Date: April 2, 2006
Byline: Kevin O'Horan
Renowned crossword constructor is Master of the Grid
Renowned crossword constructor Merl Reagle figures prominently in documentary film and as exponent of subculture
"'Hooker in van.' You're 'hooker in van.'"
This is how our conversation begins.
It eventually will turn into a 150-minute discussion with Merl Reagle, a somewhat disjointed dialog that will cover his days as a playwright and TV game-show writer, the genetics of humor, his travels from coast to coast, life as crossword constructor extraordinaire, and more.
And it certainly will delve into his hefty role in "Wordplay," a Sarasota Film Festival offering that looks at the emergence of the modern-day word puzzle and the people addicted to it.
And it doesn't hurt that the film ends with a suspenseful American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, Conn.
But it starts with the verbal volley from Reagle, a Tampa resident.
"I told you I'd find a good anagram for you," the 56-year-old says excitedly, a wide grin arcing amid the red-and-gray facial hair he sports from ear to ear and nose to neck.
He has, again, as always. (Check the name at the top of the story against Reagle's twist on it.)
But it's nothing new for Reagle. He lives to play with words, after all, to spin them into clever puns, to mold them into maddening riddles, to simply stack them as building blocks in some house of, well, not so much horrors as gasps and groans and Spoonerisms and grins.
This is a man taking the starchy crossword puzzle of old to wild new places in the future.
"It seems crazy not to be a puzzle that's happening, that's with it," he says, snapping his fingers in jazz be-bop fashion to emphasize the point.
You wouldn't get that sense of hipness from Reagle's first attempt, a crazy quilt of a puzzle he cobbled together in his parents' home outside Camden, N.J., a puzzle that linked notable names of the day.
No flash in that one, no real hook to grab the puzzle people.
Ah, but keep in mind, that first attempt came when he was 6 years old, and the names were those of his first-grade classmates.
Puzzles long have been a part of Reagle.
"I remember when I was 8, 9 years old," he says, "I used to get the puzzle in the Philadelphia Inquirer and work on solving it."
But crosswords were just a hobby, and nothing over the next two decades or so of his life suggested they would ever be anything more, certainly nothing he would build a life around.
Rather, it seemed as though he would build his life around a journalism career, when a high school English teacher in Tucson — he had moved there in 1961 with his mother, Evelyn, after his parents divorced — suggested it would be a great field for someone with his love of words.
So, he did. He enrolled at the University of Arizona, tackling the journalism program there. He landed a job as a copy editor at the college newspaper, held the post for three years, and stayed with it after school to "pay the bills."
But, like many young adults, he was looking for something more. Journalism didn't inspire him, and the rock music gig he also was trying at the time, well, "anybody can do music," he says.
Then he hit on a plan, one that would keep him close to the words he loved: He would write screenplays.
So he bolted.
"I turned 26, and I just wanted to get out of town," he says. "I drove overnight to San Francisco. A thousand miles, straight through, overnight."
This being Reagle's life and all, it couldn't be as simple or straightforward as that. Nope, on that long trip, he flipped on the radio to help keep him awake, rolled up and down the dial, and came across something he never expected.
Bernard Herrmann. That is, music by the composer, responsible for the soundtrack to "The Day the Earth Stood Still," a 1951 sci-fi classic that tops Reagle's list of all-time best movies, chiefly for its themes of tolerance and logic.
For Reagle, the music was a sign he was on the right track.
"You never, and I mean never, hear that on the radio," he says of Herrmann's works.
As it turns out, the journey wasn't such a great thing for Reagle. He pumped out two screenplays in three years in San Francisco, but neither brought him fame, fortune nor anything close.
They did persuade him to relocate, however. This time, in 1979, he moved to Santa Monica, Calif., not far from Hollywood, where screenwriters go to strike it rich.
"I knew I wasn't going to sell my first screenplay," Reagle says, fiddling with the black-rimmed glasses framing his brown eyes. "Maybe I'd sell the fourth or so. So, I was doing freelance crossword puzzles for some money."
Although he still didn't focus on them.
"Not being too forward of a thinker, I didn't know there was any other way to go," he jokes.
Well, actually, he did go another way. You've got to make a living, after all, and Reagle found he could pay the bills by writing for TV game shows, first with "Crosswits" and then with "Couch Potatoes," along with a couple of others that never made it to air.
He also found love in sunny Southern California, although he didn't know it. Not at first.
In 1981, he wandered into a coffee shop, started chatting up a waitress and caught the attention of Marie Haley.
"He was describing the movie 'The Shining' to this waitress, and I was so amazed by it," she says. "I had just seen it, and it was like I was watching it again, the details he was giving. It was exquisite.
"I started talking to him. She might not have been interested, but I was. I sat there talking to him for about four hours."
She would wait a lot longer.
"I was dating Hollywood girls," Reagle explains. "I would come home after a date and call (Marie) to talk."
Two years later, Merl and Marie hooked up for their first date.
"It was a big thing," Reagle explains, "to kiss a friend."
Good thing he did, for them and for crossword fans.
Huh? Well, without that kiss, Reagle might still be penning plays or puns for TV rather than churning out crosswords for the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, AARP The Magazine, the Weekly Planet and other publications.
And he certainly wouldn't be appearing in the film "Wordplay."
Haley persuaded him to make a go of it as a career — finally.
"I never would have done this without Marie," he says.
Puzzle people everywhere thank her.
Reagle, who moved in 1991 with Marie to Tampa, where her family is from, now focuses on crosswords.
Namely, in modernizing a puzzle form that has been around for millennia — archaeologists have found word puzzles in the ruins of Pompeii — and one that has altered little since it popped up in the New York World newspaper in 1913.
The puzzle of your parents and grandparents was a tribute to the arcane, littered with words long since out of common use and dotted with archaic spellings.
"Those were more like a quiz than a crossword puzzle," Reagle says. "People who like crosswords as a test, that's like vocabulary class in school.
"You should like crosswords as a game."
And, like any good game, the puzzles do have their fans, such as former President Bill Clinton, who appears in "Wordplay" as one of the celebrity devotees.
"Crossword puzzles are one of my favorite pastimes," Clinton said by e-mail recently. "I started doing them when I was a young man, and over the years I've done more puzzles than I can count.
"I find that the best ones are always engaging; they make you think and they're clever."
And that's the aim of Reagle — who stresses that the charge is being led by Will Shortz, the puzzle editor at The New York Times.
"You try to play on peoples' personalities," Reagle says, his smile widening. "We set little traps for them, especially for the people who fill them in in pen."
And the traps and difficulty build through the week — with Sunday's puzzle as a separate, stay-in-bed-and-relax blend of everything.
"Saturday is the hardest puzzle of the week," Reagle says. "(Actor) Paul Sorvino said of Saturday's puzzle, 'It's the b-----mother of all crosswords.'"
No surprise, then, with that type of passion aroused in puzzle fans, that a movie like "Wordplay" would find fame at the Sundance Film Festival and pick up three screenings at this week's Sarasota Film Festival.
And no surprise that Reagle — who stresses that the crossword charge is still being led by Will Shortz, the puzzle editor at The New York Times and the focus of the film — would wind up in the film, as the man who built a companion crossword for the movie and as an announcer at the crossword contest in Connecticut.
"Merl is one of the most well-known crossword puzzle constructors in the world," says Patrick Creadon, the film's director. "He's as good as they get; he has a great reputation.
"As it turns out, he sort of steals the movie."
Now, if he could just come up with an anagram for "Wordplay."
"It's amazingly bereft of good anagram possibilities," Reagle laments. "You can get 'plow yard' or 'pay world,' but those aren't good."
And then he bounces right back.
"Now, my last name, 'Reagle,' you can get 'regale.' You know, 'to entertain,'" he says. "So, my last name just misses entertaining by that much."