Town Criers Tell All in Annapolis
Sunday, May 4, 2008
It's not easy working in a dying medium. In a modern world ablaze in BlackBerry-ing, Wi-Fi-ing, 24-hour-news-streaming glory, it takes a certain kind of man to dress up in frilly clothes and stroll into the town center with nothing but his voice and a shiny bell to tell people what they need to know.
But the world needs town criers, several of them said yesterday as they prepared to belt out their cries in historic Annapolis. It needs them at ribbon-cuttings, centennial celebrations and special events that require a flair for the dramatic and historical that only a town crier can provide.
As part of its 300th anniversary, Annapolis got an industrial-strength dose of that drama yesterday. Two dozen of North America's elite criers converged on City Dock to battle for the title of Best Town Crier. Among the contestants were a man from Ontario who wrote the book on town cries; a legally blind town crier; and a local favorite, William North-Rudin, a slightly intimidated first-timer from Alexandria.
"I'm coming in with low expectations," said North-Rudin, who with three years was one of the least experienced criers. "I mean, some of these guys have been doing this 20, 30 years."
Especially fearsome, he explained, was the contingent of Canadian criers. For more than a decade, they have dominated the North American championships, dazzling judges with their ornate, gold-trimmed coats and clarion-clear voices.
This year, 17 of the 24 contestants hailed from Canada. Among them was grizzled veteran Bruce Kruger, 59, a former North American champion and third-place winner in the 2001 world competition.
The list of dignitaries Kruger has cried for includes the king of Norway, Queen Elizabeth II, two Canadian prime ministers and the former president of India.
But like any pro at the height of his game, Kruger, from Ontario, played down his accolades. Winning isn't everything, he said, "it's really about the camaraderie, being with your peers."
Town crying, he explained, is a gentlemanly affair. There's no glowering, no intimidation. Trash-talking is kept to a minimum. But that doesn't mean the criers don't take it seriously.
There's an art to it, say the experienced criers. A good crier knows he's not the star attraction but an attention-grabber to introduce the main event. You've got to be concise yet colorful. You need the look and voice of authority, they say.
Most important, you need a touch of comedy, though town-crier humor often veers toward the esoteric. (Jokes yesterday included references to dukes of York and 18th-century kings.)
"You're not going for belly laughs, mind you, but you want some smiles," said Peter Davies, a crier from Nova Scotia.
A pleased audience, after all, is often a town crier's only reward. Most are unpaid ceremonial positions. Some receive a stipend to cover dry-cleaning bills and travel expenses. But it's a far cry from the golden era of their trade.
For centuries it was the way people got their news, shouted to them from the street corner. The criers were employed by kings to pronounce decrees and extol their exploits, but printing presses and increased literacy reduced the need. The criers became especially rare in this country after the American Revolution.
"We wanted to be free of all that British influence and tradition," said William Joseph, secretary of the American Guild of Town Criers, which has 37 members.
Joseph has seen an uptick in recent years as many towns appointed town criers to help celebrate their centennial and bicentennial anniversaries. Annapolis appointed its town crier, Frederick Taylor, two years ago. As the host and organizer, he was ineligible to compete this year.
The criers were judged on four criteria yesterday: content, clarity, sustained volume and deportment. Contestants had written out their cries ahead of time on scrolls. Any variation from the script -- a dropped word, an extra article -- meant penalty points.
"It takes guts to do this stuff. It's not for the faint of heart," said Betty Kading, 73, from Orangeville, Ontario, a crier for 19 years and the sole woman competing. "Your tongue can become your worst enemy. Of course, you rehearse what you're going to say, but the trick is to never memorize it."
For Bert Stevens, 63, that meant reading from large-size text. It was his first competition since losing his sight four years ago, and even for the 17-year veteran, it would be a tough performance.
Stevens walked up for his cry with his guide dog Bing, dressed in a matching frilly shirt. The cry came through loud and clear, but Stevens's hands shook nervously minutes later as he sat in the audience.
"It was harder than I thought," said Stevens, a crier from British Columbia. "My biggest worry was for Bing. He's never been in competition before."
In the end, after a day full of "hear ye," "oyez" and "milord," it was a Canadian who won. The first-place crier was Bill McKee, a police officer from near Toronto who last won in 2006.
Stevens, nonetheless, called the competition a success. He had entered thinking it would be his last. His cries had not been perfect -- he lost his place once and repeated two words. But by the end, he was already talking about entering the next competition, even if he had to learn Braille. "I mean, I'm a town crier. It's what I do," he said.