Wordplay, whiskey at The Whistler

By HermineBloom

While sipping cocktails containing ingredients such as Plymouth Sloe gin and egg whites, people with red-numbered cards dangling from their necks stood behind a panel of Ravenswood Elementary School teachers at Logan Square’s neighborhood bar The Whistler, 2421 N. Milwaukee Ave. There they awaited a definition for the pop culture word “Kardashian,” as requested by the contestant on stage.

“Kardashian … as in I went swimming with a Kardashaian, but I got out because I didn’t want chlamydia,” said Chicago-based improv actor Kellen Alexander, co-host of the evening.

Whether for grade school redemption or simply to prove their intelligence, 40 contestants entered The Whistler’s 1st annual spelling bee on March 2, hosted by Seth Dodson and Alexander, two members of the three-person improv team 1,2,3, Fag! at iO Theater, 3541 N. Clark St. Words like “susceptible” in the commonly misspelled category, “Julian Assange” in pop culture, “ectoplasm” in science and general nerdiness and “Wookiee” in gangbusters, (or near-impossible words to spell) stumped all but one contestant after five rounds and copious alcohol consumption.

Dan Muscha won first place by correctly spelling the word “wildebeest,” receiving a yellow T-shirt donated by Ravenswood Elementary, 4332 N. Paulina St., and earned his photo on the Whistler’s 1st annual spelling bee plaque, proudly displayed in the bar. Notably, Laura Paisley was the runner-up for correctly spelling “deoxyribonucleic acid.”

Hosting an adult spelling bee seemed natural after the success of a talent show at the bar in November 2010, according to The Whistler’s special events coordinator and public relations contact Shelby Allison.

Since the place opened in 2008, it has featured live music acts five nights a week and local deejays spinning two nights a week. The space doubles as an art gallery and hosts events ranging from book clubs to movie-themed karaoke. In addition, the owners of the Whistler, Robert Brenner and Billy Helmkamp, founded Whistler Records.

Especially known for its cocktails with peculiar ingredients and 74-person capacity, the bar is trying to add dimension to the type of guests it sees by hosting quirky events, Allison said. A pinewood derby and other game show-type events are in the works.

“We’re trying to do a couple of events a year that people who wouldn’t normally see a show here or wouldn’t normally be attracted to the kinds of cocktails here will come to,” Allison said.

A spelling bee designed for adults, or one infused with comedy and drinks, was an idea buzzing around Allison’s group of friends, she said.

Dodson and Alexander won the talent show last year by performing an improv skit that revolved around ghost hunting in the Whistler, which is why they were chosen to host the spelling bee. Other acts ranged from a woman playing “Edelweiss” from “The Sound of Music” with her toes on a piano to a man playing the singing saw.

Delighted to win the talent show and more excited to host the bee, Dodson said they had a lot of creative freedom in regards to hosting.

At the show, Alexander and Dodson, self-proclaimed student body government members, opened by asking everyone to salute the flag, which turned into a medley of America-themed songs. They refused to enunciate words for comedy’s sake, invited a school bully on stage and gave a science class presentation on the uniqueness of birds in between rounds.

Dodson and his partner are hosting a science-themed comedy show at the Whistler called “NEDtalks: Spreading Worthless Ideas,” a spoof on the TEDtalks conference, on March 14 at 9 p.m. They’re also working on a production together at the Annoyance Theater, 4830 N. Broadway Ave., that will debut in April.

Carly Ryan, 24, attended the talent show at The Whistler but did not participate. She said the spelling bee sparked her interest because she enjoys events at The Whistler, playing Scrabble and other word games in a similar vein.

However, at the spelling bee she was out in the first round after misspelling the word “exhilarate.”

“I always spell that one wrong anyway, so of course I got that one wrong,” said Ryan, who works at an oral surgeon’s office as an administrative and clinical assistant.

Allison Leake, 29, found out about the spelling bee on the Huffington Post’s website and immediately decided to attend.

“I love catching typos, especially when they’re published,” Leake said. “I read [about the spelling bee] and I just immediately felt so much joy I had to come.”

Admittedly, Leake has participated in a spelling bee before—in the 6th grade.

“I was eliminated in the first round,” Leake said. “The word was ‘pistachio.’ It was a small town in Kentucky and I’d never had a pistachio or seen a pistachio in my life.”

Out in the second round, Leake said she’s a good speller now because she’s an adult. She also happens to work as a graphic designer for Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, 800 E. Grand Ave., where she said she’s the last line of defense against random typos.

“I’ve had a lifetime of reading and cultural experience,” Leake said. “I don’t think you can get that when you’re 11. All of those great spellers were [either] extremely precocious or geniuses.”