Sunday, September 28, 2014

"Synonymy" is my new favorite word

 This week the Premier Crossword by Frank Longo is titled "Celebrity Synonymy" (which sounds like a phrase I might makeup) and I have to say it left me with severely mixed emotions. On the one hand the theme, which involves re-imagining the names of various celebrities by replacing their first names with a new word with the same meaning - hence the title. This is actually a pretty cool conceit that is a lot of fun - if, that is, you know the names of all of the celebrities involved because if you don't I think it could be a long slog to complete the grid. I knew nine out of ten so I didn't have much trouble on that count. Here's the list:

23a - WEALTHY (Rich) LITTLE (Master of impressions, to Roget?)
28a - LATIN (Roman) POLANSKI ("Chinatown" director...)
34a - TRANSPARENT (Crystal) GAYLE ("Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue" singer...)
52a - GRANULAR (Sandy) DUNCAN (Actress who played Peter Pan on Broadway...)
61a - EMBARRASSED (Red) SKELTON (Freddie the Freeloader portrayer...)
75a - POWDERY (Dusty) SPRINGFIELD ("Son of a Preacher Man" singer...)
85a - SINCERE (Frank) SINATRA ("My Way" singer...)
98a - BOISTEROUS (Rowdy) GAINES (Swimmer with three Olympic gold medals...)
108a-FORESTED (Woody) ALLEN ("Annie Hall" co-star...)
120a-STONY (Rocky) MARCIANO (Former world heavyweight champion...)

I knew all of these from the given clues, except for the Olympic swimmer about whom I had no idea but I was finally able to piece him together with a lot of crosswords and a couple of inferences. This entry perfectly illustrates my complaint with this puzzle: it relies heavily on proper names and pop-culture references for it's non-theme fill. It seems to me that when the theme answers consist exclusively of celebrity names the constructor should avoid adding more of them like the plague ("People" Magazine puzzles excluded, of course). In this instance, we see two song titles (pretty obscure ones, I might add) with "Botch-A-ME" (88d) and "Hallelujah I'M A BUM "(77d); an abbreviated magazine name, NAT GEO (87d); an obsolete truck (that could have been clued as a musical group), REO Speed Wagon (90d); actor KEENEN Ivory Wayans) 72d); and feminist GLORIA Steinem (102d). I finally pieced it together but I can't say it was fun or produced any "Aha!" moments to justify the effort.

All in all, I counted over 40 entries, in addition to the theme answers, that relied on proper nouns, most with some reference to pop-culture categories such as TV/movies, sports, and various genres of music, with the occasional historical or geographical reference and commercial product thrown in. Maybe all of these were unavoidable and in the end they were all obtainable (some were even helpful) but I for one would like to see fewer of them in the grid.

"Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?" OK, it wasn't all bad and solvers who are more up on pop-culture than I am (almost everybody) probably enjoyed those entries more than I did. Let me see if I can list a few things that I did like:

-  The "Clandestine" clue (21 across) had me thinking spy agency so I smiled when the more tawdry, tryst-related NO TELL (Motel) showed up.

-  "Bean" is a nice misdirection for CONK (18d) - I love it when Frank goes all vernacular on us.

- RECTO (45a - Right-hand page) is a word that I'm sure I've seen before but I wasn't 100% certain when I entered the "C" as the crossword was no help at all.

- The plural of TOGA (67d - Colosseum garments) can go two ways, TOGAs/TOGAE - I suspected a trap and waited for the crossword to produce the correct ending.

- My favorite clue was "Under state?" for TRANCE (47a) - more trick misdirection from the constructor.

- ONION RING is not a "Alternative to a steak fry" (81d) - it is in addition to the steak fry!

- OTIOSE (93a - Of no use) is a word that I really should try to use more often - I certainly encounter situations where it applies often enough.

- VIATICAL seems more commonly associated with financial transactions than the meaning as clued, but I eventually found a reference citing Frank's definition, so OK.

- Despite all my grousing and complaining I finished the puzzle without a single write-over or mistake, which I think is a first so it must not have been all that bad!

So on that happy note, let me leave you with bouncy little number that includes more musical references (118 by actual count, if wiki is to be believed) than today's puzzle. Enjoy, and see you next week!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Chart Topper Double Plays!

This week's Premier Crossword by Frank Longo is titled "2-For-1 #1 Hits" and I immediately suspected the long them answers would somehow contain the names of hit songs - at least I hoped so, because if there's one thing that's in my wheelhouse it's chart-topping hits. As long as there's no hip-hop or rap titles involved I should be home free.

As luck would have it that's exactly what the theme is, and furthermore all of the hits are from the '50s through the early '90s - Bingo! Of course the long answers are all clued wackily to suggest the combined songs, and Frank even helpfully added the years they were hits although to be honest I didn't even notice that feature until I was all done with the puzzle. So when the last hit has been played we wind up with this collection of pop music that went to the top of the charts:

27a - AMERICAN WOMAN IN LOVE (Smitten lady from the U.S.? [1970/1980])
35a - CROCODILE ROCK THE BOAT (Order to a Nile reptile to upset a vessel? [1973/1974])
55a - YOU'RE SIXTEEN TONS (Comment to a growing whale? [1974/1955])
65a - ONE MORE NIGHT FEVER (Another high body temperature at bedtime? [1985/1978])
79a - ANGIE BABY GOT BACK (My sweetie Dickenson returned? [1974/1992])
95a - WILD WILD WEST END GIRLS (Very uncivilized lasses in Soho? [1988/1986])
108a-PAINT IT BLACK OR WHITE (Apply a wall coating in either of two opposite shades? [1966/1991])

So there you have it - 7 pairs of song titles cleverly joined by a word common to each one to yield a phrase as clued. That's pretty cool I think, and trying to guess the song names with only a few crosswords in place was a lot of fun. Frank even included a bonus title with "LET IT BE"  (51d - #1 Beatles hit of 1970) appearing in the center of the grid - you know that was no accident.

With all of that great music swimming around in my head as I solved the puzzle I barely noticed the non-theme fill but as I look back over the grid I see a few interesting (to me, anyway) combinations:

- LEAVE BE (15d - Stop bugging) foreshadows the already mentioned LET IT BE.

-GOA (68d - __few rounds), BOA (73a - Fluffy scarf) and TOA (74a - __T (just so)) is an unfortunate trio to have in a grid it seems to me.  OONA (66d - "Game of Thrones" actress Chaplin would have joined the list but for her extra O.

- Gridder Bart STARR (113a) and NFLer TOM Brady (114d) meet up at the bottom of the grid even though they never met on the gridiron.

- The British Isles are abundantly present in the puzzle with NAE (31a - No, in Paisley), AYR (46d - Scottish port), AER (Lingus (Irish carrier) - 106a), and LAIRDS (101d - Landed Scots). One wonders if it was a tip of the Tam o' Shanter on recognition of the historic vote that took place in Scotland this week?

I managed to get through the grid with only a couple of mis-steps: I guessed wrong at how to abbreviate "mortgage" so Mort. had to be replaced with MTGE (50d - Pymt. for a home-owner), and I initially guessed  the wrong #1 hit when I put GeT BACK at the end of 79a, but that was easily fixed when I realized that BABY had to be involved in the title. ENUF (52d - Ample, in dialect) said on that topic.

I spotted one other song title hiding in the grid, I AM (49a - Response to "Are you sure?") is the title of a couple of different  pop songs plus a Christian version  but none of them made it to the top of the charts. Still let's take a listen to one of them since you may never have heard it before:

And with that I AM out of here - see you next week!

Sunday, September 14, 2014

It's like doing the Hokey-Pokey!

The Premier Crossword by Frank Longo this week is titled "Keeping to One Side" which on its face doesn't offer much help in discovering the puzzle's theme, and a quick scan of the clues reveals that there are no "?-style" clues to indicate that wackiness is afoot. What could be going on, I wonder?

I solved the first couple of long theme answers and spent a few seconds studying them but I couldn't see any common feature that would explain the title. Even with the grid almost half complete I couldn't detect a theme to tie the long answers together but when I arrived at the central answer, right there smack in the middle of the grid, was the answer: KEYBOARDING (69a - Typing (and the theme of this puzzle)! All of the long answers can be typed by using only one hand, as directed by the clues, thus:

23a - BEVERAGE CART (Thing pushed by a flight attendant [left hand])
28a - OPIUM POPPY (Plant that's a drug source [right hand])
30a - TREADS WATER (Dog-paddles [left hand])
53a - FREEZER BAG (Ziploc product [left hand])
56a - PHILLIP LIM (Fashion designer with the "3.1" label [right hand])
93a - TEXAS STATE (University in San Marcos [left hand])
95a - HI LILI HI LO (Hit song from a Leslie Caron film [right hand])
111a-IN MY OPINION ("What I think is..." [right hand])
117a-TARGET AREA (Strike zone, say [left hand])
124a-JOHNNY JUMP-UP (American violet [right hand])

I just noticed another dimension to the theme as I typed the theme answers out - they all appear on the side of the grid that corresponds to the hand used to type them, so the [left hand] answers all appear on the left side of the puzzle and the [right hand] answers can all be found on the right - "keeping to one side" indeed! So we have ten long theme answers distributed left, right, left, left, right, left, right, right, left, right - that is neat symmetry and if you put it to music I think you can cha-cha to it!

As for the non-theme fill, I'm going with two thumbs up mostly because the puzzle is almost totally "pop-culture proper name"-free, and the few that are in there skew toward my generation (i.e., OLD).
Anyone of a certain age knows LORNE (58a - Greene of "Bonanza"), LIZA (63a - Minnelli of "Cabaret") and (103d - "77 Sunset Strip" actor Edd) BYRNES, right? Even (92d - Actor Martin) SHEEN is notorious enough that I have heard of him.  Heck, Frank could have clued DEE (102d - Poor grade) as "Actress and singer Sandra" and I wouldn't have complained!  I love it when rappers and sit-com actresses are a NON-ISSUE (25a - Unimportant matter) in the puzzle.

Random things that tickled my fancy, in no particular order:

- We have 1860s prez ABE (4d) and 1950s prez IKE (64d) making an appearance - do any other presidents have a 3-letter nick-name, I wonder?

- THROE (77d - Piercing pain) is a word that I've only seen used in the plural - I wanted to put THROb there for a long time but happily I knew (100a - English Channel swimmer Gertrude) EDERLE from recent news headlines so I was saved from that mistake.

- Hmm, I just noticed ANGELA (131a - Bassett of "Notorius") lurking at the bottom of the grid. I don't know her but the crosswords were fair so there she is.

- SPECTATE (94d - Watch a sports event) is another perfectly fine word that doesn't get used often, I think.

- Is "Recorded in advance" (97a) really PRETAPED or just "taped"?  The "pre" seems superflous (this definition from notwithstanding: Verb
(third-person singular simple present pretapes, present participle pretaping, simple past and past participle pretaped)
  1. To tape in advance.)
- It's Sunday - I think I'll make a GIMLET (134a - Limy cocktail) and sit in the sun. See you next week?

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Just who is this "Frank Longo" anyway?

This week the Premier Crossword by Frank Longo is a straight-forward puzzle titled "Self-Contained Synonyms", and it soon becomes apparent that the long theme answers are words that contain within them shorter word that has the same meaning, thus:


Now that's all very nice and I was thinking it was a perfectly fine theme but lacking in the usual clever twist that I have come to anticipate in a Longo crossword, and then Frank surprised me with his final theme clue, "What the eleven answers featured in this puzzle are called" (117a), the answer to which is KANGAROO WORDS.  Learning that little factoid made me like the theme a little more, but then I discovered that a quick google search will produce dozens of lists containing hundreds of kangaroo words. Still, I give Frank Longo full credit for using eleven of them, plus the revealer, to create a puzzle that was fun to solve and is pretty much devoid of the dreaded "crosswordese" that sometimes populates the non-theme fill. It didn't ASTONISH (16d - Flabbergast) me but it certainly MET (42d - Fulfilled) my (admittedly subjective and unsophisticated) criteria for a Sunday puzzle.

I really don't see a lot more that I want to comment about so I'll forgo my usual drivel about the non-theme fill in favor of leaving you with a question that's been bugging me for a while now.  The Premier Crossword used to be credited to "Frank A. Longo", and then a while ago the attribution changed to "Frank Longo", a subtle but not insignificant change, I think. So here's my question: What's up with that?