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Spell it for Me, Baby

Posted by Alex Pearlman  September 9, 2011 06:28 PM

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DSC01873.JPGRemember the pain, fear, and anguish you felt during your eighth grade spelling bee, right before the word “pneumonia” destroyed your chance at glory? You can relive those feelings starting at 10 p.m. on the first Tuesday of every month, when Nicole Pierce and Victor Tiernan of Egoart present Spelling Bee Night at Highland Kitchen in Somerville. The words will be a bit harder and a bit more abstract, but this time around, there's alcohol.

The monthly spelling bee started when Highland Kitchen's owner approached Pierce and Tiernan with the idea as a way to bring in business on the traditionally slow night. A little over two and a half years later, the spelling bee is going strong and more popular than ever.

“We have a 30-person limit,” Tiernan said, which he and Pierce admitted was, at first, a lofty goal. But now, you need to get there early to reserve a spot on most nights. On this night, the day after Labor Day and a traditionally slow drinking night, the list is only about half full.

“I hope the words are easy,” said Devlin McDonough, 25, a first-time speller. “It’s not so much the nerves that are getting to me, it’s the chance I might get something wrong.”

“This is serious spelling!” Pierce was quick to remind me. You might expect a bar spelling bee to include drinking-related words or perhaps sexual positions, but not here. All of the words come directly from the Scripps National Spelling Bee, which airs on ESPN every spring.

While the ding of a bell is the signal of failure at the Scripps spelling bee, here, a ding from Pierce’s miniature cymbals signifies a correct answer and the chance to return to the stage during the next round. A wrong answer is marked much more ominously by a slide whistle and a very minor chord played on the host couple's miniature keyboard.

If you’re lucky -- and most people are -- you'll also receive a comment from the judges. At first, Pierce seems like the Simon Cowell of spelling, while Tiernan is more of a Paula. However, as the words get harder near the end and fewer contestants remain, they both show some sympathy to the departing contestants.

Unfortunately, not everyone leaves happy. After being eliminated on the word “liniment,” Devlin, spelling bee virgin McDonough was “pretty bitter about it. It’s a feeling that will last all night.”

Tonight, the final three comes down to two female regulars who look like the librarians of your dreams and a 60-something-year-old man who won over the hearts of the much younger crowd by shilling his book every time he got up on stage. He would eventually be the winner.

“The greatest contestant we ever had,” Tiernan said, “was a guy named Guy, who studied etymology at Harvard. We almost stumped him once!” The contestant misspelled a word in the final round -- but his opponent did also, allowing him to continue and eventually win. From the tone of Tiernan's voice, you can tell he can’t wait to try and stump him again.

First prize is a $25 dollar gift certificate to the bar, which Tiernan recommends spending on the “Cuban Reuben.” But he makes it clear that the $25 dollars isn’t the real prize.

“On Spelling Bee Night, a guy or girl who has never in their life had the chance to be the coolest person in the bar gets to be the coolest person in the bar,” he said.

Photos by Kenny Soto: Devlin McDonough takes his turn in Spelling Bee Night at Somerville's Highland Kitchen.

By Kenny Soto -- I'm a professional blogger and entertainer. In my spare time, I enjoy Boston sports and exploring all of the adventures that my hometown has to offer. You can connect with me on Twitter @TheRealKennySo.

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