This puzzle honors TOM WILLIAMS, on the occasion of his 27th birthday, which happens to fall on December 25. Through devious means, I got in touch with Tom's girlfriend Rachel GLUM, and collected some key information that was above and beyond what I already knew on my own. Rachel was infinitely patient with my various queries, which had to be kept vague so as to not spoil the eventual surprises.
Therefore, going into the construction, I was aware of Tom's personal, educational, and professional background, as well as his scientific interests, hobbies, and extracurricular activities. Tom is currently carrying out graduate work in the Human Robot Interaction Lab at Tufts University, and expects to complete his Ph.D. in Computer Science & Cognitive Science in May 2017. He has two younger sisters, LIZ (age 24) and Becca (age 18), and started dating Rachel on Halloween 2010 when they were both students at Hamilton College in Clinton, NY [incidentally, my daughter Deborah also attended Hamilton]. Tom and I have never met, but we have collaborated on several rather nerdy puzzles [details and links in Tom's biosketch elsewhere on this website]. I happen to know that he is a huge fan of GAME_OF_THRONES [which I have never watched myself]. Tom sings and acts, and his a cappella group at Hamilton was called DUELLY_NOTED. Tom and Rachel are both now in another group called Out of Range [Tom is on the far left, and Rachel is second from the right], and they share another hobby, an interest in beer that is strong enough to plan vacations around. More about Tom, and/or written by him, may be found by clicking here, here, and/or here. In the photo gallery below, the second panel has Becca in the middle and Liz on the right; Rachel's picture is on the puzzle's main page.
Of course, in constructing a puzzle, one has to keep in mind the rules of crossword symmetry, which meant that I couldn't really work in Battlestar Galactica. I opted for a 17x grid, with the marquee entry CHRISTMAS_BIRTHDAY spanning the middle. Tom's full name and college singing group balanced nicely, and I needed something the same length as Tom's second favorite TV show. Because of my inability to subtract under time pressure, I somehow thought this birthday would bring Tom to age 28, a PERFECT_NUMBER; by the time Rachel called to my attention that 27 is a perfect cube (wrong number of letters), I was too vested in the project to tear everything out and reboot. [John Child, one of the beta testers, wrote to me that 27 is a Harshad number, which is the same number of letters, but that potential fix was tabled.] We can always put out a revised version next year, with the clue: "74-Across's age as of 44-Across, 2016, e.g.] In any event, I'm sure that Tom appreciates our efforts to draw in fill and clues from his major academic interests in computers and mathematics.
I was pleased to be able to work LIZ as well as GLUM into the puzzle, although they were clued orthogonally, but that still left me with the problem that I did not have any place in the grid to slot in the name of Tom's younger sister. Somehow, I thought of the famous novel (also made into a TV movie) Key to Rebecca, and voila!, I had the puzzle's title.
In addition to the themed words, I would like to point out the following words, and miscellaneous tidbits (highly arbitrary and non-comprehensive tour through the puzzle):
24-Across: Listen to AIR on the G String by clicking here and here. The first link is played by a traditional orchestra, while the second is played on a series of g-strings (literally).
29-Across: IPA is the abbreviation for India pale ale, and gave me an opening to work in Tom's appreciation of beer.
51-Across: OONA is an answer word that crossword constructors try to avoid, because the only way to clue it used to be to Eugene O'Neill's daughter who became the final Mrs. Charlie Chaplin. But now, the name is relevant again, insofar as it belongs to the granddaughter who has achieved stardom in her own right as a character on one of Tom's favorite shows, 32-Across.
66-Across: I lifted the clue for SAL from an earlier puzzle that Tom and I collaborated on. Click here to listen to the classic song.
68-Across: The clue refers to LA_BAMBA, the Richie Valens biopic starring Lou Diamond Phililps. Click here for a brief documentary about "The Day the Music Died," here for the annotated Don McLean classic, and here for the original Valens hit, which was released just a few months before the plane crash. You may also enjoy our original clue, based on this source, i.e., "Only song on Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Songs of All Time" list that is not sung in English."
74-Across: We brainstormed a lot for how to clue the puzzle's honoree ... you'll have to take Rachel's word for it!
78-Across: Lou HOLTZ is an American football coach and sometime TV commentator who has made a number of stops at both the professional and college levels. One of these was at the University of Minnesota, and the circumstances of his departure to Notre Dame did not exactly endear him to the local population. You'll have to trust me on the clue, because it comes from a time before everything was easily documented on the internet.
45-Down. The unusual clue for SOLE was inspired by a published puzzle with Marcia Brott.
56- and 60-Down. Will Shortz seems to like to clue currency with respect to foods (bread, cabbage, etc.), and then we still need to keep track of which currencies are still current. This puzzle has both PESETA and RUBLE. Adding a Spanish flavor, recall the clue for 49-Across, SENORA, which was Lady of La Mancha (a wink at this legendary Broadway musical). But our story gets even more interesting: The original version of the puzzle had PELOTA, clued as "Jai alai, or its ball"—that is until Rachel felt both the word and its crossing LAL [clued as "Data's palindromic android daughter" rather than "Kobe's NBA team, on a scoreboard" (TEAMS is already in the puzzle)] at 66-Across might be too hard, and beta tester Alex Vratsanos suggested a way out.
65-Down: The DAILY Show! Absolutely indispensible to navigate through the news of this time.
69-Down: I've already told you about Coach HOLTZ. One of his successors was Coach Kill, and the student newspaper, The Minnesota DAILY, quipped that his Assistant Coaches were MAIM and Torture.
71-Down: Many people consider ASTA crosswordese, but I've always been a fan of the Thin Man franchise and the classic screwball comedies of the 1930s. Same dog. Bonus: Given Tom's CHRISTMAS_BIRTHDAY, let's watch this clip, with ASTA, William Powell, and Myrna Loy.
Back to 75-Down, MLK, already discussed along with SELMA. But I thought you might want to listen to the famous "I Have a Dream" speech: please click here.
Miscellaneous: in my initial draft of the puzzle, I had a wonderful corner which included ARIAS [clued as "Habanera and La donna Ź mobile, e.g."—and let me tell you, it wasn't easy figuring out with Rachel which arias to choose as examples] and PIES [clued as "Sweeney Todd comestibles"], but it all hinged on FTPS [clued as "Apps. for uploading large files"] which several of my beta tester said was a non-word as the plural.
Happy Birthday, Tom!
If you want to tell others about this particular page, refer them to http://tinyurl.com/beccamidrash