Edmonton’s Town Crier

Pete Jamieson was one of Edmonton’s most colourful characters. For more than 50 years, he strode the streets of downtown, barking out all manner of vital – and not so vital! – information. The weather forecast, sports scores, the latest specials and whatever else tickled his fancy was broadcast with his loud voice and sometimes through a megaphone plastered with Edmonton Eskimos stickers.

Note: at the time depicted in this story as well as when it was written, Edmonton’s CFL team was known by the derogatory name Edmonton Eskimos rather than Edmonton Elks.

“The weather is continuing clear,” he would bellow. “Big sale at Kresge’s. Eskimos play tonight. Present time is 12:08. Winds are from the northwest and the high today is forecast to be 60 degrees…”

Always adorned with a flamboyant hat and sometimes wearing a sandwich board and sneakers and outfits ranging from the outrageous to the traditional, Pete Jamieson became a fixture in downtown Edmonton. He came to be known as Sandwich Board Pete, Pitchman Pete and Edmonton’s unofficial town crier.

His life as Edmonton pitchman began in the lean days of 1935 when, as Pete told it, he was given his start by Nelson Eddy. “I was working as an usher at the Dreamland Theatre and the manager was despairing because of the empty seats,” Pete was quoted as telling an Edmonton Journal reporter in 1978. “He asked me to walk up and down Jasper Avenue to drum up some business. I jumped at the chance.”

The manager was pleasantly surprised when Naughty Marietta starring Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald began playing to full houses. Soon, Pete was wearing sandwich boards and barking advertisements for other ventures, too.

“Jamieson’s vocal cords would do credit to any sergeant-major,” wrote Stephen Franklin in a 1957 feature for Weekend Magazine. “He also walks with a military gait and snaps off a smart salute to many of his thousands of acquaintances. The peripatetic pitchman,” Franklin called him.

My parents encountered his patter for the first time in ’57, shortly after they moved to Edmonton. As my dad told it, mom was astonished at the sheer volume and speed of Pete’s delivery. “She couldn’t get over this guy, walking down the street, hollering away. She’d never seen anything quite like that.”

Pete was indeed one of a kind. He was born in Dundee, Scotland on May 4th, 1908, and was just five years old when his grandmother dressed him in his best black suit with a big white collar and put him aboard ship to sail, alone, to join his mother and stepfather in the new province of Alberta. They settled on a farm near Innisfree, and young Pete also worked in sawmills, coal mines, dance halls and bowling alleys before finding his niche as an usher at Stettler’s Fox Theatre.

Being a one-man mobile public address system suited him just fine, and he was almost always out on the sidewalks, rain or shine, bone-chillingly cold or scorching hot. For years he would rise well before dawn, sweep the streets, drop by the police station and the courthouse and then begin his morning advertising rounds, which would take him along Jasper Avenue from 97th to 109th streets.

“I don’t know how far I’ve walked,” he was fond of telling reporters. “My feet won’t tell me.”

His voice, which Pete said would get clearer the louder he yelled, would ring out of the heads of shoppers with, as Pat Campbell wrote in 1963, “the volume of discharged rifle bullets.” He kept it greased with vast quantities of draught beer, which he would down every afternoon at one of a dozen local watering holes. “Well lubricated and weary, he retires to his tiny hotel room soon after the dinner hour,” Campbell reported.

One day in 1948, Pete disappeared with a baseball uniform he’d been loaned to advertise a ball game. Baseball manager John Ducey called the police because they needed the uniform for a player. As Rita Feutl put it in a 2003 article: “The police found the uniform behind the York Hotel, with Jamieson in it and a few beers under his belt.”

By the 1950s, Pete charged $1.50 an hour for advertising, which he would supplement with all manner of locally relevant information. Between 1958 and 1962, he was on CJCA Radio with Jim Hand in a Town Crier radio feature announcing coming events. He was often paid with hats, and liked to boast that his collection numbered more than 400.

As Pete reached his golden years, he grew a beard which turned whiter with each passing season. He never had much money and lived off his modest advertising income, taking a room in a downtown rooming house. “That’s the thing about this job,” he said. “I wake up broke and stay broke all day.”

Pete was slowed by a bad knee, and then he broke his hip. He moved into the Dr. Angus McGugan Nursing Home in 1975. Five years later, the National Film Board released Never a Dull Moment, a short film about Pete’s life directed by Peter Campbell and produced by Anne Wheeler. Its star, 72 years old at the time, was paid an honorarium and a new suit.

John Dodd wrote in a 1980 Journal review that the film “captured the poignancy of a court jester in a community that thinks foolishness is dreadfully unproductive. Faces turn away when Jamieson walks by. People who get their news on cablevision have little use for a town crier.”

Peter Yule Jamieson was as much a part of downtown Edmonton in its heyday as Mike’s News, the Alberta Hotel, the sidewalk photographers, Johnson’s Restaurant, the Palace of Sweets and the clock on the Selkirk Hotel. He outlived them all and died March 2nd, 1991, at the age of 82 years and was buried in Beechmount Cemetery. He left behind two brothers, Bill and Jim, and his sister-in-law Helen.

“Oh, I’ve enjoyed my life, as far as that goes,” he was quoted as saying in an Edmonton Sun article by Marylu Antonelli published on May 21, 1978. “It’s been a lot of fun. But, I’ll tell you, the first hundred years are the worst; the rest come easy.”

© Lawrence Herzog 2015

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