Keith Lee the musical!

For a man more or less married to bingo and rooted in Manchester, Keith Lee is a well-known figure in the bingo industry who has been leading Cosmo Bingo for nearly forty years, narrowly escaping a life of tedium in accounts, through cycle speedway and a near miss with musical immortality, confirming what he has always known. That he has been precisely where he was always meant and wanted to be: at bingo.

Born in Audenshaw, Manchester, Keith went to school and was in the same year as none other than Mick Hucknall, of Simply Red. Despite this early brush with musical superstardom this was not to be his connection to possible musical immortality, only to the News Of The World some years later who contacted him wanting the scoop and any dirt on Mr Hucknall. Ever the gent, Keith declined to comment.

In his formative years Keith lived only four miles away from what would become a key part of his life, Cosmo Bingo Stalybridge. A keen Cycle Speedway fan from his late teens to early twenties, riding took him around the country, visiting a different track almost every week, from Edinburgh and Poole. His hobby was highly social and was a great way to meet people and build friendships, a number of which have continued to be part of his busy social life to this day.

Upon leaving school Keith thought that a steady job, with regular hours, in the accountancy department of one of the largest engineering companies, Mather and Platt, would be just the ticket. Over the course of the next ten years he picked up a wide range of accounting experience, while still keeping up with Speedway.

“I remember being bored when the cycle speedway season finished one year and looked for an additional part time job. I saw an advert for a pay desk person at a very small Mecca Bingo in Droylsden – they wouldn’t make a club that small these days! I knew nothing about bingo and none of my family or friends played. Unfortunately for me the job had been taken, but across the road a pub had a sign for bar staff.

“The manager had me working there before I blinked and no wonder, it was one of the roughest pubs in Manchester and he needed staff! Nonetheless over the next four years I got an insight into work in entertainment and leisure, which started making the 9 to 5 routine and office environment seem less and less appealing” Keith commented.

In 1983 Keith decided to take the plunge and applied for the post of Manager’s Assistant at Cosmo Bingo Club in Stalybridge. “I heard nothing for weeks after I had put my application in, but then was invited down to an interview with the then owners Mr and Mrs John Downs. I remember being invited upstairs and was told to wait in the bar and have a drink… I ordered a pint of bitter. Well, I would wouldn’t I. No wonder the staff rolled their eyes!

“Despite this tiny faux pas I was offered the job and made my move to bingo on 1st December 1983. I took the bingo job part time while still at M&P. However, some things in bingo don’t change and I was soon working nearly full time hours at both jobs!

“I threw the tile in at Mather & Platt in 1987 so my role at Cosmo Leisure expanded to cover the Downs’ two cinemas and five or so amusement arcades – I even helped out at their building company!”

While playing a management role at the Stalybridge club, Keith also took over the newly acquired Eccles club in 1987/8. It was around this time that Keith started attending regional Bingo Association meetings and discovered a much wider level of interest in the industry.

In the mid-nineties Cosmo Leisure were exploring opening clubs in South Africa, which created an unexpected opportunity for Keith to travel and in the UK a new link rack was making headlines. It wasn’t long before John Downs and Keith were on a plane again, but this time only as far as Dundee to see what it was all about.

The new wave of racks saw Cosmo Bingo link games go from three clubs to as many as twenty-five. This evolution in tech and equipment bought in a new era of co-operation, changing the way that independent operators interacted. Keith was asked to help chair and manage these meetings, as the group explored not only new games, but also promotions.

Having worked for Cosmo Bingo’s previous owners, the Downs’ family, for over thirty six years, a change of ownership was another challenge that Keith has had to face.

“It was inevitable that John Downs would one day decide to retire. It was always a pleasure working for Cosmo Leisure and as you may expect, there was intrigue about working for the new owners, especially given my age! However, three and a half years on, I can say it is a pleasure working for Boylesports who have a fantastic vision for the future of the clubs, that has already seen investment and modernisation, setting us up nicely to compete in the challenging times ahead.”

Since joining the bingo sector in 1983 Keith has never looked back nor had any desire to return to ‘9to5’, “We see lots of people initially take a job in bingo, because it’s a job” he said. “After a little while many them hanker for more regular hours and go back to the ‘9to5’, but by then it’s too late. Bingo is in their system and we see many come back, as they miss the sense community, fun and customers.”

Despite being, by his own admission, married to the job, this has not prevented the ever sociable Keith from having a life away from work. Quite the reverse, gym, swimming, skiing, travel, cruises (particularly those to areas where there is no mobile signal) and real ale all fill any free time, with travel leading to his near miss with musical immortality.

As with so much in life, timing and location can be as important as talent in securing a place in history. On 11th September 2001 the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York were attacked and destroyed by two hi-jacked commercial airliners, resulting in the loss of over 2,700 lives.

On that morning Keith had left the UK on a flight bound for New York, one of many flights heading towards the east coast of America. At the time of the attack Keith’s flight was out over the Atlantic, by the time the decision to close US air space had been made there was not enough fuel to return to the UK and arrangements were made by international air traffic control to get all USA in-bound flights diverted and landed as soon as possible.

Suddenly Keith and thousands of other airline passengers bound for the USA found themselves International Refugees. In all 238 civilian flights were diverted to Canada, 75 of those to Newfoundland, with approximately 14,000 passengers, of which Mr Keith Lee was one.

Travelling in a light t-shirt, bound for New York in late summer, en route for Florida, landing in about three degrees was a bit of a shock and taught Keith an important lesson about what to pack in carry-on luggage! Following 15 hours sat in the plane, parked on the runway, Keith and fellow passengers were disembarked and helped by the Red Cross. They stayed there for three days, during which time the skies were closed and all civilian planes grounded.

The situation, and Newfoundlanders’ response to it, was incredible, so much so that the story has been turned into the award winning musical, Come From Away. The musical has been well received by audiences and critics as a reminder of the capacity for human kindness in even the darkest of times: the triumph of humanity over hate, with characters based on (and in most cases named for) actual residents and stranded travellers they housed and fed.

For those of you who have seen the musical in the UK, USA or Canada, you may be asking why there is no stoic, sociable character called Keith, or at least a character who worked in bingo (and we feel the show is much the poorer for it)?

The simple answer is, that while Keith was one of the airline passengers stranded in Newfoundland, his flight landed at Stephenville, 272 miles from the town of Gander, the focus of Come From Away. When the skies were finally re-opened three days after 9/11, stranded passengers were given a choice of returning to their point of departure, or carrying on to their originally intended destination: they had 10 minutes in which to make up their mind.

“I remember thinking, well, we’re here now and so close… I decided to carry on. Well, I would wouldn’t I.”

With bingo in his blood and no thought or sign of ending his ‘bingo session’ anytime soon, Keith will be co-ordinating those link games and welcoming staff and players at Cosmo Bingo for quite some time to come – Well, he would, wouldn’t he.