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."

"I didn't know what that meant," Reagle says with a laugh. "The dictionary just said 'self-abuse,' and I didn't know what that meant, either."

click to enlarge TWO ACROSS: Reagle and partner Marie Haley. "If it weren't for her, I never would've flown to all these cities and said, 'Your crossword is crap, put this one in.'" - Valerie Troyano
Valerie Troyano
TWO ACROSS: Reagle and partner Marie Haley. "If it weren't for her, I never would've flown to all these cities and said, 'Your crossword is crap, put this one in.'"

His first published puzzle ran in a scholastic magazine when he was in middle school. It was a journalism teacher who suggested Reagle quit messing around with kids' crossword contests and submit some of his work to the New York Times. And as 1965 become '66, at just shy of 16 years old, Reagle did, sending then-editor Margaret Farrar three puzzles.

Two were rejected on the basis of some questionable content — one featured the answer "dead as a doornail," the other "rotten in Denmark."

The third was accepted.

Reagle made ten bucks.

Since then, both the amount the Times pays for a crossword puzzle and Reagle's personal returns have increased dramatically. While living in Santa Monica, Calif. (where he met Haley) in the early '80s, he paid the bills writing for game shows. But Reagle was always selling puzzles, and a regular weekly gig for the San Francisco Examiner came through in '85, opening the doorway to syndication and crossword creation as a full-time career.

Now, the couple — who relocated to Tampa in the early '90s to care for Haley's ailing mother — makes a low-six-figure income, with Haley handling the business half of the operation.

"I hate puzzles," she says, laughing.

"If it weren't for her, I never would've made appointments with editors, flown to all these cities and said, 'Your crossword is crap, put this one in,'" says Reagle.

Reagle is perhaps the only self-syndicated crossword constructor working today. In addition to the paper and magazine appearances, Reagle and Haley publish their own series of puzzle books, waiting until the puzzles are seven or eight years old before compiling them (they retain the rights to all of Reagle's puzzles); they're up to 11 volumes, along with a book of the Japanese Sudoku number puzzles.

His knack for turning out challenging, high-quality crosswords is obviously a big part of Reagle's success. It's only half of the creative formula, however. The other half is his singular style — the humor, the refusal to employ the arcane, never-spoken words only found in crossword puzzles, the contemporary pop-culture references and letter manipulation and homonymous clues. Those are the things that attract the odd bored newspaper editor, and the thousands of diehard solvers looking for a little more personality in their puzzles. It's a bit like designer fashions, in a way — there are actually people out there who can instantly recognize, and indeed prefer to work on, "a Merl."

Clue: "Two reasons not to become a zookeeper"

Answer: "Monkey pee, monkey do"

"The new school — well, we've been around for 20 years — we think crosswords should be a game, instead of a test," says Reagle. "That's why we throw in anagrams, anything we can think of to make words entertaining. Bad puns, good puns, funny quotations. I get a lot of mileage out of Stephen Wright quotes.

"We try to make crosswords like Jeopardy, with some humor thrown in. You never see an answer like 'name three Philippine trees.' No one cares about Philippine trees except crossword dictionaries. You'll hear tough TV trivia, the latest movies, all kinds of contemporary stuff, which, for the longest time, you wouldn't see in crosswords much."

At the same time, Reagle realizes his target audience is by and large an older, reactionary one — to go too far in the name of updating the crossword style is to potentially alienate many solvers, a majority of whom are over 50. He tells horror stories of hate mail pouring in after various newspapers switched to his crossword, and of using current references he figured everyone would recognize (like Emeril Lagasse), only to be proven wrong. Plenty of people simply don't want their Sunday crossword habit messed with, but in terms of content, Reagle says it's a matter of getting a feel for where is the line.

And, sometimes, crossing it.

"There are people who've never heard a Sam Kinison routine," he says, with mild disbelief. "There are people who've never watched Seinfeld ... so if you make jokes about George or Elaine or the Soup Nazi, there are people who won't know what you're talking about. But it's a legit place to go, so you have to sort of ignore the people who think that shouldn't be in a puzzle. It's all grist for the mill ... I sometimes wonder, can I use the names of the little people in Time Bandits? Well, do I want to get hate mail or not?

"And if I think some things are interesting, and I just want to bring them to people, I'll use them. The words on the backs of the bombs in Dr. Strangelove — most people won't know that, but I'll put that in a crossword puzzle."

Putting something in a crossword to which some solvers may not relate is one thing. Putting in something even mildly offensive is another thing altogether, and as far as Reagle likes to push puzzle content, he has to abide by what's known to constructors as The Sunday Morning Breakfast Test. Even these days, he can't use a word or phrase that might not fly in that classic crossword-solving environment.

In the "Worst Menu Typos" puzzle, for instance (published in the Planet in June of 2000 and reproduced here), he cites an answer that "comes right up to almost crossing the Sunday Morning Breakfast Test line." (Hint: It's got something to do with seafood.)

Reagle has good reason to be so concerned that crossword fans enjoy his puzzles. Like other micro-cultures, the hardcore puzzling world is a tight-knit group, and Reagle has attained an extremely cult-ish sort of fame within it. His fans aren't faceless and remote; at events like Stamford, Connecticut's annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament — where Reagle has served as a judge for the last 26 of its 28 years — he finds himself face to face with many of them.

And thanks to Wordplay, he's becoming better known both inside and outside the crossword circle. Though it's ostensibly about the Stamford tournament, the movie is making Reagle a bit of a star.

Clue: "Inappropriate Muzak for the doctor's office"

Answer: "Killing Me Softly"

Wordplay is a documentary in the vein of recent surprise successes like 2002's Word Wars (about Scrabble tournament players) and Spellbound (about young spelling bee participants): a close-up look at real people with obscure passions, driven by those people's personalities and culminating in that passion's top competition. It's an excellent film, partly because of producer Christine O'Malley and husband/director Patrick Creadon's talents, partly because some of the real-life participants are so engaging, and partly — OK, mostly — because last year's American Crossword Puzzle Tournament just happened to end in a wonderfully suspenseful way.

"To me, it's a little movie about us, with a dramatic finish," says Reagle. "It's just something no one's seen before. Plus, the filmmakers couldn't have picked a better year to do it."

In addition to the tournament's thrilling conclusion, one of last year's judges just happened to be friends with former president Bill Clinton, who appears in the movie. He's a known crossword fanatic, whom O'Malley and Creadon had been trying to get to participate from the beginning, with no luck.

"They'd been trying to get him for months," Reagle says. "He's a speed-solver, he times himself with his watch. He uses a little 'e,' because the big 'e' has those three drag-inducing pen lifts."

In addition to Clinton, Wordplay also features celebrity appearances by Bob Dole, Jon Stewart, documentarian Ken Burns, and The Indigo Girls.

And, of course, Merl Reagle.

Reagle is featured prominently in the film — only current New York Times Crossword Puzzle Editor and tournament founder Will Shortz appears more — as both expositor of crossword culture and example of top-notch constructor. He's actually shown creating a puzzle themed after the film (he said it took him a couple of hours, though if he has the time, he'll spend five or six on a crossword); these scenes provide a window into the creative process, revealing glimpses of Reagle's personal perspective on the art along the way.

"Originally it was gonna be somebody else, until they came to the tournament and realized that person was not appropriate at all," says Reagle of his role in the film, without naming names. "I met Patrick on Friday and Saturday, and I was just sort of the go-to guy."

Producer O'Malley says Reagle was "a perfect fit" for Wordplay. "He not only knows so much about puzzles, he knows a lot about movies."

Wordplay premiered at January's Sundance Film Festival, where all its screenings sold out, it was nominated for the Jury Prize in the Documentary category, and Reagle was "recognized" by a fan of the film for the first time.

"One of the guide people was a crossword fan who'd been to the tournament for four years," he says. "And I happened to step off the shuttle bus right in front of him."

Another fan was actress Glenn Close, who came up to him after a screening to praise Wordplay. She's not a puzzler herself; she'd sought out the movie simply because she'd heard the buzz.

Wordplay is currently still making the film-festival rounds, and Reagle and Haley are making at least some of the rounds along with it; having just returned from this year's tournament in Stamford, they'll head down to the Sarasota Film Festival for screenings on April 3, 6 and 8. The couple has been invited to several openings and festivals, from Orlando to Philadelphia, in the following weeks and months, though Reagle would prefer to just attend the ones in the cities where his puzzles appear.

Even if only crossword enthusiasts come out en masse to see Wordplay, that's still a hell of a lot of exposure for the subculture, and for Reagle himself. And at this early juncture, the movie seems a perfect contender for nomination for a 2006 Best Documentary Oscar. But, while he's glad his extended, eccentric family of English-language obsessives is garnering a little notice — and that his book sales will almost certainly see a bump as a result — Reagle seems a bit resigned when it comes to all the peripheral hoopla.

"My profile's getting higher than I want it to be," he admits. "It's always nice to be in demand, but it kills your ability to have time to do anything. It'll probably blow over, be a roller coaster ride for the next three or four months."

Then he can get back to sitting outside, pencil poised over an empty white grid, dreaming up themes like "Spot The Fake Painting" and clues to go with answers like "Washington crossing the Delaware Turnpike" and "Madonna and Julia Child."

"There's a style of puzzle-making where we want you to solve it, and you should be able to tell from the puzzle, if you are a veteran solver, that I want you to do it," he says. "I don't want you to be scratching your head and get pissed off and throw it away.

"I'm not for everybody. You can't just say, 'I want to solve a crossword puzzle,' and pick up one of mine. You have to learn the ground rules, but once you do, I'm your man.

"I'm not as hard as the New York Times Sunday puzzle," he adds, "but I'm funnier."

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