Dressing Up: The Hamptons’ Favorite Monster

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the trouble that monsters are causing in Times Square in Manhattan. Times Square is a world of Walt Disney and Madame Tussaud and The Lion King, as you know, but it’s also public streets, and in recent years various people have zipped themselves up into Cookie Monster suits, or Superman suits, or Mickey Mouse suits, and have been making a modest living by tickling little children under the chin, having their parents photograph them, and then soliciting a buck or two for the privilege.

The trouble surrounding this began to get more attention this past winter. A man in a Super Mario costume allegedly touched a 58-year-old grandmother inappropriately and was arrested. Another man, when dressed as Elmo from Sesame Street, made anti-Semitic remarks (he defended himself by saying he was Jewish himself), and a woman claimed she got punched by a Spider-Man. The New York media have been all over this story.

And the bad encounters continue. Last week, a man dressed as Cookie Monster came upon a woman with a two-year-old boy in a stroller. The monster, according to the mom, picked up the child and told her “C’mon, take a picture.” The mom took the picture, after which the monster set the child near the stroller and asked for two dollars. After being refused—the mom said her husband was off at an ATM and she didn’t have any cash on her—the Cookie Monster said that’s what it cost, cursed at her and the two-year-old and then, according to the woman, pushed the two-year-old so he nearly fell to the ground. Husband, returning and hearing that something happened, went to police, who went to the police station to view a video of the altercation. (Time Square streets have surveillance cameras.) The cops then made the arrest.

I want to report to all visitors to the Hamptons that we have no people dressed up in monster costumes roaming our streets in the summertime (although there’s no law to prevent it), so there is nothing to worry about. (Yet.) I take that back.

We do have a historical character, however. He is a man who, for the past 23 years, almost every Saturday, has dressed up in a long black cape, an Elizabethan top hat and  black buckled shoes, and with a walking stick and a brass bell walks the streets, cemeteries and village greens of East Hampton (there are two) telling the history of this place.

His name is Hugh King, and in all these years he has not cursed at anybody, forcibly touched anybody where he shouldn’t, made any inappropriate comments about anybody’s religion or race and, in fact, at least to anybody’s knowledge, has never charged two dollars (or pounds) to have his picture taken.

Hugh King, for more than 30 years, was probably the most beloved teacher in the Springs Elementary School in East Hampton. All four of my kids had classes with him. He was, during all those years, gentle, kind, funny and wonderful, and he dressed up like you or me, which is to say, as a regular person. He was somebody who, as a parent, I greatly appreciated, hearing around the breakfast table all the things he said and did for all those years.

Turns out that in 1987, while still a teacher, he got together with the Town Supervisor at that time, Tony Bullock, and Town Clerk Fred Yardley, and it was decided that since Hugh was a history buff, he should be hired as the Town Crier.

For $1000, he would dress up in this colonial costume and speak about the history of the windmills, town greens, ponds, historic houses and even the historic 18th-century Clinton Academy schoolhouse– long since turned into a museum—all of which reside on Main Street in that town and are walkable from one to the other. The deal was $1000 in exchange for 20 appearances.

Hugh King, today, is no longer being paid to be the Town Crier. He does it because he likes doing it. He retired from being a schoolteacher in 1996, he lives on Social Security, a pension, a job as the director of Home Sweet Home museum, and as an overseer of the three East Hampton Village windmills. He is also writing a book about one particular piece of East Hampton history—the single time in the community’s past, in 1657, when the people of the town felt compelled to put on trial a woman they thought a witch. (She was acquitted.)

Mr. King often gives his tours after nightfall, carrying a lantern along with his bell and stick, going through the spooky village cemetery by Town Pond to tell his story. He also shows up at most village board meetings, where, at the very beginning, as a courtesy to him, the Village Mayor asks him to call the meeting to order, which he does after the expected ringing of his brass bell and a few comments about the expected agenda of the day, usually with a quip or two.

On the tours, Hugh mentions various facts, using town records as a source—for example, a document the original town trustees entered into minutes on Christmas Day in 1664. Yes, they met on Christmas Day. The document requests that the town approve, which they did, an arrangement whereby the presenter gives up his son into the servitude of his brother for 14 years in exchange for “sufficient meat, drink and apparel and to due to him as his own.”

You wouldn’t find that arrangement going on in a legal document today. It only goes to show, Hugh says, that in many ways, the old days weren’t all we crack them up to be.

You can meet up with Hugh King dressed as the Town Crier by joining up with the group of followers on his rounds by calling the East Hampton Historical Society at 631-324-6850.

At other times, you might find him around town, perhaps at John Papas Cafe, perhaps just walking down Newtown Lane, in his zip-up Hugh King suit.

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