David McKee, looking like a Revolutionary-era Santa Claus in his well-made costume and graying beard, clanged his handbell yesterday afternoon and quickly got the attention of the crowd gathered before him: "Taxpayers of Maryland," bellowed the town crier of Brantford, Ontario, "beware."
He told the tale - in just a few artful stanzas - of a new contraption called the telephone invented in his hometown. He dismissed it as a "toy" the governor of Maryland wanted installed in his mansion in the late 19th century. "Support your town crier by saying nay to the governor's intention," McKee said. Not to worry, though. Despite the interest in this new contraption, McKee deadpanned, the telephone could never turn town criers into mere ceremonial figures.
Alas, that day did come. But yesterday, town criers from as far away as Washington state and Bermuda got their due once again as the city of Annapolis welcomed 24 of them for the North American Town Crier Championships.
Just as some people play golf and others attend Renaissance festivals in their spare time, this group has its own, somewhat eccentric, hobby: playing town crier and spreading the news the old-fashioned way.
"From days of old, they would read the announcements of the day, the births, deaths, the general news," said Fred Taylor - Squire Frederick to this crowd - the official town crier of Annapolis since 2006. "In Colonial times in Annapolis, the town crier was actually a drummer. He'd beat the drums to call the Assembly. If they didn't appear by the third drum beat, they were fined 100 pounds of tobacco."
Now, though, town criers are ceremonial figures, goodwill ambassadors of their cities who like to get together to show off their clever cries and try to earn bragging rights until the next get-together.
Yesterday's competition was part of the celebration of the 300th anniversary of the chartering of Annapolis in 1708.
"Me lords, me ladies, come gather round," Taylor cried, kicking off the contest. "I bid thee grand welcome on behalf of the town. Not a crier shall leave til a champion is crowned."
A cry traditionally begins with either "Hear Ye! Hear Ye!" or the more common "Oyez! Oyez! Oyez!" which Taylor said is the French equivalent.
Each crier participated in three rounds of cries - one about where they are from, one about the city of Annapolis and a "free cry" of their choosing. The cries could be no shorter than 100 words and no longer than 125. They would be judged on content, clarity, volume and deportment.
"Our bells and yells may irritate, but judges will deliberate," said Richard A. LaLena, town crier of Carpenter's Hall in Philadelphia. "So for crying out loud, have fun."
Betty Kading was the only woman in yesterday's competition and is one of about 20 female town criers in the world. The 73-year-old grandmother said she is called upon to do store openings, service club events and even weddings and birthday parties in her town of Orangeville, Ontario. "Will cry at the ring of a bell," reads her business card.
In 1984, Chris Whyman was a 23-year-old working in a camera shop when he heard about a competition to become the town crier of Kingston, Ontario. The night before the nine-person contest, he decided on a lark to try out. He stapled and spray-painted a cowboy hat and borrowed a pair of his sister's knee-highs and wrote his cry out on pub napkins.
"I thought it was just for the year 1984," he said. He's still at it 24 years later.
"For me, it was like street theater," he said. "My parents said don't be an actor, there's no money in it. So I became a town crier - there's no money in it. I always say I can't retire because there's no pension in town crying."
When he first started, he said, the kids would heckle him and his outfit, the buckled shoes, the lace ruffles around his neck. But after the first year, Whyman said, "everyone knew my name."
Whyman's final cry played on that theme. He spoke of those who ask whether he's a pirate or mock him for screaming in the street: "I can always rebut this kind of abuse, by shouting to the heckler: 'I get paid to dress funny, what's your excuse?'"
McKee, 63, has been a town crier since 1991, when the city fathers of Brantford wanted someone to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the chamber of commerce. In his younger days, McKee was in a rock band. When he heard Brantford was searching for a town crier, "I thought, there's my chance to get back in front of a crowd."
"I found out I was pretty good at it," he said. In the late 1990s, he was ranked No. 2 in the world, and five times he has been the provincial champion.
But yesterday, it was McKee's younger brother Bill who cried his way to the North American championship.
Bill McKee's paying job is as a police officer for the city of Toronto. But since 1999, the 54-year-old has moonlighted as town crier of the township of Uxbridge, Ontario. He performed yesterday dressed in a bright blue coat and black tricorn hat.
"I get to yell at people and they don't yell back this way," he said.