Sunday, October 19, 2014

I give it an A MINUS

The Premier Crossword by Frank Longo this week is titled "Celebrities of the Past". Puzzles with a theme involving proper names often give me fits because I am not especially well-versed in pop-culture icons, but happily many of the celebrities in the grid today were at least familiar names without a rapper, hip-hop artist or modern sitcom actress among them so I managed to soldier through.

I didn't have enough crosswords in place to let me see the first two long answers so the theme remained a mystery to me until I arrived at 31 across, "Took the "Alphabet Series" novelist to court?", and the whole conceit became totally transparent. Frank has assembled a cast of a dozen(!) more or less famous persons whose first names can be re-imagined as verbs, which then have "ED" added to make them past tense, with "?-style" clues to define the newly created phrase:

23a - PIERCED BRONSON (Gave a shot for a James Bond actor?)
29a - JOSHED GROBAN  (Teased a classical/pop singer?)
31a - SUED GRAFTON  (see above)
38a - ROBBED LOWE (Stole from a "West-Wing" co-star?)
52a - BILLED O'REILLY (Sent an invoice to a Fox News Channel host?)
62a - MARKED TWAIN (Tattooed Tom Sawyer's creator?)
79a - GRACED KELLY (Honored the wife of Rainier III with one's presence?)
86a - WOLFED BLITZER (Devoured a CNN reporter?)
99a - MIKED TYSON (Prepared a boxing champion for an on-air interview?)
108a-NICKED NOLTE (Slightly cut the star of "Affliction"?)
110a-ROCKED HUDSON (Gently moved a "Pillow Talk" co-star back and forth?)
120a-RUSHED LIMBAUGH (Hurried a radio talk show host?)

I remarked in this space recently that Sue Grafton is a constructor's best friend because her book titles provide convenient fill when they need a three-letter word ending in _IS, which happens with some frequency, so it was nice to see her full name appear in the grid as kind of a "thank you" gesture. Even if you've never read any of her books (as I haven't) her name is a household name to anyone who does crosswords regularly (as I do) so she served as a "reveal" to the theme (for me, anyway).

As to the other theme answers, they are a diverse group from a number of different fields of interest, so good on that. The only one that gave me any difficulty, in fact I needed all of the crosswords to produce his name, was Josh Groban but I see now that he's quite famous in current music circles and may be familiar to younger solvers, but my tastes run to "oldies" so I hadn't heard of him. I don't watch Fox News Channel or listen to talk radio either, but it's pretty hard to avoid mention, never favorable, of the two blow-hards associated with those media so they were both easy enough to see just from the clues. I'm sure there are many other names that could be considered for the theme, but finding 6 relatively well-known pairs to insert into a symmetrical grid couldn't have been easy, so high marks on that score.

It seems to me that when a theme relies on proper names the constructor should go to great lengths to avoid as far as possible using more in the short fill, so I was dismayed to count at least 14 instances in the grid today, but again they were pretty much devoid of the sorts I consider as personal nemeses as mention above so none of them gave me a great deal of trouble. In fact, the only place I struggled at all was in the upper-right corner, where the unknown (to me) theme answer appeared. I finally pieced it together with the down answers because ROMANO (22a - Sharp cheese) and ARMANI (26a - Versace competitor) didn't exactly spring to mind. It took a while to figure out that "Spitballs, e.g." was AMMO (15d) and I wanted the "Sicilian city" to be EtNA (17d) for way too long. Seeing DOIN as the solution for "Totally ruin" (18d) took some time, too, so all-in-all that corner put up quite a fight - not that there's anything wrong with that.

Let's see, what else can I spot in the grid that seems comment-worthy:

- We have a couple of gastronomic entries starting off with LIPASE (1d - Enzyme in fat breakdown), which makes me wonder if that's required when one consumes OLESTRA (39d - Faux fat)? Inquiring minds want to know.

- The Spanish language provides ORO (gold), OSO (bear) and today's OJO(S) (25d - Spanish for "eyes" - all handy words for constructors I would say.

- If EELER has to appear in the puzzle, "Conger hunter" (47a) is a great clue.

- BITSY (71a - Wee) looks like it's desperately crying out for "Itsy" to join it but apparently it can stand alone.

- My hat is off to anyone who dropped in AKIHITO (64d - Japan's emperor) without all of the crosswords. His name is in the news enough that it should be recognizable but I somehow manage to avoid absorbing unfamiliar names in the news.

- When I said my musical taste runs to "oldies" I didn't mean "early 20th century" so "Mighty LAK' a Rose" (old song) (88d) sent me to wiki to learn this: ""Mighty Lak' a Rose" is a 1901 song with lyrics by Frank Lebby Stanton and music by Ethelbert Nevin.
The lyrics are written in an approximation of an African-American accent; such "dialect songs" were common in the era. The title thus means "Mighty (very much) like a rose"; this assessment is addressed by a mother (or perhaps an observer) to her newborn son. The dialect has been modified by some singers, such as Frank Sinatra. Audiences of various cultures and backgrounds have been able to identify with the narrator, the mother, and the child."
- "Fill in the blank" partial phrases abound with the likes of "TRY TO see it my way" (65a), "DON'T I know it!" (77a), "Either you do it OR I will!" (87d) and "...for the life OF ME" all bringing a first-person feel to the grid. Even the requisite random Roman numeral continues the ego-centric trend with CIII (112d - Cato's 103) - it's enough to make one as "Cross as A BEAR" (5d)!
- Frank offers a tip o' the hat to gentlemen's clubs where one can enjoy a snifter of COGNAC (24d - Fine brandy) with a STOGIE (105d - Smelly cigar) - some of my friends would call that a BLAST (103a - Fun party).
- IRIS (53d) - Eye piece?) and ERIS (73a - Dwarf planet beyond Pluto) are separated by only one letter, and in the grid they are separated by only one black square - is that good or bad, I wonder?
- I saved my favorite answer for last because MAMBO is clued as "Rhumba's kin" (49d) and that let's me sign off with this favorite video clip - enjoy, and see you next week!

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