The tension was palpable across the hushed room. The more than 200 women gathered fell silent as they concentrated on filling the squares on the cheap newsprint cards in front of them. The only sound was the voice of the caller intoning number after number.

Then, from a corner, one voice shattered the silence: “Bingo!”

A collective groan escaped from the women, who laughed, refilled their wine glasses, wadded up their losing cards and returned to their conversations. Only a few cast an envious gaze at Shannon Witzel as she danced a celebratory cha-cha to the front of the room to claim her prize — not a rack of ribs or a wad of cash, but a high-end designer purse.

“My style icon is Audrey Hepburn,” said Witzel, beaming at the new patent leather double-strapped Coach carryall that she selected. “Couldn’t you see her carrying something this elegant?”

Bingo has gotten fashionable.

Around the metro area, Designer Purse Bingo is the hot new game, drawing crowds in working-class taverns as well as high-end private clubs. The all-in-good-fun event combines ladies night, adult beverages and the chance to take home a handsome new handbag, all while raising money for good causes.

“I call it a meat raffle for girls,” said Carrie Chavez, director of business development at the Tournament Players Club in Blaine, which recently hosted the event in its elegant banquet room.

For a fee of $26, the mostly female crowd daubed their way through 13 games, with the lucky winners being able to choose from 50 handbags carrying prestigious labels — Coach, Kate Spade, Michael Kors — in an array of styles from hobo bags and backpacks to totes and even a black leather diaper bag.

“They’re not knockoffs,” said Amanda Jackson, gambling manager for the Spring Lake Park Lions Club. “We put them all out on the table ahead of time so people can touch them and pick the one they want and then fantasize about winning.”

Jackson, who seized on the idea for purse bingo three years ago, now makes regular jaunts to outlet malls to purchase the handbags. The civic organization she works for is licensed by the state’s gambling control board to stage charitable gambling at a variety of venues in the north metro area, with proceeds going to community nonprofits.

“We run pulltabs in five bars, and it’s a perk for our bar owners when we do purse bingo,” Jackson said. “The ladies eat and drink while they play so it’s a good night for the hosting sites.”

The Lions Club typically hosts purse bingo twice a month, promoting it on Facebook and electronic billboards alongside Anoka County roads.

On the evening at the Tournament Players Club, all proceeds (after expenses and taxes) were designated for the Alexandra House in Blaine, which provides shelter and advocacy to families escaping domestic violence. The event, which included raffles of designer wallets between games to boost revenue, raised $2,800 for the nonprofit.

– with a twist

Jessica Spedevick arrived at the players club carrying a taupe Coach cross-body bag, a trophy from a previous evening. A regular on the purse bingo circuit, the North Branch resident figures she’s played seven times in the past year. Her most memorable evening came last winter at an Anoka County watering hole when she hollered “Bingo!” three times in one night.

“I was really lucky, but there was also a lot of snow on the ground then and not as many players as usual,” she said, sipping a vodka cranberry drink as she studied her bingo cards on the table. “It’s so much fun when you win — your heart races.”

The beauty of bingo, thought to have originated in Italy in the 1500s, is that everyone shows up knowing the rules. It’s a game you can play with a dauber in one hand and a wine goblet in the other.

“We need an excuse to go out once a month,” said Sandy Lang, who shared a table, a cheese plate and beers with her sister Mindy Bauer. “As soon as I heard about this, I called her to ask if she was in. We’ve been looking forward to it ever since. We love being together where the kids can’t interrupt us.”

“Everyone likes bar bingo but this is an added twist,” said Bauer.

While the event is known among fans as Coach Purse Bingo, the luxury handbag manufacturer has requested that the events be called Designer Handbag Bingo.

That may reflect the changing status of the luxury brands, which have become more available to the masses.

“These premium brands have been losing their luster of late, and being associated with bingo probably doesn’t help,” said Mary Meehan, consumer strategist and co-founder of Minneapolis-based Panoramix Global.

“A high-end handbag has always telegraphed prestige for the woman who carries it. You used to have to be very lucky to find one secondhand, but thanks to the online consignment phenomenon, they’re accessible to the value-conscious consumer,” Meehan added. “When these brands are less exclusive, it changes their cachet.”

Don’t tell Katherine Shanklin.

As her friends and tablemates squealed in delight, the Minneapolis woman claimed victory in the second game of the night, choosing a fabric-and-leather Coach handbag from the selection on the table.

“This will hold a lot of my stuff,” she said. “And don’t I look great carrying it?”

Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis based freelance broadcaster and writer.