(VIDEO) Grass Valley celebrates 1st St. Piran’s Day without town crier | TheUnion.com

(VIDEO) Grass Valley celebrates 1st St. Piran’s Day without town crier

Howard Levine, right, accepted the Champion of Cornish Culture award on behalf of his wife, Peggy Swan Levine. The award was presented by Gage McKinney, left, of the California Cornish Cousins at Saturday's St. Piran's Day celebration in downtown Grass Valley.
John Hart/jhart@theunion.com | The Union

The crowd gathered at the corner of East Main and South Auburn streets in downtown Grass Valley for Saturday’s St. Piran’s Day celebration, an annual event that commemorates the town’s Cornish heritage.

But one central component of the event was missing — the person who traditionally rings an oversized bell and welcomes others to the event by declaring that, “Today, everyone is Cornish!”

For the first time since the event began 10 years ago, Grass Valley celebrated St. Piran’s Day without its town crier.

The ceremonial position was introduced at the inaugural St. Piran’s day in 2005 by Howard Levine, the former president of the Grass Valley Downtown Association. He was drawing on a tradition straight from Cornwall, England, said Eleanor Kenitzer, one of the event’s organizers.

“Every town in Cornwall has a town crier who announces their public ceremonial meetings and any of the activities,” Kenitzer said. “(Levine) had the idea that it would be fun to have one in Grass Valley.”

Local resident Robert Russell, 65, has held the position since the event started, but recently told event organizers he was retiring. Kenitzer said auditions for a new town crier were advertised through the event press release sent to local media outlets, as well as through an email blast from the Grass Valley Downtown Association; however, by the time the event was ready to get underway on Saturday, no one had come forward to take up the crier’s bell.

Kenitzer said the lack of auditions was disappointing, but noted it wouldn’t spoil the event.

“We’re still Cornish, we’ll make do,” Kenitzer said.

Kenitzer knew Russell would be hard to replace as town crier. When he first auditioned for the role alongside four other hopefuls, she said the judges — who rate candidates based on their volume, diction, accuracy, inflection and personality — were immediately struck by his “incredible voice and energy.”

“Robert stood out. The rest of them just faded into oblivion when we heard Robert,” Kenitzer said. “He was everything a town crier should be.”

Russell, who had moved to town just a few months before the auditions in 2005, decided to try out for the role on a whim.

“I was a singer and I thought, well I have a really loud voice,” Russell said. “I thought it would be an interesting thing.”

After being selected, Russell embraced the role. His wife Ellen made him a costume based on different town crier outfits that she had researched, complete with a tricorn hat, frilled shirt and embroidered coat.

Russell began to write his own speeches for ceremonies and became a presence not only at St. Piran’s Day but at many other town events, including the Fourth of July Parade and Cornish Christmas, where he interacted with crowds and posed for pictures with children.

“It’s kind of like being Mickey Mouse at Disneyland,” Russell said.

Kenitzer said festival organizers plan to hold auditions again next St. Piran’s Day.

“So many Cornish traditions are fading away, so in Grass Valley we particularly like to keep them going, just to perpetuate the heritage of this community,” Kenitzer said.

Russell, meanwhile, has plenty to keep him busy; he and his wife are finishing up a 10-year restoration project on their downtown Victorian home; soon, they’ll be traveling to Italy to spend time with their daughter and new grandchild.

He said he’s enjoyed being town crier, and said the role is one of the things that makes Grass Valley unique.

“It’s really nice for a town to have something whimsical like that,” Russell said. “It kind of shows a nice personality of the town.”

He said it’s important for the next town crier to be vigilant about their vocal warm ups — otherwise, he said, they’ll lose their voice by the end of a parade or event.

And they’ll need to have some arm strength — the town crier bell is pretty heavy, he noted.

But Russell said it’s especially crucial that the town’s next crier loves interacting with people and making their experience at a particular event as positive as it can be.

“This is another way to make people happy, to make people feel good,” Russell said. “If you like doing that, and if you have a loud voice and a strong arm, then you’ll be fine.”

To contact Staff Writer Emily Lavin, email elavin@theunion.com or call 530-477-4230.

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