By ERIC BARTELS
Too old for the kids’ bees broadcast on ESPN, grown spellers show off their skills last week at the Mississippi Pizza Pub’s Monday bee.
Night has fallen outside the Mississippi Pizza Pub, and school is in session.
Never mind the unconventional hour for learning or the fact that it’s Monday, which isn’t exactly gold in the restaurant business. Nearly every seat in the eatery’s spacious dining room is taken.
Since early January, owner Philip Stanton and a hired gun, master of ceremonies Katherine Woods-Eliot, have been hosting a weekly spelling bee at the popular North Portland spot, and the response has been fervent.
“People immediately took to it,” says Stanton, who was inspired by a National Public Radio report about East Coast bar bees and was unaware of any that existed in Portland.
Woods-Eliot, a Southeast Portland mom who works for a financial research firm in Lake Oswego, says the bee “has been packed almost every time.”
In fact, Stanton says, the popularity of the event has led to a kind of spinoff. “Miss Wink’s Alternative Spelling Bee,” a variety show that also features a more “adult” version of the bee, was scheduled to debut last night.
The success that led to that expansion was in plain sight at the more traditional spelling contest last week.
As many as 50 onlookers settle in behind salads and pizza and beer, while 16 participants wedge onto a small stage in two tight rows of folding chairs. With little fanfare, Woods-Eliot introduces herself and the rough outlines of the event, and the competition is under way.
Three words into the first round, 24-year-old Brian Strub, wearing a hooded sweatshirt and clutching a pint of beer, bungles “execution.” Woods-Eliot rings the shopkeeper’s bell at her side, and Strub takes a seat.
Other contestants fall, too, taken down by quagga (extinct zebra relative), pottle (archaic drinking vessel) and milchig (Germanic word for dairy products), the last despite two tries.
One woman is challenged by the Algonquian word seapoose. Bewildered, she asks for the definition. “Oh, seapoose!” she exclaims facetiously upon learning that it is a type of boat. She gets a laugh. Then she gets it wrong.
Others, however, survive in impressive fashion, picking off nociceptor, reminiscences and vitellus. At the end of two rounds, eight competitors remain.
Everyone takes a short break while a young stand-up comic, Jesse Allison, entertains from the stage. He’s funny, in part because his material seems slightly inappropriate for the crowd. He pokes fun of green-leaning Portlanders, drawing several nonresponses. “A dry heave is as good as a laugh,” he says after one of them.
A few still v-y-i-n-g
When play resumes, two of the next three words claim a victim. “Ptolemaic” takes out another, as does “sone,” a unit of loudness. The room grows hushed with three contestants left.
Gil Carrasco, a 53-year-old law professor at Willamette University in Salem, stumbles on “phreatic.” Two words later, Portlander Jana Thomas comes up with “calash” after the word trips up her lone remaining opponent. Then she handles “desideratum” for the win.
Thomas, a receptionist at the DoveLewis Emergency Animal Hospital, is humble in victory as she sits with the same friends and co-workers who had insisted she come.
“I didn’t really care if I lost,” she says.
Her buddy Robin Freatman knew Thomas, 26, had the right stuff. “She’s a grammatical Nazi,” she says.
At a nearby table, Strub, the first contestant eliminated, recovers with the help of another beer.
“It was just me being an idiot,” he says. “I usually make it past the first round. It was kind of a brain fart. But I got a T-shirt, so it’s OK.”
A bit of n-o-s-t-a-l-g-i-a
Many in attendance agree that the bee is the more cerebral version of other childhood contests like kickball and dodge ball that have reclaimed a place in the now grown-up lives of Gen X and Y types, as well as some baby boomers.
“A lot of people have the concept of a spelling bee in their background,” says Stanton, the pub’s owner. “It’s amazing how many people have been in them. It’s a really neat way to show off.”
“You want to have a measurable way to compete,” says Bill Long, a colleague and friend of Carrasco, the law professor. Jones, who was taken down this night by “funipendulous,” says he attended a bee at a Seattle bar that drew 165 people.
Carrasco is excited to have discovered the Mississippi Pizza event, along with another that takes place twice a month at the Night Light Lounge on Southeast Clinton Street.
“It’s pretty cool,” he says. “I hadn’t competed in one of these since the third grade.”
Woods-Eliot, who is preparing for an upcoming Singles Night as well as a quarterly championship in April, admits there has been a learning curve for her as both the emcee and the sole administrator for the contests.
“We did get some complaints that there were words that were too easy,” she says. “We agreed that it makes sense to have it be more consistent. It’s got to be a challenge. We have a lot of people that have competed in spelling bees – they want it to be hard-core.”
Carrasco could attest to the quality of the competition.
“There’s some really good spellers out here,” he says. “It’s impressive.”
Portland Spelling Bee
When: 7 p.m. Mondays (participants sign up by 6:45 p.m.)
Where: Mississippi Pizza Pub, 3552 N. Mississippi Ave., 503-288-3231
Cost:$2 for participants and others; pub is all ages until 9 p.m., but spellers must be 21 and over