Saturday, November 14, 2009

Spell Chek'd

Lisa Waugh made her New Year’s resolution after hearing about Monday nights at the Mississippi Pizza Pub.
“I decided I wanted to win the spelling bee,” she said.
Every Monday, patrons fill the Mississippi Pizza Pub to watch some of the area’s best spellers battle it out for the title of champion (that and free pizza (and a shirt)).
Waugh had previous bee experience during her school years, but never advanced further than 12th in the regional competition.
After two months of regular attendance, Waugh claimed the title by spelling “dulcinea,” a Spanish word meaning ladylove or sweetheart. She’s still a regular.
“I come about three weeks a month. It’s fun, in a dorky kind of way,” she said.

Waugh is hardly alone in her enthusiasm for the spelling bee.
The order of things
Contestants and spectators start filling the pub about an hour before the bee starts. Two, including Waugh, wear Portland Spelling Bee shirts as badges of honor and previous victory.
Hopeful contestants drop their names into a box as they enter. Typically there are 16 contestants, but tonight 18 signed up. Bee Orchestrator Katherine Woods-Eliot allows the extra two to squeeze in on stage with the rest of the contestants, but neither will have a numbered placard around their neck.
All words used in the Portland Spelling Bee were used in the national spelling bee sometime between the 1950s and 2004, but Woods-Eliot is careful not to reveal her source of information.
Contestants can ask for the word origin, definition and usage in a sentence.
For the first two rounds of the game, words are chosen from a beer pitcher of “easy” words. In the first round, contestant No. 17 is ousted on “exultant.” Previous winner Kyle Shetterly is nearly tripped up by “tutu,” but makes it through to round two.
All contestants emerge from round two unscathed. After a brief musical interlude, the game resumes.
Waugh said the break is a welcome relief after the first two rounds.
“It let’s you reset and get ready for the more difficult words,” she said.
In round three, Woods-Eliot begins drawing words from the “difficult” beer pitcher. Difficult might be an understatement. “Aureity,” a distinctive property of gold, and “galenical,” a medicine composed of herbal or vegetable matter, both drop contestants from the field. Amazingly, one contestant spells “bouquiniste” on the second try and makes it through the round.
Second tries aren’t unheard of, but Woods-Eliot knows that as the game progresses she can’t give as many.
“Usually I will only do it up to the third round,” she said.
By the fifth round, only six contestants remain. At the end of round eight, it’s down to two, Renie McGale and Greg Unwin.
Unwin trips up on “esne” and McGale clinches the win on “exuviate.”
Both were first-time contestants.
Unwin’s only previous experience with spelling bees was watching them on television, but he was helped by some linguistic training and backgrounds in both Spanish and French.
He said he was grateful for the laidback approach.
“I was glad they weren’t sticklers in the early rounds,” he said.
McGale also thought it would be a much more intense experience.
“But it was so lighthearted and really fun,” she said.
She admitted that there was an element of luck that contributed to her win.
In one round while other contestants drew words like “obeisant” and “obfuscatory,” McGale had to spell “thumbscrew.”
“Luck absolutely plays into it,” she said.
Madame Winklepicker
If the regular bee sounds too tame, maybe the second serving is more to your taste.
After the tables are cleared and the early crowd heads home to prepare for work the next day, Madame Winklepicker, aka Summer Arnett, makes her entrance.
Arnett runs the Alternative Spelling Bee.Rather than scouring the dictionary for words, Arnett draws her vocabulary vexations from obscure books; the more carnal the better.
“I think it will become more of a variety act with the spelling bee as the centerpiece,” she said.
Rather than a musical interlude, Arnett invites belly dancers and other acts to perform during the break. She’s also much more outgoing when it comes to heckling the crowd. A student of theatre, Arnett draws from performances she staged and viewed in Europe.
Madame Winklepicker is a character developed for the Mississippi Pizza act. She said she found the name by pouring over a dictionary of obscure words. Winklepickers were a type of shoe with a long, sharp, pointed toe made popular in the 1950s and 60s by British rock and roll fans.
Even though she only has a few shows under her belt, Arnett has been surprised by the reception of the audience, particularly for a Monday night.
“There was an older couple there one night, they must have been in their late forties and we started talking about (sex) and their eyes just lit up. They stayed for the whole show,” she said.
Spelling it out
The bees draw people form a variety of backgrounds, but Woods-Eliot has learned there isn’t one thing that makes someone a good speller.
“There are a lot of people in the area with a background in spelling bees,” said Woods-Eliot. “We get a lot of medical professionals because the hospital is right down the street and they’ll get every medical term right. We have lawyers who get every Latin word correct. But then we recently had a guy who was an engineer and not the sort of person who you’d think would be a good speller. He nailed every word right along with three other contestants. We had to declare four winners because it was taking too long.”
Participants are one thing, but the most striking thing about the bees are the vocab-curious crowds each draws. Audience members become just as much a part of the experience as they try to spell along with the contestants or compete with others at their tables.
The most gripping moments of the contests raise the anticipation level of the entire room and for one brief moment everyone is lost in the love of language.
“The crowd gets into it when someone is spelling a really hard word. Then they get it right and there’s a huge burst of applause,” said Woods-Eliot.
Mississippi Pizza is located at 3552 N. Mississippi Avenue in Portland. The Portland Spelling Bee is held there every Monday at 7 p.m.

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