Spelling Bee Craze Moves into the Bars

The passion for spelling fueled by youngsters sweating it out on TV in the National Spelling Bee and in the documentary Spellbound is spilling over to an adult crowd. Watering holes in Washington, D.C., and many other cities are sponsoring "bar bees" that take a more relaxed approach to the competition.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up, we see our friend Randy Adams for the first time face-to-face.

But first, spelling bees have become the last word in 20-something nightlife. NPR's N-E-D-A-U-L-A-B-Y visited one in an unusual place.

NEDA ULABY reporting:

The Warehouse is a performance space in downtown Washington, D.C. With battered plank floors, organic beer at the bar and a black box theatre in back that tonight is incapable of accommodating the hundreds of 20-somethings in straight leg jeans jamming in to watch a spelling bee.

Ms. MORGAN MCCLAINE(ph): I was really excited to come and check it out. You know, spelling bees are all the rage. So...

ULABY: Morgan McClaine, age 24, thinks an element of campy nostalgia drives today's spelling bee craze, which includes a rash of movies, documentaries, novels, even a Broadway musical. McClaine is among a rather rowdy contingent of fans who came to cheer on one of the ten spellers lined up on the small stage.

Ms. MCCLAINE: My friend in the third row.

ULABY: Which one is he?

Ms. MCCLAINE: He's Ben, Benjamin Healy, with the glasses, looking a little bit nervous.

ULABY: In this, the final round of the D.C. spelling bee, previous winners are pitted against each other. Ben Healy, an editor at the magazine the Atlantic Monthly, sat near skinny, dreadlocked Ryan Tyloff(ph), and the serenely confident Holly Bass(ph), who wore a bee-themed blouse for the occasion.

Unidentified Man: Welcome to the championship.

(Soundbite of applause and cheers)

ULABY: The two judges took their places at a table facing the contestants, sweating under the hot stage lights. Nick Pindentell(ph) and Judy Beg(ph) use the same words as the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee, but their approach is more relaxed.

Ms. JUDY BEG (Judge): Okay, your word is solipsism.

ULABY: Similar bees have been held in clubs and galleries from Raleigh, North Carolina to Seattle, Washington. Judy Beg competed in a Brooklyn bar bee before founding this one.

Ms. BEG: I just thought it would be a fun, different thing to do to get people to participate in something that wasn't karaoke.

ULABY: Ben Healy's fans groaned as he misspelled conniption in the very first round. Ten contestants fell to nine, then eight, then five.

Unidentified Man #2: Lapeciferous, L-A-P-E-C-I-F-E-R-O-U-S. Lapeciferous.

Unidentified Man #2: Formaldehyde, F-O-R-M-A-L-D-E-H-Y-D-E.

Ms. HOLLY BAT (Contestant): Alliteration, A-L-L-I-T-E-R-A-T-I-O-N.

(Soundbite of applause)

ULABY: That's Holly Bat, who cinched her status as an audience favorite with this performance.

Ms. BAT: (Rapping)My name is Holly B, and you can find me, Monday nights at the spelling bee, where I be or where I do my thing. Phonetical (unintelligible)...

ULABY: But it was the dreadlocked Ryan Tyloff who methodically demolished the competition. He implacably spelled sousaphone, kaleidoscope and the name of an extinct dog-like marsupial.

Mr. RYAN TYLOFF (Contestant): Thylacime, T-H-Y-L-A-C-I-M-E.

Ms. BEG: That's totally (bleep) right.

ULABY: Ryan Tyloff eventually won, rattling off cornucopia. In the aftermath, he stood by the bar modestly hiding his golden trophy in his backpack and fended off well-lubricated well-wishers.

Unidentified Man #4: Congratulations, even though I thought it's the luck of the draw. But the last round...

Unidentified Man #5: Cornucopia...

ULABY: Tyloff says there was one simple element to his success. He loves spelling, he loves words. He was inspired to compete in part because of the 2002 Oscar-nominated documentary, Spellbound.

Who did you root for in that movie?

Mr. TYLOFF: The Indian kid, the boy. His family reminded me a lot of my family. His dad was a little hard on him, but also very loving and compassionate. That struck a chord with me.

ULABY: Tyloff said he looked forward to telling his dad about his D.C. spelling bee triumph.

Unlike the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee, which awards a scholarship to its champ, Tyloff won a $25 B-A-R-T-A-B.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News, Washington.

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