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Bingo Bob's big day

A huge Molly Hatchet fan, the lead singer in a Gulfport band gets the chance to open for the group and a promise of dinner with them. But who's the real star of the show?

By LANE DeGREGORY
Published June 1, 2003

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[Times photos: Michael Rondou]
“Bingo” Bob Stunzig, trying to settle his nerves, strolls along Shore Boulevard in front of the Gulfport Casino where in less than an hour his band, No Name Storm, will open for the Southern rock band Molly Hatchet. He figures it’ll be the night of his life.
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Best known for the hit Flirtin’ With Disaster, the band Molly Hatchet performs at the Gulfport Casino on May 23. From left, lead singer Phil McCormack, lead guitarist Bobby Ingram, bass player J.J. Strickland and guitarist Russ Maxwell fill the hall with sound.

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Hired for the day to act as roadies and provide security, Bill Karsten of Largo, left, and Jerry Jansen of St. Petersburg wait in the casino during sound checks. The promoter promised Molly Hatchet a crowd of 1,000 for the show, and hired Bingo Bob’s band No Name Storm to open, in hopes of bringing in the Gulfport locals.
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Before the casino show, “Bingo” Bob Stunzig visits a favorite Gulfport bar, On the Rocks.
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With the crowd on its feet for 11 songs, Bingo Bob and No Name Storm rock the Gulfport Casino. About 450 people heard them perform on their big night and gave them a standing ovation.

GULFPORT - Bingo Bob gets to the gig early. He carries his scarred guitar case up the side steps of the Gulfport Casino, props it beside a bench. He pulls a cigarette from his jeans pocket and fumbles for a lighter.

His hands are shaking.

He was up all night. Going over the set list, the chord changes, the ending of every song. He twisted new strings onto his old Ovation, tuned her twice, oiled her so she'd shine in the spotlight.

"I'm really pumped up. And really, really nervous," he says, finally sparking his smoke. "This is the biggest thing I've ever done."

Bingo Bob is not headlining at the Gulfport Casino tonight. His band, No Name Storm, didn't even make the marquee. The members aren't even getting paid.

They're playing for the exposure, the glory, the possibilities.

They're opening for Molly Hatchet. A Southern rock band, Hatchet had a couple of hits back in the '70s. Bingo Bob dug them, back in the day.

"We didn't believe it, at first, when they asked us. I mean us, opening for such a big rock band - and right here at home," Bingo Bob says, shaking his shaggy brown hair. "My whole family is coming. I gave my mom two tickets for Mother's Day. She's so proud. She's been coming to my gigs forever. She just can't believe this. And my brother and sister and my two nieces and my girlfriend's kids, they'll all be here.

"And we get to eat dinner with Molly Hatchet - that's what they told us. And we get to get the guys' autographs and get our pictures taken with them. I mean, this is huge.

"Who knows what this could lead to?"

He pauses, barely daring to dream.

"I mean, someone could hear us tonight and realize we're ready for something maybe even out of Gulfport. Something really big time, like the Taste of Pinellas. Or maybe even Ribfest."

Bingo Bob has been rehearsing for this gig for 30 years.

He takes the stage in six hours.

How he got his name

Robert "Bingo Bob" Stunzig is 45. Dark sideburns frame his round face. A long mustache shadows his wide mouth. He smiles like he's up to something. A black snake tattoo coils around his left forearm; a panther prances across his right. His belly has been rounded by years of Budweiser.

He got married once, when he was too young to know better. He has a 20-year-old son by his wife, and a 4-year-old daughter by another woman. Now he lives with his girlfriend, Lisa, a waitress at H.T. Kane's in Gulfport. They share a bungalow a few blocks away from the bar. He walks home.

Bingo Bob has worked on an aircraft carrier in the Navy and driven an ice cream truck, then a taxi, then a garbage truck. For the last 18 years, he has been an electrician, working mostly for the lead guitarist in his band (who is mostly a contractor).

But Bingo Bob has been unemployed all spring. So he's had plenty of time to practice.

He got his first guitar when he was 15, traded his electric race car set to a guy down the block in Long Island. "My brother had a friend who played, and he'd show me a new chord every week," Bingo Bob says. "I'd work at it all night in my room, listening to the Beatles and Hendrix and the Who."

He got his first paying gig in 1978 - the year Molly Hatchet made it big. While Bingo Bob was earning $30 (plus beer) at a bar in Huntington, Long Island, Molly Hatchet was going platinum with its second album, blasting Flirtin' With Disaster at stadium crowds across the country.

"My bands always played Molly Hatchet songs," Bingo Bob says. He has been in cover bands for three decades. But he has never been able to make a living as a musician.

"I moved to Florida in 1987 because my mom owned a bingo parlor in Seminole," he says. "I was playing with these guys in another garage band, trying to learn enough songs to get gigs. Well, we were supposed to be rehearsing every night. But my mom let me play bingo for free. And I was making more money playing bingo than playing music, so I started skipping band practice. When I went to bingo three nights in a row, the guys in the band got mad. "Bobby goes to bingo,' they started saying." And it stuck.

"All my life, all I've wanted is to be a rock 'n' roller. But I never pursued it like I should have," he says. He smiles beneath his mustache. "Until now."

No name recognition

In the '60s, the likes of Roy Orbison and Melanie rocked the Gulfport Casino. But the five-tiered chandeliers don't shake much any more. These days, tea dances and swing steps are the most groove the worn floorboards get.

A few months ago, a former nightclub manager from Raleigh, N.C., moved to town and started talking about bringing back the glory days. John Riley said he wanted to rent the casino, hire a big-name band. Kick-start the quiet waterfront community.

He surveyed the regulars at Buddy's and O'Maddy's, at H.T. Kane's and On the Rocks: "If you could see any band you wanted, what would you want to hear here?"

Southern rock, everyone agreed. Many mentioned Molly Hatchet. All the bars have Flirtin' With Disaster on their jukeboxes. The local karaoke crowds love to croon that tune.

So Riley called Molly Hatchet's manager in Boca Raton and cut himself a deal. He said he'd pay the band $10,000 to do the gig. He promised to put them up in a bed and breakfast, feed them three meals, buy their bourbon and beer. He agreed to rent soundboards and speakers and amps, at his expense. He said he would take care of advertising. He promised to bring in 1,000 people. He persuaded local businesses to front money for the big show.

He told Molly Hatchet's manager where Gulfport was, because the manager had no idea.

Then Riley started searching for an opening act. It had to be local, a band that could pry these barflies off their stools.

Gulfport has five bars that book live music. But only one band.

"Everywhere I went, it was No Name Storm," Riley said. "Bingo Bob and those guys have a real following."

No Name Storm plays Buddy's on Saturdays, On the Rocks every other Friday. Nights off, the guys hang out at O'Maddy's and Kane's. They seldom make as much as $100 a man. They all live in Gulfport (except the bass player, who's from Pinellas Park). The band has never played more than a couple of miles from home. Never recorded a song. Never opened for anyone.

Riley said Bingo Bob and his band could play for tips. He promised them free dinner with Molly Hatchet, tickets for their wives and girlfriends, a chance to be heard by the big shots. He said No Name Storm would be in all the ads, all over the radio.

He made them promise not to drink before the gig.

Big sound, little space

Four hours before the show, Bingo Bob helps Molly Hatchet's roadies load in amps and extension cords. All the roadies are new to this. They're all volunteers from the bars where Bingo Bob plays.

"Y'all should sound pretty fat through this system," a temporary roadie named Raymond Marks says.

Bingo Bob looks up. The ballroom is filled with four walls of speakers, towering into the vaulted ceiling, and two mixing boards, each as big as a picnic table. Monitors and mikes, buttons and bass boosters. Molly Hatchet's drum set is so huge it takes up the whole stage.

"Wow!" Bingo Bob says, his brown eyes wide. "Good God."

Just after 5 p.m., No Name Storm takes the stage for its sound check: Bingo Bob up front, on lead vocals and rhythm guitar; David "Guitar Daddy" Hasselbach, 39; Stevie "Drummer" Meligan, 44; Michael C. LaRose, 50, who shares lead guitar; and Tom "Fig" Newton, 46, the bassist.

Their stage is a small ring between Molly Hatchet's mike stands and monitors - about the size of a bathroom.

"Bigger than at On the Rocks," Bingo Bob says, opening his guitar case. "Where do I plug in?"

He sings Eddie Money and the Stones. Guitar Daddy does Hendrix. They're not allowed to cover Molly Hatchet tonight - Molly Hatchet's contract says so. After a half-hour, the sound man is satisfied.

Bingo Bob is blown away.

"Was that us in there?" he asks, drifting out the door in a daze.

"You sound great. You'll be great," promises Riley, the promoter.

And now for the moment they've all been waiting for: Bingo Bob and the guys head to the bed and breakfast. Time for dinner with the big band.

The wicker tables at Sea Breeze Manor are laden with a country-style buffet: yellow corn and barbecue pork, pasta salad, pickles with peppers, yeast rolls, vats of butter. Bingo Bob piles his paper plate high. "You still shaking?" asks Guitar Daddy, watching him slosh sweet tea.

"Of course," Bingo Bob says. "Aren't you?"

Molly Hatchet is a little late.

Bingo Bob and the guys help themselves to seconds. They go over their set list. They tell each other, again, how incredible this all is.

Another 20 minutes crawl by. Still no Molly Hatchet.

Bingo Bob thanks the cook. He thanks Lori Rosso, the bed and breakfast owner. He thanks the promoter for this opportunity.

Riley says he's sorry the guys from Molly Hatchet couldn't make it for the meal.

"But they'll be here at 7," he says. "So bring your wives and girlfriends and your cameras when you come back.

"You can get Molly Hatchet's autographs before the show."

Almost famous

After dinner Bingo Bob goes home, takes a shower and plays a few rounds of Donkey Kong on Nintendo to calm down. But his hands are still shaking as he pulls his new black T-shirt over his head. And he has trouble tying his hiking boots.

Now, back at the bed and breakfast, he lights a cigarette and sits beside Drummer. "Got any water?" he asks.

"Just go on in. In the kitchen fridge there's lots."

"You mean, just go on in like I own the place?" Bingo Bob asks.

"Sure," Drummer says. "You're a big star tonight."

Bingo Bob and his band drink bottled water and blow smoke across the porch and marvel at Molly Hatchet's tour bus, which is blocking their view of Boca Ciega Bay. "How much you figure a bus like that goes for?" the lead guitarist asks.

Bingo Bob grins. "Oh, we can make those payments too when we're bringing in 10 grand a show."

Drummer downs another bottle of Zephyrhills. Fig Newton fishes through his girlfriend's purse for another lighter. And Bingo Bob winds the disposable camera he bought to get his picture taken with Molly Hatchet.

About 7:20, the double doors open onto the porch and the woman who owns the bed and breakfast steps outside. "Ah, Molly Hatchet is still resting," Rosso says, staring at the floorboards. "They said if they're not out by 7:30, they'll see you after the show."

Bingo Bob and the guys wait another half-hour. Then the lead guitarist, Mike LaRose, gets up. "This ain't gonna happen," he says. "I'm going for a beer."

Bingo Bob follows. They walk down the waterfront, past the casino.

"Well," Bingo Bob says. "It's not like we were getting to meet Led Zeppelin or anything."

The casino is packed. By 8:40 p.m., when Bingo Bob and his band climb the side steps, 310 people have paid $20 each to get inside. The line is still snaking up the stairs.

Bingo Bob and the band slowly thread through the crowd. The sea of people parts. Shouts go up from all sides.

"Good luck, Bingo! You're the man!" calls a graybeard in a Grateful Dead tie-dye.

"Big time, Bingo! Let's rock!" calls Raymond the roadie, who is now taking tickets.

"Hey Bingo!" says another guy with a long, curly ponytail. He hands Bingo Bob a faded LP: Molly Hatchet's first album. "Can you get the guys to sign this for me?" he asks.

Bingo Bob stashes the album behind his amp. He shoulders his guitar. He waves at his mom, in the fourth row on the right. Then he pulls out the disposable camera and clicks a photo of her in the crowd.

Fifty-something women in silver lame halters, leather pants and black heels are raising their beers; 40-something men in faded overalls and biker boots are hooting; the spotlights are glaring; everybody is waiting to be rocked.

Bingo Bob shakes back his bangs. He takes a wide stance. He closes his eyes and belts out someone else's song: "I'm gonna take you on a trip so far from here. . . . I've got two tickets in my pocket, now baby, we're gonna disappear. . . . Waited so long, waited so long . . ."

The crowd starts shrieking before he finishes the first verse. Women are jumping. Men are stomping.

"These boys here, Bingo Bob and this band, they're our home boys!" Dawn Powers shouts. She's 44, lives in Gulfport. "This is the biggest thing that's ever happened to them. To our town!" And she twirls away through the sweaty crowd.

Who needs headliners?

Through 11 songs, Bingo Bob and his band keep the folks on their feet. By the time Guitar Daddy slides through The Star-Spangled Banner, Hendrix-style, 447 people have paid their way to the show. The promoter got killed.

No Name Storm gets a standing ovation.

At 9:50, while applause for the opening band is still dying down, a bleached-blond man with skinny sunglasses strolls through the side door. He stops at the table where Bingo Bob's friend is selling T-shirts. No Name Storm, they say.

"What's that mean?" the blond man asks.

"That's the name of the band that opened here."

"Sorry I missed them," the man says. His name is Jef Ravenscraft. The keyboard player for Molly Hatchet.

The headline act takes the stage without ever noticing Bingo Bob. By now he's back by the door, checking his tip jar. Three $1 bills are crumpled in the bottom. Barely enough to buy his girlfriend a Bud.

He slips his arm around her waist. She hugs him hard. They stand beside the stage, bathed in sound.

For the next loud hour, Molly Hatchet roars on. They do old-time favorites and newly released, rerecorded covers. They flip their hair and fling their microphones. Their sonic barrage makes beer quiver in bottles.

But by 11 p.m., halfway through their 90-minute set, the audience has thinned out. About one-third of the people have gone outside to smoke, or have gone home.

"I can't take it," says a 40-year-old man who calls himself "Rockin' Rodney" Baumann. He says he grew up on Hatchet. Owned all their albums. "But this isn't Molly Hatchet," he complains. None of the guys who played on Flirtin' With Disaster is still in the group. "This is a show band. I'm glad I didn't waste $20 just to see them.

"That other band, No Name or something, they're the real deal," Rodney says. "I'm going over to On the Rocks. I hear Bingo Bob might show up and play after this show."

Bingo Bob and Lisa slip out the side door before the last song. They don't wait to meet Molly Hatchet. They head down Shore Boulevard, holding hands.

A crowd is waiting at their watering hole. "Hey everyone!" the bartender shouts. "Here he is! Let's give it up for Bingo Bob!"

Everyone does.

[Last modified May 29, 2003, 10:05:15]


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