In middle school circles, spelling bees have become a high-stress activity. The national spelling championships are now televised, and the winner gets a thirty-thousand dollar cash prize. It’s more relaxed for competitors in Spell Check, Brattleboro’s spelling bee for grownups.
Maybe that’s because the stakes aren’t quite so high. The winners get nothing more than their names on the marquis of the Latchis Theater. But they keep coming back. The house was packed for the fifth annual spelling bee, held earlier in April.
Spell Check was conceived as a way to raise money for the ongoing restoration of the old art deco theater on Brattleboro’s Main Street. “We got a bunch of people together,” says Gail Nunziata, the managing director of Latchis Arts. “Including Tom Bodett, who’s our master of ceremonies. And it just sort of took off.” Bodett, a public radio personality who lives in Dummerston, agreed to be the spelling bee’s emcee -- as long as it was fun. And it has been, judging from the crowd that streamed into the theater for this year’s Spell Check.
Eighteen teams of three people each signed up for the competition, some come in costume. Mike Mrowicki, a state legislator from Putney, is here as Groucho Marx. He wiggles a pair of fake eyebrows and taps an unlit cigar.
“Say the magic woid and split a hundred dollars,” he says, mimicking the original game show host. Mrowiki’s teammates are his daughter Grace, dressed as Chico, and Amelia Struthers as Harpo. The team is called the Sesquipedalians, which means lovers of big words.
The reigning champs from last year are the Bee-52’s, named after a seventies rock group. The women on the team all have massive beehive hairdos. A team from the New England Youth Theatre is called “To Bee or not to Bee.” There’s a group of teachers from the local high school and a trio of lawyers, who claim, rather unconvincingly, that they’ve been studying for months.
Moderator Bodett collects interesting words all year: words like lissotrichous, (having straight or smooth hair); ophiophagous (feeding on snakes); and prognathous (having a jaw that protrudes outward). In the competition, Bodett uses each word in a sentence.
Bodett says as the Spelling Bee draws near, “I start putting them in some kind of order, so that I can make a bit of a story out of it. So as I go through the words and write these sentences, people get to follow along with these two or three goofball story lines.”
The bee is set up like a game show. Three teams, seated at tables, are onstage at once. Seated opposite Bodett is lawyer Jim Maxwell, aka the bee-keeper, who provides contestants with definitions.
“The word is hiemal,” announces Bodett. “Hiemal," says Maxwell, "of or relating to winter.”
Bodett develops his story lines once sentence at a time. “With the weekend free of anything remotely hiemal, the farm store parking lots were crammed with Volvos, Subarus, and even the occasional pickup truck."
The teams have 15 seconds to spell the word on a white board and hold it up. The time is measured by an original Spell Check jingle.
Brattleboro Town Manager Barb Sondag is this year’s judge. She checks each white board and delivers her verdict: “Sorry!” or “All right, way to go!”
When two of the teams on stage are eliminated, another three teams go up, followed by another three, until all 18 teams have had a turn. Winning teams go on to the semi-finals and eventually to the finals.
The contest this year was won with the word “hebdomad,” which means “a group of seven” by a team called Three Belles of Kids Playce, named after an indoor play space in town. The crowd cheers wildly when Bodett announces, “And we have a new champion!” One of the belles, the team captain, is a man, Kira Storm. He says he saw the evening as a chance to put on a skirt and have some fun. On further questioning, Storm acknowledges that he’s also a tournament Scrabble player -- and that he was in it to win.