South Charlotte

Making everyone laugh is his aim

In his olive-green pantaloons, luminescent green socks and gray cavalier hat adorned with pheasant feathers, Neal Howes could resemble other costumed performers at the 18th annual Carolina Renaissance Festival & Artisan Marketplace.

But his bark sets him apart.

As town crier, Howes is among the loudest of the street entertainers as he walks the grounds each Saturday and Sunday, greeting visitors with his booming voice, boisterous spirit and corny jokes.

He's the town crier, he said, because his name is George Cry a Lot. He breaks down in mock tears and anguish as he tells festival-goers his name.

When he sees a child on the shoulders of a parent, he stops and asks, "How's the weather up there?

Pretty silly stuff, but he always draws a smile and a laugh.

His accent?

"A lousy Richard Burton," he said of the great Welsh actor who died in 1984.

He also gets the crowd's attention with the ringing of a bell and a hearty "Hear ye! Hear ye! Come to the festival!" or a bellowing of "The king is coming!" when Mayor Bullfrog approaches in the 22-acre, 16th-century village.

Howes also sings medieval songs with a group of other performers on the balcony of the entrance to the grounds.

I interviewed him at the festival, off N.C. 73 and Poplar Tent Road, a week before it opened Oct. 8, and he couldn't wait for it to start.

The festival, a private theme park that began in 1994, attracts tens of thousands of visitors each year and has grown from 6 acres to 20 acres of cottages, castles, exhibits, entertainment and more than 500 costumed characters.

Howes walked the entire village, pointing to where everything takes place, as food vendors and other merchants banged nails and sweated while working on their stands.

"I lose 10 pounds this time of year," he said, and that was no joke. The festival runs 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Nov. 20, and Howes walks the grounds the whole time, except for breaks. He often stays until 6 or 6:30 p.m., when the last visitors leave.

His voice never grows hoarse, because he learned many years ago to project from his diaphragm.

Howes, 59, retired after nearly 20 years as a tax auditor with Mecklenburg County. He lives in Huntersville with Ellen, his wife of 35 years - "she's too tired to switch," he cracked. They have three grown children and four grandchildren.

He's active in the Huntersville Lions Club and Huntersville First Baptist Church and plays senior softball in the local recreational league.

He's in his second year volunteering at the festival; he tried out after his wife saw an ad. He's an amateur actor and doesn't travel with the professional actors who staff the fair and tour the country doing similar festivals.

Howes was a natural, said Matt Siegel, the festival's marketing director. "He's outgoing, personable and willing to make a connection with individual patrons," Siegel told me.

For Howes, the role marks a return to acting, which he's loved since he was a boy.

He played the lead role of Winnie the Pooh in a school play in second grade in upstate New York and in fifth grade played "Mrs. Khrushchev," wife of the late Soviet ruler, in a satire.

Acting gave him confidence. Howes was 5 years old when he was struck by several illnesses that led to the loss of hearing in his right ear. He developed a speech impediment as a result, became withdrawn and lost self-confidence, he said.

But to this day he remembers what the Lone Ranger told him back then to boost his self-esteem. Actor Clayton Moore was a close high school friend of his dad's and told Howes, then 6, "You're somebody. You can do it. You are never alone."

He gives similar words of inspiration to each child with a disability he sees at the festival.

"Every kid, every adult, has to be told they're somebody," Howes said.

When he was 19, Howes had the confidence to head to New York City to pursue acting. He came away realizing that while he was good, some actors were even better.

He was told back then that he'd make a great character actor in his 50s, which is exactly what he is now. He also hopes to hit a role on the big screen some day.

For now, he's making thousands of people laugh at a festival that features everything from jugglers to jesting to jousting.

"If I can make somebody smile, I have done my job," he said.