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Town Criers Gather for Shouting Match

Neighborhood council sponsors the contest for those who re-create 'the first media.'

June 05, 2005|Martha Groves | Times Staff Writer

The patrons at the Brite Spot in Echo Park on Saturday morning could be excused for sitting with mouths agape. For crying out loud, their startled expressions seemed to say, who on Earth were these booming-voiced people invading their eatery in long frocks, knee britches and tricorn hats, clanging those bells with such loud determination?

The oddly garbed visitors were, quite simply, crying out loud. It's what they do, after all. Each is an official town crier, in the centuries-honored yet little-practiced tradition of the messenger who belted out news and proclamations to illiterate townspeople in the days before CNN and Blackberry e-mailing. And they had traveled to Los Angeles from near and wide for the city's first town-crier competition.

"Oyez! Oyez! Oyez!" intoned Judith Jewell of Anacortes, Wash., to the stunned diners. Translation? Yo, dudes, listen up!

The Brite Spot visit was merely an impromptu warm-up for the competition at the nearby Edendale branch of the Los Angeles Public Library. The event was the brainchild of Los Angeles Councilwoman Jan Perry and Don Garza, a downtown booster. Garza's own gig as Los Angeles' first town crier began unofficially in 2002 when he strolled through the area promoting the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council election.

Garza, whose unpaid position became official in February 2004, is a Gulf War veteran on disability who has been living in downtown's Central City East area. But Garza said he recently received a business license and plans to launch a career as an event planner.

The downtown neighborhood council sponsored the town-crier event, which was organized by the neighborhood council's Arts, Aesthetics, Culture and Education Committee.

In addition to the competition, the six visiting criers -- from Canada, Washington state and California -- participated in a workshop for children at the library.

Only four students showed up Saturday, but they heard an earful about town crying's long and colorful history.

Dependence on criers grew throughout Europe and spread to the American Colonies in the 1600s and 1700s. Each crier developed a distinctive style of announcing to villagers or townspeople, with bell, drum or gong, the need to gather 'round to hear the latest sound bite.

"We were the first media," said Redmond O'Colonies, the crier from Martinez, Calif.

Often, a crier would shout his news from in front of a pub, where he would be rewarded with a yard, or long-necked glass, of ale, explained John Webster, the crier from Markham, Ontario. After reading the news from a parchment scroll, the crier would tack it to the door post. That, Webster told his audience, gave rise to the expression "posting a notice."

In England, criers were viewed as royal representatives and occasionally traveled with a retinue of guards, especially when they had to spread bad news about, say, a tax increase. "Don't shoot the messenger" was another saying that arose from the tradition.

Criers typically learned to read and write through their association with the military and therefore wore military style uniforms. O'Colonies said he copied his red, white and blue costume from a painting of George Washington.

Instead of spreading the news, today's town criers tend to be ambassadors for their communities, the students were told.

After giving them a primer on the history of their hobby, the criers helped the students compose compelling "cries" about their neighborhoods, which the students then performed.

Drama enthusiast Vashti Zeron, 17, and her sister, Karissa, 13, created a plug for Echo Park, spotlighting its lotus-filled lake, friendly atmosphere and diverse cultures. Johnny Govea, 10, and his sister Nancy, 12, each wrote about their community of Atwater Village.

Before taking a bow, Johnny praised Atwater for its "amazing" schools, "which are so much better than the other bizarre schools."

Johnny said he had not been at all sure what to expect when Nancy invited him to join her for the event. "I thought, 'That will be so boring,' " Johnny said. "But it's amazing. And fun."

The town-crier competition actually got underway Friday. After the criers were introduced to the Los Angeles City Council and presented with proclamations, they performed their inaugural cries at Olvera Street and a second round on the south lawn of City Hall.

But the deciding round took place Saturday. Under a warm sun, the criers, many of them clad in heavy wool outfits, rang their bells, shouted "Oyez! Oyez! Oyez!" (Old French for "hear ye") and riffed humorously on the joys and challenges of town crying. In the end, the five judges deemed Webster, who also represents Markham's sister city of Cary, N.C., the winner of the silver cup, largely on the strength of his bold, bell-ringing entrance.

Webster intends to spread the word about his victory. He will use his Blackberry.

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