Alexandria town crier contest draws enthusiastic contestants

Gentle mistresses and most distinguished gentlemen:

Whereas the people of Alexandria, in the Commonwealth of Virginia, in these United States of America, are generally obsessed with their city’s long history; and

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Whereas Alexandria, founded in 1749, celebrates its heritage like there is no tomorrow; and

Whereas a bellowing bell-ringer in a tricorn hat, breeches, jabot and waistcoat almost always gets the party started right, or at least with a Colonial flair;

Now, therefore, the Office of Historic Alexandria does declare that the time is nigh to name a new town crier.

And so it was that Wednesday night, in the historic Lloyd House on historic Washington Street in historic Old Town, a dozen wannabe Founding Father types — most in period clothing, some holding scrolls, one even wearing proper period spectacles — proffered their best oyezes at an open tryout for the unpaid position of Alexandria town crier.

The turnout was . . . historic.

“The last time we did this, in 2005, five people tried out,” marveled Lance Mallamo, director of the city’s Historic Alexandria operation. “I’m amazed we got 12 — and at the high quality of talent we have here.”

Although strictly ceremonial, he said, the position is significant for a city “that likes to recall its heritage and historic traditions. ”

In the 18th and 19th centuries, town criers in Alexandria and elsewhere were used to relay news to their communities. City officials reclaimed the anachronistic position from history’s dumpster in the 1990s to infuse City Council meetings, parades and civic anniversaries with a ceremonial sense of the old.

Alexandria’s crier makes proclamations and opening remarks — and occasionally serves as master of ceremony — at events small and large, including the George Washington Birthday Parade and the city’s anniversary celebration.

Enough other cities and towns have done the same that there is now a national guild for town criers. (New Jersey is apparently a hotbed.) There is even a town crier world championship.

There have been three town criers in modern Alexandria. The last one, William North-Rudin, moved to North Carolina last year, leaving Mallamo — apparently a man of many tricorn hats — to serve as the stand-in while his agency worked on the Civil War sesquicentennial and more pressing initiatives.

Mallamo thought there should be an open competition to replace North-Rudin, like a Colonial “American Idol.”

And so 12 men — young and old, black and white, most of them history buffs, all of them loud — appeared before a six-judge panel at the Lloyd House. They rang their hand bells and shouted “Oyez!” (“oh yay” or “oh yes”) in triplicate, as is done before every Supreme Court session. Each applicant read a cry provided by the city and another that they were to have written themselves.

“Let it be known that on this day, September the seventh, in the year of our Lord two-thousand and eleven, his excellency Gen. George Washington, from his seat at Mount Vernon, has given his patronage and support to Mr. Andrew Mills of Stratford Landing in his bid to become the new town crier in the city of Alexandria,” intoned Andrew Mills of Stratford Landing, reading his original cry.

The judges chuckled. Mills was stone serious.

He is a 30-year-old former high school teacher who co-authored “Alexandria: 1861-1865” with his father and named his own son Andrew Jackson Mills, after the president who shared his first name. He leads tours in Old Town, always wearing a Colonial-era outfit, and he occasionally visits historic battlefields in period costume.

“I live, eat, breathe, drink and sleep history,” Mills said.

In the Lloyd House hallway, Mills apologized to his friend and fellow history buff Ken Balbuena. “I’m going to win,” Mills declared, and you half-expected Balbuena to challenge him to a duel.

Instead, Balbuena took the fight to Twitter, pleading for Internet votes.

Adding a democratic twist to the selection process, the city launched an online poll with video of the cry-off contestants and used the results as the seventh ballot.

The other ballots were returned Wednesday night by the six judges, representing the likes of the Historic Alexandria Resource Commission and the city’s convention and visitors association.

In addition to hearing the contestants’ cries, the judges interviewed the hopefuls under the watchful eyes of George and Katherine Smoot, distinguished Alexandrians of yore whose oil-on-canvas visages hung on the wall.

Balbuena, 31, told the judges that he does public relations for Northern Virginia Community College’s Alexandria campus; that he has led ghost tours — in Colonial-period costume — in Alexandria for five years; that he would love to bring the town crier into the social-media age. (He wasn’t the only one: “My characters shall not top 140, for a cry is history’s first tweet,” 28-year-old Mike Cherlow declared in his original cry.)

Balbuena wore a custom outfit for the interview (traditional shirt, tricorn hat, breeches, waistcoat, greatcoat, jabot, stockings, garters, gloves), most of it ordered from a company in Indiana. He estimated that he had spent close to $500 on the get-up.

“I’ve always loved history,” he said, shrugging.

Ditto Ben Fiore-Walker, a 42-year-old pre-clinical science facilitator at Georgetown University’s medical school and a volunteer at Gadsby’s Tavern Museum in Old Town, where George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were known to socialize. Fiore-Walker — one of two African American candidates — said he is obsessed with Alexandria history and even booked his wedding reception at the Lyceum, an Alexandria museum, “because of its history.” His original cry was about Alexandria’s heritage, and he dressed the part — including undersize spectacles.

For contestants who didn’t own their own outfits, there was rack of clothing on loan from Gadsby’s.

John Hartgen, 34, borrowed a red waistcoat (otherwise known as a vest) and left it unbuttoned over his dark T-shirt, which made him look like a hardware store clerk in a funny hat.

Robert Morgan, 60, a voluble Marine officer who does 18th-century dancing at Gadsby’s, wore a wig beneath his hat and spoke of his admiration for the previous town criers.

Will Monahan, 76, was dressed “like any man would have been in the 1780s,” he said. Heavyset and bespectacled, the retired federal bureaucrat is a community theater actor who has portrayed Ben Franklin and worked as a bearded Santa Claus in winters past. No beard this year, though; it wouldn’t look right on the Alexandria town crier, he said.

“I’m a resident of Alexandria since 1776,” he said before his audition. His wife, Anne, corrected him: “1976.” He nodded. “You need to know your history and where you’re from,” he said. “The town crier is a very important link to history.”

The contestants kept coming, and the judges kept scribbling notes. Mallamo shook his head in disbelief.

“This is really tough. I’m glad I don’t have to pick one,” he said. And there would be more winners, he added, including several Historic Alexandria ambassadors, representing old times and old values at events the crier can’t attend. Otherwise, it would be a waste of traditionally minded talent, he said.

When the voting was tallied Saturday, Fiore-Walker emerged as the cry-off winner.

History repeats, as it turns out: According to the Office of Historic Alexandria, “one of the earliest Alexandria town criers on record” — Peter Logan — was also African American.

Fiore-Walker will ring his own bell for the first time in his old, new role Sept. 27, when he opens the City Council meeting.

 
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