Spellers 'cheat' way to raising $70,000

SANTA MONICA, Calif. -- Among the team names were "M.C. Grammar" and "The Tori Spellings," and the competition was billed as a "Spelling Bee for Cheaters."

What it was, was a sort of merger between a Tony Award-winning musical comedy made about a spelling bee and the TV show, "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?"

In front of a packed auditorium at Lincoln Middle School on Saturday, dozens of "team members" and bona fide Hollywood stars, competed for the "big" dictionary, which was awarded to the winner of the spell-off at the end.

That the winning speller be awarded a dictionary was the kind of hilarious irony that filled a few hours of fun for a cause that brought out wildly-dressed participants and a five-piece pop band that included a tuba.

The nearly $70,000 raised from the event went to an organization called "826LA," which provides free after-school tutoring for students in Los Angeles.

Teams were recruited and assembled (and costumed) and challenged to raise money for 826LA, but also for their own benefit: to buy chits to cheat during the spelling bee to win. For every $500 raised, for example, a team could "buy" a coupon for a 17-second glimpse at a dictionary, or a 20-second consult with their team (think, "I'd like to call a friend"). For $1,500 of their raised money, a team could even get a chance to pass on a given word and make up a word of its own, which it had to then define and spell correctly. (Note, since each team made up its own word, it was always defined and spelled correctly.)

Providing the structure and the laughs were actors who have performed in the musical, "The 25th Annual Putnam Spelling Bee," a hilarious take on the tension and drama that fills the annual national spelling bee in Washington each year.

The star factor Saturday came from talk-show host Jimmy Kimmel, director Spike Jonze, writer Dave Eggers, and from the hit TV show, "Glee," resident bad girl Diana Agron. It was Agron's team that raised the most money, nearly $8,000, and hence had the most "cheat" chits. That she was an enthusiastic participant, who, unlike Kimmel and Jonze, stayed the entire event, wasn't lost on the word givers either: Her first two words to spell were "cow" and "Mexican."

"Is it because I'm blonde?" Agron asked.

In the end, free-lance journalist Cat Vasko, with team "Stop the Presses," spelled the word "astrobleme" (which means the remains of an ancient meteorite) correctly and Agron failed in spelling the word "apocope" (which means the loss of one or more sounds from the end of a word). Vasko won the big dictionary signed by the celebrities and Agron won the medium-sized dictionary signed by, among others, herself.

Agron said she got involved with 826LA because she had been a big fan of Eggers for some time and thought the cause one of the most worthy she has found. She wasn't at all dismayed at finishing second.

Said a victorious Vasko: "We raised enough to cheat really well."

And, really, what more could you ask for?

Shelley Smith is a reporter for ESPN.