Friday, March 19, 2010
Confused, but not wanting to seem ungrateful, I said, "Thanks. So, um, we're going to a spelling bee?" I was imagining a fun-filled evening of ten year-old poindexters rattling off the spelling of words like "succedaneum," "pococurante," and "appoggiatura."
"Well, sort of," replied my 14 year-old daughter Lindsay.
We headed to the La Mirada Theater, about a 50-mile drive. On the way, my son Ryan said, "We should try to get there early. The doors open at 6:00." This was my first clue that something was up. Ryan is never on time for anything, let alone early. We got there at about 5:45. While standing in line, I noticed that the marquee read "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee." That's odd. La Mirada isn't in Putnam County, it's in Orange County. I don't think there's even a Putnam County in California.
It turns out that The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a popular Broadway musical. Too bad. I was actually starting to look forward to seeing nerdy little kids butcher the word "onomatopoeia".
The doors opened, and when we entered the theater an official La Mirada Community Theater representative approached me and said, "Hi! My name's Jill. How would you like to participate in tonight's performance?"
I looked at the kids. They were giggling. "This is why you wanted to get here early, isn't it?" I asked.
"Okay, Jill," I said, "what do I have to do?"
"Basically, you'll be one of the spelling bee contestants," she said. "The script calls for four audience members, and you just do what the cast members tell you. It's really easy, and a lot of fun."
As you may have already assumed, I'm not what you would call "shy". So I said, sure, why not?
"Great! Come with me."
Ryan and Lindsay went to our seats in the front row, while Jill escorted me and three other lucky volunteers backstage for our instructions. "Okay, here's what's going to happen," she said. "Early in the show, the spelling bee host is going to say that they're four spellers short, and then she'll call you up by name. You go up on stage, taking the stairs on the right, and from then on you just follow the lead of the cast members. They'll help guide you through it."
"So what about the spelling part," asked Jennifer, a real estate agent from Huntington Beach.
"I was just getting to that," said Jill. "When it's your turn, the vice principal will call you to the microphone and give you your word. If you remember nothing else I'm telling you, remember this: When he gives you the word, ask first for the definition and then ask him to use it in a sentence. That's very important. Also, don't feel like you have to act. Just be yourselves, and really do try to spell the words right. The script will take care of the rest."
"What if one of us wins?" I asked. Hey, I'm a competitive guy, and a fairly decent speller. I figured I might have a shot at this.
"You're not going to win," said Jill.
"How can you be so sure?"
"Trust me. A cast member wins. It's in the script."
Hah! I'll show her, I thought.
The show started and the spelling bee host called us up on stage. She gave us each a number to wear around our neck (I was number 25) and a cast member showed us to our seats on the benches with the other spellers. In character, the actors sized up the late entrants and engaged us in a bit of small talk. Then a musical number broke out. A character named Marcy Park, a student at a parochial school called Our Lady of Intermittent Sorrows, took me by the arm and led me to center stage. Encouraged by the rest of the cast, my three comrades and I shimmied, shook, did the Macarena, and jumped up and down repeatedly. In the front row, meanwhile, Ryan and Lindsay have laughed themselves to tears.
Then came my turn to spell. "Our next contestant is Chris . . . "
Naturally, part of the fun of this, at least for the rest of the audience, was for the cast to make fun of the lucky volunteers. The vice principal led with the obvious. A bald joke.
"You might remember Chris from last year's third grade production of The King and I."
"Also, he is the only member of his fourth grade class with facial hair."
"Thanks," I mumbled.
"Okay, Chris, your word is atheist." Cool. I was pretty sure I knew that one, but I didn't forget my instructions.
"Could I have the definition, please?"
"Atheist: A person who does not believe in religion or in the existence of God."
"Could you use it in a sentence?"
"Of course. Since Mary is an atheist, it doesn't bother her when her classmates yell 'Go to hell, Mary, go to hell!'"
I spelled it correctly, and returned to my seat to the thunderous applause of the crowd. Ryan gave me a quick thumbs-up. The rest of round one included the following:
"Martin, Your word is Mexican."
"Can I have the definition?"
"A person who comes from Mexico, and in American slang, also from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Argentina, or East Los Angeles."
"Jennifer, your word is kinikkinnick."
"Can I have the definition, please?"
"A pipe used by the Indians to smoke marijuana and opiates."
"Can I have that in a sentence?"
"Puffing on his kinikkinnick, Chief Running Nose said, 'And this is where I'll put the craps tables.'"
"Your word is cow."
"Can I have the definition?" Laughter from the audience. I mean, come on now.
"Sure. It's . . . a COW."
"Can you use it in a sentence?"
"Spell the word 'COW'."
Okay, so after a few rounds and a couple more musical numbers, I was the only audience member remaining on stage, having successfully spelled "jihad" and "auctioneer."
Chip Tolentino, one of the real characters, was eliminated in a particularly awkward fashion. While waiting his turn, Chip noticed an attractive woman in the audience and puberty immediately kicked in. Desperately trying to hide his arousal, he screwed up his word and was escorted off stage by Mitch Mahoney, the "Comfort Counselor."
And it was my turn again.
"Chris, your word is flugalume."
Flugalume? What the hell is a flugalume? I was in trouble. "Uh, can I have the definition, please?"
"Unknown. The word has never appeared in print, and there is only one known citation of its use in verbal discourse."
"I don't suppose you remember that sentence, do you?"
"Absolutely. Caught by surprise, the gentleman called out 'flu-gal-oooo-hooooome!'"
"Uh, F-L-U-," I guessed, wildly, "G-A-L . . . U-M-E."
The vice principal looked at the host, confused. He looked back at me and said, "Uh, yes, that's correct."
"You're kidding me."
As I walked back to my seat one of the other contestants, a politically-aware over-achiever named Logainne Schwartzengrubenaire, said, "Good job! I didn't even know that one."
I was immediately called back to the microphone by the vice principal. "Well, you must think a lot of yourself by now, don't you?"
"Uh, not really."
"O.K, Smartypants . . ."
Laughter from the audience, mild embarrassment on the faces of Ryan and Lindsay.
"Nice try," said the vice principal. "Your real word is xenophileology."
"Z - "
DING! The bell rang, signifying an incorrect spelling. I was out. But before I could leave the stage, good ol' Mitch Mahoney came over to comfort me. He handed me a juice box and put his arm around me. I started to walk off stage, but Mitch wasn't about to let me off the hook that easily. It seems that there's a whole production number built around the last audience member's elimination. Mitch broke into song:
"Oh, Chris . . . you will be missed.
But now go with dignity.
You've been the best looking dude we've had all day,
And a smart dude as well . . . "
The rest of the cast danced around me, singing backup to Mitch. Suffice it to say, this was not the most comfortable moment of my life.
When I finally made it back to my seat the kids were in hysterics. We enjoyed the rest of the show, especially Chip Tolentino's show-stopping number entitled "My Unfortunate Erection". Afterward, several people came up to me and told me that I did very well. Someone asked if I was a "plant" and I assured her that, no, I was completely winging it.
On the drive home, still pumped up from the performance, I kept going on about how amazed I was that I'd spelled "flugalume" right.
And that's when Ryan burst my bubble.
You see, Ryan's currently rehearsing for a different production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee playing the role of the vice principal, so he knows the script inside and out. That's how he knew about the audience participation to begin with, which is why he insisted on getting to the theater early.
"Um, Dad, I hate to break this to you, but that's all in the script."
"What do you mean?"
"Yeah, in the script it says that as long as the audience member spells anything that could possibly be pronounced 'flugalume', they get it right."
"You mean I spelled it wrong?"
"What do you mean, not exactly? How's it really spelled?"
"Flugalume isn't a word, Dad."
Note: The picture at the top of this post is the cast of the La Mirada Theater's production of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee", the actual actors we saw that evening. Mitch Mahoney is on the far right, and Chip Tolentino is the Boy Scout.