'Father Bingo' backer calls all the numbers

Producer of musical with February debut conjures Motown spirit with Vandellas' help.
By Kurt Anthony Krug / Special to The Detroit News

DEARBORN HEIGHTS -- Businessman Rick Beyer was surprised at the similarities between getting his stepfather's musical comedy off the ground and starting a company.

"It's like an inventor trying to find backing for his product," said Beyer, 48, of Reston, Va., a Detroit native and executive producer of "Father Bingo," a musical written by his stepfather, Bill Nilsson, 76, of Dearborn Heights. "Very few find funding. And very few go on to be successful."

Beyer took it upon himself to bankroll "Father Bingo," which debuts in February at the Music Hall in Detroit, because it has "great music and a great story. I decided to improve the odds of success by funding the venture myself."

Set in Detroit around the 1970s, "Father Bingo" is about a priest whose parish is having money problems.

He prays to God, who appears to him and advises him to hold bingo games to raise money. The trouble is the priest is head of Detroit's anti-gambling coalition, which is against bringing casinos into the city. Meanwhile, the mayor believes the casinos are Detroit's winning ticket.

Nilsson, who is publicity-shy and declined to be interviewed, conceived the idea for "Father Bingo" in 1996 after he and his wife, Mary Jane, saw a musical and realized nothing new and innovative was being produced; it was all the same, said Beyer.

At that point, Nilsson decided to write the music and script of a play set in Detroit.

It took him seven years to develop "Father Bingo."

Beyer, who purchased the rights to "Father Bingo" in 2003, recruited Debbie Lannen to direct the play. Over the past 15 years, Lannen has directed numerous shows in affiliation with the Michigan Opera Theatre. From there, Beyer and Lannen recruited Rosalind Ashford Holmes and Annette Sterling Helton -- the original Vandellas of the legendary Motown group Martha and the Vandellas.

"Detroit has a history of launching musical hits -- both in the recording studio and on stage. Holmes and Helton are originals and we are delighted to have them launch what we hope is another hit," said Beyer. "We thought having original Motown talent appear would be appropriate since 'Father Bingo' is an original show set in Detroit."

The Vandellas' main act in "Father Bingo" is the musical number, "Bingo Mamas." They released a statement through publicist Melissa Bunker regarding their work on the play:

"We always wanted to do live theater. We would sit in a play and think to ourselves, 'I can do that!' This is the next challenge in our careers and we are so grateful that 'Father Bingo' sought us out and presented it to us."

Beyer has nothing but high praise for the Vandellas.

"They've been wonderful to work with," he said. "Between takes, you have these hall of fame legends mentoring the young talent. It's neat to watch the interaction."

Since tickets went on sale in August, seats on the main floor for the Saturday and Sunday matinees have sold out. Beyer is hoping that by the holidays he will sell 3,000 tickets. It may reach a point where the balcony section might need to be opened to accommodate the audience, which "would be a good problem to have."

"The mission of 'Father Bingo' is doing good to others," said Beyer. "That is reflective of my own background. We are donating 100 percent of the proceeds to benefit the Music Hall. It's a philanthropic event."