Tampa Bay crossword puzzle maker Merl Reagle gets a boost from 'Wordplay' documentary

Reagle voiced his own character, left, in an episode of The Simpsons about crosswords.
Reagle voiced his own character, left, in an episode of The Simpsons about crosswords.
Published May 26, 2012

Merl Reagle never thought crossword puzzles could make him a celebrity but that's what happened in 2006 when the celebrated indie documentary Wordplay went mainstream. ¶ What the brainy film did, besides highlighting the skill, drama and competitiveness that can go into the Sunday morning pastime, was pull away the curtains on the legions of crossword fans across the nation. Word nerds like Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, Jon Stewart, Ken Burns and the Indigo Girls all make cameos in the film. ¶ Also featured was Reagle, considered to be one of the foremost puzzle makers. In nearly 30 years he has crafted more than 4,000 puzzles for more than 50 newspapers and publications. And over the last few decades, Reagle, 62, has been doing it from his home in Carrollwood, where he makes one big Sunday puzzle a week for his syndication service and about four other crossword puzzles per month for AARP the Magazine, San Francisco Chronicle's Sunday Magazine and others. ¶ Times staff writer Justin George talked words, whereabouts, where to eat and the wonders of the English language with Reagle.

How did Wordplay change your life?

Because of Wordplay I was on Oprah and became a character on The Simpsons, so my resume is pretty happy now. I've always done talks and puzzle contests around the country, but now it's easier to get the door open.

How did The Simpsons appearance come about? Do you think the cartoon version of you looks like the real version of you?

The episode came about because James L. Brooks, the main producer on The Simpsons, saw Wordplay and liked it . . . It was Brooks' idea to have Lisa Simpson get hooked on crosswords, enter a puzzle tournament — and lose. (Who else but Lisa could even solve a crossword in that family? Reagle pointed out.) Writer Tim Long fleshed out the rest of the plot. I thought the rendering of me was pretty great — lots of hair and almost no overbite.

Where did you grow up and how did you end up in Tampa?

I grew up in southern New Jersey, not too far from Camden, N.J., then moved to Tucson, Ariz., when I was 12. When I was 26, I moved to San Francisco, lived there for three wonderful years, then moved down to Santa Monica, near Los Angeles, to write screenplays and work on TV game shows.

I met Marie Haley (his wife) there and we became a couple in 1983. She'd grown up in Tampa, so when her mother got Alzheimer's and her father died, we moved here. It was Marie's family that owned Pickford's, the sundries store and fountain on W Hillsborough Avenue, and now Marie is basically in charge of it. As much as I liked living in L.A., wherever Marie goes, I go, so here I am.

What are your favorite restaurants and dishes in Tampa?

I love the salads at Pane Rustica in South Tampa and the breakfasts at the Wildflower Cafe in Clearwater, which, unfortunately, is 28 miles from my house. I love the chicken with hot pepper at Benjarong Thai in Carrollwood and almost anything at Cafe Ponte in Clearwater. This will sound weird, but we often drive downtown to the Samaria Cafe just to have their salads for breakfast. If we get a late start on Sunday it's hard to beat that amazing buffet at the Jackson Street Bistro. My favorite hangouts are Brunchies on Dale Mabry Highway, any First Watch, and any Bonefish Grill.

How many times has something related to Tampa made its way into your crosswords?

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I've done pirate puzzles and hurricane puzzles — even lizard-pun puzzles — all inspired by living here. If I have the word, "PRO," as an answer, I'll almost always clue it as "Buc or Ray, for example." I've done a puzzle about "things I'd like to see in the NASA gift shop" — all gags, of course — and I've got ideas for puzzle contests that are all Florida-based. Florida is so full of colorful factoids that I'll never run out of ideas. Oh, and I've done lots of duck puns — "I'm not a bad duck, I'm just mallard-justed."

Why do you love crossword puzzles?

The mere fact that words can be interwoven that way has always amazed me. And I got my dad's sense of humor, so my puzzles are almost always on the funny side, which is unusual, since "funny" and "crosswords" don't often come up in the same sentence. To be honest, I'm not sure that I love crosswords as much as I just love playing with the language — words, word games, anagrams, palindromes, spoonerisms, puns, and such. For example, "Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida" anagrams into "It's an ideal camp for a tiger cub" — same letters, different order. This kind of thing has always fascinated me.

What's your favorite word and why?

I don't know if I have one! The first word that came to mind was "AMBIDEXTROUS," partly because it contains all the vowels ("AMBIDEXTROUSLY" even has the "Y"). More importantly, the word means "being able to use the left hand as well as the right hand" and the word itself has a similar feature — the first six letters, "AMBIDE," are from the left half of the alphabet (A-M) and the last six letters, "XTROUS," are from the right half of the alphabet (N-Z). Language is full of these strange patterns and I consider it my job to just find them. And then, of course, to foist them on an unsuspecting public!

Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity.