by Kristine Eco
Forget karaoke. Spelling is the craze du jour. One of my earliest grade-school memories involves watching my 10-year-old sister compete in a regional spelling bee at the biannual county fair. My older sister had survived the first four rounds, but the question remained: How would she do in the next? Who knew that nearly two decades later, I would find myself seated amid spelling buffs yet again? This time, however, not fourth graders but area artists and young professionals comprised the pool of competitors.
On Monday, April 10th, fourteen contestants competed in an intellectual showdown at Pete’s Candy Store to determine who would become Brooklyn’s reigning alpha speller. Hosting the first-annual Williamsburg Spelling Bee Finals were bobbyblue, a Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter who founded the event, and co-emcee Jenisfamous (née Jennifer Dziura), a Manhattan-based writer-cum-model-cum-comedienne.
“After watching the movie Spellbound, I thought, ‘I want to come up with something just like this—and add alcohol and adults,’” said bobbyblue in a recent phone conversation. “I’m such an American Idol fan, and, wow, this is better than American Idol!” He continued, “I really think people have been dying for something new to come along as far as the bar scene goes, because going out and drinking to get drunk isn’t so cool anymore. When I go out, I like there to be an activity—something to do, something to watch. Going to something like [a spelling bee] gives people a chance to talk and be entertained at once.”
Asked to account for the increasing popularity of the spelling bee among 20- and 30-somethings, Jenisfamous suggested that “the dot com era brought about the emergence of geek chic.” She added, “After the technology bubble burst, the desire to return to a sense of old-fashionedness returned.” Could it be that watching or participating in a spelling bee makes one nostalgic for one’s youth? Soon after Andy MacDowell, owner of Pete’s Candy Store gave bobbyblue’s project the green light, word spread among the residents of Greater Williamsburg. Jenisfamous remarked, “Hardcore enthusiasts came out of the woodwork. It seemed like people, who as kids had come in second place in elementary school with a grudge to bear, wanted their revenge.”
The railroad car–shaped backroom, culminating in a proscenium stage accentuated with a row of vanity lights, accommodated over 50 people on the night of the Spelling Bee Finals. A handful of latecomers loitered in the dimly lit hallway. Onstage, bobbyblue y las flores, a trio that includes accordionist Eileen Willis and guitarist Eduardo Garcia, treated the crowd to a short set. bobbyblue kicked off the competition with a rousing original ballad aptly titled “The Spelling Bee Theme Song.” He crooned: “‘I’ before ‘e’ but except after ‘c’/There’s no spell check on my PC/At the Williamsburg Spelling Bee/Where I long to be.”
To qualify for the Finals, contestants had to have won top honors sometime during the regular season. In the opening round, they were asked to spell one word; in the second, two; in the third, three; and in the speed or death round, up to eight in a single turn. The three-strikes-you’re-out rule determined their fate.
Diana Lee, a 24-year-old freelance editor, first learned of the bi-weekly event while surfing Pete’s Candy Store online for info about their Scrabble tourneys. For the most part, she abstained from drinking alcoholic beverages during the bees, since beer had proved to be the kiss of death for her at a contest back in February. When asked about a game plan, the University of Texas alumna replied, “I have no strategy.” Apparently, having no strategy is a strategy: Lee placed fifth, a respectable finish.
“I’m a [Williamsburg] Spelling Bee virgin,” confessed 23-year-old Christy Harrison, a magazine editor who lives in Brooklyn. She had come to root for her friend John Rauschenberg. “When it gets down to the wire, I have a feeling he’ll pull through,” she predicted. At the conclusion of round three, Harrison volunteered to participate in a challenge: She was asked to spell “anti-disestablishmentarianism” to the tune of the “A-B-C’s.” While her spelling-and-singing abilities may not have been up to snuff that night, Harrison’s intuition certainly was: Rauschenberg capped the night with a second place win.
It turns out that Maria Luisa Gambale, Williamsburg’s newly crowned champ, is no stranger to the world of competitive spelling. As a ’tween, she competed in the National Spelling Bee not once but twice, in 1986 and 1987. Proving the maxim “Third time is the charm” true, Gambale went on to win her first title at the Williamsburg Spelling Bee Finals—18 years after her second championship run. “I’ve been agonizing over ways to spend my cash prize frivolously,” the 31-year-old cinematographer and entrepreneur, who lives in Greenpoint, reported in an email. Words of advice that this Harvard theater-history grad would like to impart to prospective competitors: “Don’t study.”
Watching the drama unfold at Pete’s Candy Store transported me back to the halcyon days of snack packs and kickball, multiplication tables and grammar lessons. Nineteen years after the fact, I can still recall with uncanny clarity the judge prompting my sister to start spelling her fifth-round word. “A-L,” she began.
Pausing for a quick breath, she continued, “C-O-L.” Within seconds a cowbell clanged ding, ding, ding. Her face, in that instant, epitomized insufferable despair. Blinking back tears, she hurriedly disappeared offstage. Hard as it may be to believe, there is life after spelling gaffes. bobbyblue said it best midway through the second round of the Williamsburg Spelling Bee Finals when he remarked, “Remember, you are all already winners.”
Season two of the Williamsburg Spelling Bee competition is now underway, and the second-annual WSB Finals will be held in October. For more information visit www.petescandystore.com.