number, three cents on another and maybe they would splurge and bet a dime on their favorite one. It really drove the bookies crazy keeping track of all those small bets.

      1. Nick, Dominick was both lookout man & took in the number action from people walking or driving by. Bee Gee manned the phone & took the horse “action”Boots delivered pure alcohol in 5 gallon aluminum cans on Sundays which we helped unload from his cab.Henrietta was Joe Guarino’s mother in-law & was known on Prince St. as the “Chief”

        1. There were a million stories in BeeGee’s store. My uncle, Mimmie, sat in the front room every day of his life and my mother was a bridesmaid when Boots married Frances Mastrangelo.
          Peter B. is still working at the Union Oyster House. I ran into Danny Cimino a few years ago, he was driving a brand new Caddy. I asked how he was doing and he said he became a big shot in the Laborer’s Union. Who would ever have guessed?
          Wasn’t Kenny Baker another one of Henrietta,s sons in law? My aunt, Aurora, was godmother to Henrietta’s daughter.
          Sad about Boots, he was a good guy.

          1. Danny passed away as did “Blouser Mike” Kenny Baker was the common law husband of Barbara {when he was out of the can} Another son in law was Angelo Palermo aka “the caveman” married to Jackie another one of Henrietta’s daughters.. keep the stories coming Nick.As for Bee Gees your right you could write a book about the incidents & the characters who frequented the joint.

            1. I remember when Kenny was released on parole one time. He wasn’t back on Prince St for two days before he started breaking into houses (never in the North End) and holding up convenience stores. He couldn’t help himself.
              I always liked Angelo Cave Man. He was thin, wirey but strong as an ox. He salvaged all kinds of antiques from the buildings they were tearing down to build the Central Artery. He worked at night and got light fixtures, doors, hardware and all kinds of great stuff. He sold it to architects and interior designers for big bucks.
              When he knew he was dying, Dominick wanted to give my uncle, Mimmie, the keys to the store so he could keep it open for the old crowd. Mimmie refused. He knew times were changing. The State had started its own lottery and different people were moving into the North End. Our way of life was ending. Sad, and no one will ever know how much fun it was.

              1. Nick,the word”s”you don’t appreciate something until you lose it” apply here.It was a special place ,filled with special people[.Saints & sinners] At least thanks to you & others we will always have our memories.Happy New Year.

    2. Sal, I grew up w/you Ronnie & Freddie Sarno, Blouser Mike, Ralphie Hawk. Peter B.Sammy[joe TV’s younger brother & Danny Cimino. The only person still around is Peter as far as I know.Happy New Year.

      1. Michael, Best wishes to you and Nick and his many readers as well for a Happy New Year. I visit the North End once and awhile and stop in at the Library. I did speak with Peter B near the wall of Saints that he has made over the years on Battery Street. There was a story about him once in the Globe He knows a lot about the people we grew up with. He told me his wife passed away recently. Mike I remember well the people you mentioned. Joe TV’s brother was Santo Giorgianni who lived a few floors up from me, we were friends and used to play stickball with others playground there on Prince Street. He might be living in East Boston. One of the Sarno’s was a cab driver, who picked up my handicapped (polio) Aunt Josie every working day and drove her to the State House to her job. Ronnie moved to California years ago. I remember Danny C well and Mike B also. Mike you are so right about the experience of growing up there. So many good hard working people lived and worked there. One memory that often stands out for me is an inspirational and dedicated teacher, a Miss or Mrs Platt at the Michelangelo School. I wound up in education for 39 years and often thought of her as a role model.

    3. Great to hear from you Sal. Danny & Mike B.have passed away as did Peter B’s wife.I certainly remember Ms Platt as well as Mr Celona,Mr Corrado & Mr Shea & a female Italian teacher whose name escapes me.[it may have been Mrs Mastrangelo]A role model for us when we grew up and kept up on the straight and narrow was a beat cop named Larry.Part of the “Prince St . group was a kid named Johnny Mucci, Carlo DeLuca,”Brother” Lombardozi, & Billy DellaRusso & his sister whose name I recall was Marilyn. I think they lived in Medford but I remember that we hung out near the familyfuneral parlor on Prince St & that’s how we got to know them.WE even had a kid from Alabama in the crew whose family moved here briefly. Of course he was called “Alabama” We played errors, stickball, punch ,handball which included memorable matches between Joe TV vs Blouser Mike and softball.We cruised around on scooters made out of fruit boxes, 2×4.s & roller skates, had water balloon battles & although we didn’t have much moneybut we grew up in a wonderful neighborhood ,filled with too many great people & families to name here. So thanks for the update & Happy New Year to you.I try to attend every feast each year particular St. Agrippina because of my knowing peter for over 60 years, but the last two years We didn.t attend because my wife is battling cancer.But with the help of God we will make every feast this year,Nice to hear from you Sal.

      1. Mike, the only saints I remember on Prince Street were in St. Leonard’s Church.
        Do you remember the downstairs chapel? It’s closed now but it was called St. Anthony’s and there were two grottos in the back, one on each side. The one on the left had St. Anthony and I think the other one had St. Mary. The statues were surrounded by hundreds of candles, real wax ones, and they were always lit.
        At the front of the chapel, in the aisle, was a life size cross with Jesus writhing in agony. When the old ladies went up to receive communion they would kiss or rub Jesus’s stone feet. Over the years they wore down the feet so much all the toes were obliterated. I don’t know why but that always fascinated me.

  5. Nick,
    I do remember Henrietta. Mike, the Italian teacher at the Michangelo School, I believe was Miss or Mrs Scarnicci. I think she was famous for throwing things, erasers chalk or whatever, at students who talked in her classes. I learned to duck. Mr. Shea, though a nice guy, was the worst teacher I ever had. Every other word in his science class was “theoretically”. Mr Celona, electricity teacher, was great, even had evening class for kids in neighborhood to make things . I think Mr. Corrado taught printing or woodworking. Principal in my time their was Augustine Malley, a nice man. The assistant I think was a Mr Wood, who would administer the bamboo rattan to kids hands when the were sent in for acting up. He also wasn’t shy about slapping the side of kids heads when they talked in line. Besides Miss Platt mentioned earlier another great teacher was Miss Drea for math. She found the good in kids and made them feel important. Next to her class was Mrs Walsh who died her hair blue and read books to the class on Fridays. One good was Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbles. Especially significant because it took place in the North End. Also had a black teacher, a Miss Wolcott who also taught science and history I believe. She was also up there with the best educators in the school.

  6. Mr. Shea was not shy about backhanding someone across the face for acting up or talking in class. Mr.Higgins was the woodworking teacher,Corrado [who was usually half in the bag] was the printing teacher. I seem to recall he was missing fingers or a limb.I must admit I made more than several “trips” to Mr. Wood’s office to face the music & accept my punishment But such was life in the NE of our childhood & I would not change it for anything.

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