by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Shriners International, a fraternal order dating to 1870 when Freemasons in New York decided to form an organization based more on fellowship and fun rather than the elaborate and arcane rituals of the traditional Masonic orders, such as ones that included the brothers William and David Workman, F.P.F. Temple, and other family members.
One of the founders, actor Billy Lawrence attended a party in France thrown by an Arabian diplomat and this became the thematic thrust behind what was dubbed the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine (A.A.O.N.M.S.), otherwise known as the Shriners.
It was definitely a different era and the organization doesn’t play up the pseudo-Arabian elements like it used to, but from the establishment of the first temple in New York in 1872, the order spread rapidly during the heyday of fraternal orders in America. In Los Angeles, the Al Malaikah Temple opened in February 1888, during the famous Boom of the Eighties, with about 40 charter members and now there are nearly 5,000.
The Shriners are best known for its system of hospitals, with nearly two dozen in the nation serving children in such areas of orthopaedics, spinal cord injuries, sports injuries, craniofacial issues, and burn treatment. Since the first hospital, described in the parlance of the time as for “crippled” children opened in 1922, over 1.4 million children have received treatment with not far under 150,000 served last year, when $38 million went to research.
The local facility opened in what is now the Koreatown area of Los Angeles in 1952 and moved to its current location in Pasadena three years ago and specializes in orthopaedic services, treatment for burns, and services for cleft palate and lip conditions. The original structure is still extant and, at the time of sale, plans were for an assisted living facility for seniors.
Tonight’s featured object from the museum’s collection is a program for a “Spring Ceremonial” of Al Malaikah Temple, this event basically being an annual initiation ceremony for new members. The event was held on 17 April 1926 at the recently completed Shrine Auditorium, a landmark that still stands on Jefferson Boulevard and remains the home of the temple.
The $2.5 million facility, designed in an ornate Moorish Revival style, which was dedicated that January and could hold nearly 7,000 persons, was conceived as a venue for all kinds of events, including public concerts, which the venue still does, in addition to a wide range of other events including the Academy Awards (held there ten times between 1947 and 2001), the American Music Awards (for a quarter century from the early 1980s through the mid-2000s), the Grammy Awards (regularly from 1978 to 1999), and the BET Awards and NAACP Awards shows in more recent years.
The program noted that the event took place in the venue located in the “Oasis of Los Angeles” and “Desert of California,” with a business meeting at 7 p.m., followed an hour later by the ceremony. While news reports varied in reporting the number of initiates, anywhere from 150 to 200 of them were formally welcomed to membership, though it was said that 8,000 Shriners were there to welcome their new brethren.
The temple orchestra performed as did “a ballet of fifty child toe-dancers and a troupe of eighteen oriental dancing girls.” Another press account gave praise to the lighting effects at the venue and said that “the prologue and ceremonial . . . was one of the most colorful in the history of the Oasis of Los Angeles.”
One dramatically expressed page proclaimed “Sheiks of the Sun, Arise! Prepare Ye for the Pilgrimage” as the event, which was also denoted as a “Feast of the Prophet, found the “Illustrious Recorder” George A. Fitch proclaiming, “mark well the date—and for that day forsake ye the dollar chasing in the sordid tradesman’s mart—gather thy Arab gang, entrust thy goods unto the salves, kiss thy Sheba farewell, and steer thy camel’s beak for the sheltering dome of our godly Temple.”
“Illustrious Potentate” Dave F. Smith then exhorted, “being with thee a novice, that he may be unto is a slave, for him the sands will scorch and the rope will give way, and unto thee will be the golden book and the right hand of the pote [potentate].” The intention was obviously silly and harmless fun, but the casual use of words like “the prophet” and “slave” are striking for those of us reading them nearly a century later.
Smith also had a longer message of thanks to his fellow Shriners as he assumed his one-year term as potentate and assured them that “I will devote during my year all of ability and energy to see that this Temple is properly governed . . . [and] to be of all possible service . . . and to increase the good fellowship that already exists among the Nobles of this Temple.”
He made particular reference to “the wonderful work we are doing in our hospital[s] for crippled children” which set the Shriners on a pedestal as “one of the greatest benevolent organizations. A separate page in the publication discussed these facilities, of which there were eleven with two more to open during the year. He added that all members of the temple were to adhere to the dress code of “a dinner coat or dinner suit and fez,” the latter being the best-known physical element of the Shriners organization.
The publication also contained a page about a new magazine, which was to be issued by the first of May and which was to contain “the superior quality of fiction, articles and illustrations” as well as “its splendid typography.” The first issue would contain a mystery story, messages from President Coolidge, Secretary of Commerce and future president Herbert Hoover, short stories, material on sports, personalities and humor, an article on the Shriners hospitals, and a history of the organization. Illustrations were by several artists, including one who painted covers for Hearst’s International.
There was also a tribute to past potentate Louis M. Cole, who served a then-record seven years as potentate before stepping down in favor of Smith. Cole was lionized for giving “of his wonderful ability, of his magnetic personality, of his physical and mental energies, of his wisdom . . ., of his indomitable courage” in seeing through the work of building the auditorium, which replaced the temple that burned in 1920, the second year of Cole’s tenure.
Promoted, as well, in the publication were life memberships of $150 and the fact that these were not interchangeable with stock purchased for the company created by the Shriners to build the palatial auditorium. The corporation and the Shriners organization were separate entities, but the opportunity was also taken to lament how “discouraging is the slowness with which some of subscribers are meeting the payments on their subscriptions, there being over $75,000.00 that is long past due.” It was offered that there may be a time when, after the building was paid for, stock could be applied to life memberships, but “it is not feasible to do so at this time.”
Shortly after the completion of the “Spring Ceremonial,” attention would turn to the “Philadelphia Pilgrimage,” this being the fifty-second annual session of “The Imperial Council, Ancient Arabic Order Nobles of the Mystic Shrine” held the first three days of June. The selection of the city was because it was also the sesquicentennial of the Declaration of Independence. Shriners were to leave Los Angels on 26 May and fares were listed with accommodations offered at the Elks Club prior to a committee seeking hotel arrangements.
Several pages were devoted to lists of the “Official Divan” comprising elected leaders, trustees of the auditorium company, the high priest and prophet, and the various officers including ceremonial masters, orator, costumers, receiver of novices, and a director and many assistant directors; the Al Malaikah Patrol; the temple’s Chanters; the 50-plus members of the band and its officials; “Representatives of the Potentate” in greater Los Angeles and elsewhere in California; members of such committees as auditing, legal, relief, insurance, Christmas relief and Christmas tree festivities; medical; program; and others.
A page listing Past Presidents since 1888 includes a few prominent local figures, including the first, Freeman Teed, who was then city auditor and then became a member of the city council; Frank Rader, who was mayor when he was potentate in 1895; Robert N. Bulla, who was a member of the state Assembly and Senate; William D. Stephens, who after his tenure in 1904 became a temporary mayor after the resignation of Arthur C. Harper and then a member of the House of Representatives, lieutenant governor and, from 1917 to 1923, governor of California; Cole; and Motley H. Flint.
Flint, who was from the same area of Massachusetts as the Temples, was a powerful banker who served five terms as potentate between 1906 and 1912, the most prior to Cole. Late in his life, Flint was heavily involved in the notorious Julian Petroleum Company and, in 1930, while on trial for his role in the scandal-ridden firm, was shot and killed in the courtroom by a disgruntled investor who said his life savings were invested in worthless Julian stock.
At the back is an “In Memoriam” page to honor those “nobles” who “passed within the unseen temple” with 64 deceased members listed. A poem was included that noted:
There’s a rift in the veil and a light shines thru,
The light of infinite love,
Just a glimpse of the glory beyond our view,
Of the aftermath above,
But it binds our hearts with a wondrous power
To the broader life and true,
And we dream of that home, and long for the hour
When we shall be summoned to you.
This program is an interesting artifact concerning a few subjects of note, including fraternal organizations, charitable work, perceptions of cultural difference (white American men appropriating elements of Arabian society in a shallow and superficial way, but not intending harm in doing so), and the remarkable Shrine Auditorium, with its exuberant Moorish architecture and its legacy as a public events venue, nearing its centennial.