Rebel with a clue

Figuring out Planet puzzler (and movie star) Merl Reagle

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click to enlarge REAGLE EAGLE: The puzzle master outside his Carrollwood home. - Valerie Troyano
Valerie Troyano
REAGLE EAGLE: The puzzle master outside his Carrollwood home.

It's impossible for Merl Reagle to talk crossword puzzles without interjecting innumerable anagrams, Spoonerisms and puns that run from the groan-inducing to the laugh-out-loud funny; the man's mind just runs that way.

Lounging in the shade outside a Starbucks on tony South Howard Avenue, Reagle looks at the logo on the window and muses aloud that the letters, when rearranged, form the words "Bart sucks." He mentions a restaurant down on MacDill Avenue in South Tampa whose name, Byblos Café, could be reworked to come up with "slobbyface." He talks about a sign he once saw hanging next to a fire extinguisher; the sign was missing a letter, leading Reagle to ponder what the world would be like if there were such a thing as an "ire extinguisher."

"Fuel Mart, that's 'mule fart,'" he says, eyes perpetually mirthful behind his glasses. "Those places that sell smoothies — that's 'moose shit' scrambled up.

"And they're getting really tired of me telling them about it, too."

Fifty-six-year-old Tampa resident Reagle, whose red-brown hair and beard make him look a bit like Rip Torn — were Torn tapped to play, say, an amiable sociology professor instead of his standard asshole — is a crossword constructor. His creations appear in more than 20 daily and weekly newspapers across the nation, including the Planet and that gold standard-bearer of challenging crossword puzzles, the New York Times. (He's also the official puzzle-maker for Southwest Airlines' in-flight magazine, and AARP's periodical Modern Maturity.) One of the handful of constructors who enjoy name-recognition status among America's estimated 25 million habitual solvers, he's about to become even better-known as one of the focal figures in the new crossword-puzzle documentary Wordplay. A hit at Sundance, Wordplay will receive its area premiere this week at the Sarasota Film Festival. (For more on the festival, see this week's Film section.)

Merl Reagle is part of an ongoing movement within the puzzling community to contemporize the crossword's traditionally conservative character. He's known for his singular style, which is heavy on modern culture, inventive manipulation of familiar phrases, and, above all, humor.

"They're supposed to be entertaining first," he says. "For me, personally, since I'm kind of a goofy guy, to me, entertaining meant being funny ... and to incorporate real word gags, lists of gags that made you crack up, that was different. I think nobody had done that before.

"There's a type of puzzle that didn't exist before, and I think I did it [first]," says Reagle. "Add a letter, drop a letter, to change the phrase and if you do it right, it comes out different. 'Male pattern badness.' 'Barely vegetable soup' is 'barley vegetable soup' with two letters switched around, and I think that's kind of funny."

For pedestrian solvers accustomed to clues like "actress Gardner" and "Yale alum," Reagle's skewed themes (example: "Maim That Tune!") and creative answers (example: "I've got you under my sink") can be frustrating at first. With practice, you start to realize that it's the constructor's sense of humor itself that's the key.

Clue: "NASCAR lament"

Answer: "You picked a fine time to leave me

loose wheel"

Sitting at the wooden dining-room table in the lakefront Carrollwood home in which he and partner Marie Haley have lived since 1997, Reagle pages through issues of the classic kids' magazine Highlights for Children from the late '50s and early '60s. They're copies, bought on eBay, of the ones he riddled his way through as a youngster.

Unsatisfied by the stack in front of him, Reagle asks Haley to go back into the home office and find more. He's looking for a certain type of crossword puzzle.

The one that started him down the road to one of the world's unlikeliest careers.

"Here it is," he proclaims, displaying a puzzle fitted into the black silhouette of a bird and bearing the title "N is for Nightingale." He explains that it was part of a series in which all of the answers began with the same letter, and the clues were pictures rather than lines of text.

"I just thought that was the neatest thing," he says. "I was endlessly fascinated."

Alongside the issues of Highlights is a battered spiral notebook full of random words, written in alphabetical order in a neat child's handwriting, along with their definitions.

"Yeah, I'd read the dictionary," confesses Reagle. "I'd go through the dictionary, and write down the words I thought were interesting.

"I don't know why I fastened on to [words and puzzles]. It might've just been that time when you're 5 years old, and whatever you grab on will be the thing you get obsessed with."

Growing up in New Jersey (and later Tucson, Ariz.), Reagle began creating his own crosswords at the age of 6, often employing unfamiliar "adult" words to make the letters fit. One early puzzle featured the word "masturbation."

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