UM church has historic link to board game

6/7/2006

By Linda Bloom

United Methodist News Service

NEW YORK — Can you spell “birthplace?”

 

Scrabble, the popular word game, has a historic link to a United Methodist congregation.

 

Among the first players of the game were members of Community United Methodist Church in the borough of Queens in New York City, says the Rev. Austin Armitstead, who served as pastor there from 1974-95.

 

The game’s acknowledged inventor, Alfred M. Butts, had always liked anagrams and word games. In 1931, unable to find work as an architect because of the Depression, he created a word-construction game by analyzing the English language. It was first called by several names, including “Criss Cross.”

 

The most enthusiastic player of Criss Cross was his wife, Nina, who introduced the game to her friends at Community Church, which is in the Jackson Heights neighborhood. She became very skilled at the game.

 

Butts also gave handmade game sets to other friends but he was unable to find a commercial game manufacturer interested in his invention, says Armitstead.

Finding work as the Depression ended - Butts designed the church’s educational building, which was dedicated in 1953 - he stopped trying to license the game. But in 1948, a friend, James Brunot, who came up with the Scrabble name, volunteered to make and sell the game on a small scale.

 

A few years later, Macy’s Department store began carrying Scrabble and it boomed in popularity. Production was turned over to Selchow & Righter, which had previously rejected the game.

 

More than 100 million Scrabble sets have been sold in 29 languages. Nina Butts remained a member of Community Church until her death in 1979. Butts — who died April 4, 1993, at the age of 93 — earned royalties of about three cents a game set for many years.

 

When Armitstead became the pastor of Community Church, the women there were still Scrabble players. Butts, he said, “would stop and see me once in a while and tell me what he had done. I didn’t know him that well and didn’t realize he was such a celebrity.”

 

But the pastor grew to appreciate the connection to Scrabble, to the point where people started calling him “the Scrabble boy,” he added. Armitstead joined other community leaders in Jackson Heights to plan and execute a celebration of the birthplace of Scrabble.

 

He also was instrumental in getting the New York Landmarks Preservation Foundation to recognize the contribution of Community Church.