Can a spelling bee allow cheating? Yes, if it’s a fund-raising and funny event like The Spelling Bee for Cheaters. Produced by the creators of the Broadway show The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and The Mortified After School Orchestra, this bee, the first of its kind, was held August 14 at Lincoln Middle School to raise funds for 826LA, a nonprofit devoted to promoting literacy for youth through tutoring and in-class programs.
The “cheating” element involved aids to the answers much like the “lifelines” on TV game shows. Contestants raised money by buying each “cheating aid” for a price and also by obtaining donations.
Teams bore names like “The Dictionators,” “Spells Like Team Spirit,” and “Bad Robots,” and picked one contestant to spell the words, while teammates cheered on their champions. Some teams were led by celebrity guests: Jimmy Kimmel, director Spike Jonze, editor/writer Dave Eggers, SNL veteran Laraine Newman, and Dianna Agron of Glee. Contestants and teammates included 826LA students and volunteers.
826LA Executive Director Joel Arquillos and Retail and Events Manager Christina Galante introduced the bee, as well as the “word pronouncer,” Jay Reiss and the judges, Rebecca and Liz Feldman. (The three are the creators of Putnam County). With these arbiters seated at stage right, the bee got under way, with such seldom-heard words as epicalyx (botanical term for part of a flower) and cenacle (the dining room where the Last Supper took place).
Many contestants took the easy way out, choosing Cheat Option “Invent a Word” that involved spelling a word of their own invention. Some of these words like broseiden (“a frat brother who has ‘godly control’ of the ocean”) seemed just as hard to spell as the regular words, but the contestants nailed them since they had invented them.
Spike Jonze successfully spelled jihad (a holy war by Muslims), while Jimmy Kimmel tore up his cheat coupons and dared to spell wanigan (a small lumber storage hut). In a later “Celebrity Death Match,” the twosome had to spell kraal (an African village) and were thrown by that double “a.” As with others who failed to spell a word correctly, they were escorted off stage by two “comfort counselors,” Eric Edelstein and Brendan Connor.
Laraine Newman couldn’t quite get pakapoo (a Chinese lottery) and was also led off stage. Dave Eggers aced the spelling of brennage (a feudal payment). Dianna Agron was given easy words like cow and Mexican. “Is it because I’m blonde?” she wondered out loud.
Round Two got harder because “Invent a Word” was no longer an option. Instead, contestants asked for “next letter” clues, looked in the dictionary and consulted their teams.
It came down to two finalists: Agron and Cat Vasco. No sudden death here; the wining contestant had to correctly spell a new word after the other contestant had failed. Back and forth they went, misspelling in turn words like inspissate (to thicken), apocape (loss of a sound at end of word), astrobleme (a scar on the earth’s surface from a meteor), and cockalorum (a self-important person).
Finally Vasco correctly spelled hallux (the big toe) for the grand prize of a large dictionary. Agron received a medium sized dictionary, which, like her co-contestant’s prize, was signed by all the celebrity guests (herself included). Third prize (a small dictionary) went to Corey Chan.
In all, 826LA raised over $73,000 for its programs. This looks to be an annual event and was fun for everyone. For more information on 826LA, go to www.826LA.org.