PROVINCETOWN — Hear ye, hear ye! Kenneth Lonergan, Provincetown’s beloved town crier, announced his retirement last week, after 13 years of bell-ringing and proclamation-making. The spirited and affable Lonergan, 74, a retired teacher and actor, is known for coining the phrase “All is well in Provincetown, because you’re here!”
Provincetown has a long history of town criers, dating back to the 19th century. In the days before the internet, radio, or even mass-produced newspapers, the function of town criers was to make announcements to the general populace.
One of the earliest Provincetown criers was George Washington Ready, who became famous after claiming in 1886 to have seen an enormous sea serpent, 300 feet long, with six eyes “the size of dinner plates,” at Herring Cove Beach. He swore in an affidavit, “I was not unduly excited by liquor or otherwise.”
At the turn of the century, Ready was succeeded by Walter T. “Hoppy” Smith, rather insensitively nicknamed for a disability. Hoppy was the last “real” crier, that is, one whose job is to disseminate information, not just serve as a tourist attraction. Following his tenure was a multi-year gap, before Amos Kubic was appointed in 1934 as the first “purely theatrical” crier. Kubic was also the first to wear Puritan garb.
Other criers included Fred “Old Salt” Baldwin, who claimed to be a descendent of Mayflower leader Edward Winslow, and, in 1971, Bob Landry, the youngest crier at only 22 years old. There is also Napoleon E. “Gene” Poyant, who lost the job after purportedly telling a tourist that “homosexuals and the devil had taken over a local church,” according to a 1987 New York Times article.
Following Poyant, Provincetown weathered a long gap without a town crier. That is, until Lonergan revived the tradition.
Lonergan had read about town criers at the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum, and wondered why there wasn’t one anymore. In 2007, he inquired of Candy Collins-Boden, then director of the chamber of commerce. She passed on Lonergan’s name to James Bakker, then the executive director of the PMPM. After hearing Lonergan “barking” at the show The Three Mary’s, Bakker decided that he was perfect for the job.
“They gave me a few weeks to put together an outfit,” Lonergan told the Independent. With the help of seamstress Joyce Wilde, Lonergan developed a costume based on historical photos. He opted for a black-and-white Pilgrim costume because “if it’s hot and I’m going to perspire, I don’t want there to be sweat stains.”
His first event was welcoming 400 Masons for the centennial of President Teddy Roosevelt laying the Pilgrim Monument cornerstone in 1907.
“I was totally on my own, so I started to do a ‘Hear ye, hear ye!’ ” Lonergan recalled. “It took me a while to figure out what to say. I don’t know exactly what I did, but they loved it.”
Since then, Lonergan has mastered the act of “crying.” He is a fount of historical knowledge, and does renditions of “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” “Yankee Doodle,” and other show tunes. Lonergan claims that John Waters once said, “I’ve known many criers, and you’re the first to do Broadway.” Indeed, he did a cover of Liza With a Z’s “Ring Them Bells” at the 2010 Carnival parade, eternalized on YouTube.
“Ken is irreplaceable,” Radu Luca, executive director of the Provincetown Chamber of Commerce, said. “He’s leaving behind some really big shoes to fill.”
Though no successor will be appointed this year, the chamber is working on a “comprehensive job description,” drawing on sources from the Provincetown History Project. “We’re not ruling out some sort of audition or contest,” Luca said.
What does it take to be a town crier? “Spontaneity,” said Lonergan. A 1958 ad calls for “a man with a lusty but melodious voice.” Whether the next town crier is young or old, a man or woman (or gender-fluid), he, she, or they will have a lot of history to live up to.