Date: July 11, 2007
Byline: Roger Catlin
PBS Has Way With Words - `Wordplay,' `Wordgirl'
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — The annual multiple-week summer press tour for TV writers is largely devoted to the razzle-dazzle visuals of the new fall season and upcoming specials.
But it began Tuesday concentrating on words.
Two early sessions in the first of two days dedicated to PBS programs were devoted to puzzle enthusiasts in the documentary "Wordplay." In one session, reigning crossword champ Tyler Hinman solved Monday's New York Times crossword in 31/2 minutes. Another session focused on a new kids' show called "Wordgirl," about a superhero with a good vocabulary.
"Wordplay," an award-winner on the documentary film circuit that will open the season for PBS's "Independent Lens" this fall, highlights the personalities in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament that made Stamford a mecca for puzzle-solvers.
Will Shortz, the New York Times crossword editor featured in the film, organized the tournament at the urging of the marketing director of the then-new Stamford Marriott in 1977.
Shortz at the time was living in Stamford, making puzzles for magazines published by the Penny Press in Norwalk. News of the tournament brought puzzle-solvers from across the country to make it a big event.
But when the film "Wordplay," chronicling the 2005 competition, became a Sundance Film Festival favorite, the tournament exploded in popularity.
"There was a 40 percent increase this past year," Shortz said. "They sold out rooms two weeks before the event. We had to use two ballrooms for the tournament, which is not a very good way to run the tournament."
So in part because of the popularity that came with the release of the film, the tournament will no longer be in Stamford, after 30 years there.
"Unfortunately, we just outgrew it," Shortz said. "We love it there, and we love the people." Next year's tournament will move to the Brooklyn Bridge Marriott Feb. 29 through March 2.
Shortz figures they'll need the extra room. There was another big bump in interest when the DVD was released in November, and "with PBS this fall, it will be even bigger," he said.
"Wordplay" will be presented on "Independent Lens" Oct. 16, and will repeat Christmas night.
Becky Botsford, the fictional fifth-grader in the animated "Wordgirl," came from the planet Lexicon, and started showing her powers "doing a crossword puzzle when she was a baby on the doorstep," creator Dorothea Gillim said.
Besides all the action, she said, viewers learn four new vocabulary words each episode. It was presented in a session along with another new fall show for kids concentrating on reading (and, coincidentally, kid superheroes), "Super Why!"