|1925 Shriners doing God knows what....
This is America. Which means that there was hardly a small town parade so insignificant—even the ones bereft of the High School Band and a fire truck—that it lacked a bunch of middle aged White guys zooming around in some sort of miniature vehicles wearing funny hats and vests.
In the immortal words of Butch to Sundance “Who are those guys, anyway?”
They are the Shriners a/k/a the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine who, by the way, are neither ancient or Arabian. As for noble, well, you be the judge.
On October 26, 1872 they dedicated Mecca Temple, their first, in the New York City Masonic Hall with appropriate ritual.
The organization did not have its roots in the sands of the Arabian peninsula, nor even among the Turkish Ottomans whose distinctive brimless and tasseled cap, the fez, that they adopted. No, its origins could be traced to an 1870 convivial lunch at the Knickerbocker Cottage, the favored retreat of the several thousand Free Masons then at large in the city.
Dr. Walter M. Fleming, a society medico endowed with truly impressive Mutton chop whiskers, and noted actor/playwright William J. Florence (born William Jermyn Conlin, an Irish Catholic) were commiserating that the somber rituals of their beloved Masonic Lodge left insufficient time for socialization at their evening meetings. What was needed, the pair decided, was an auxiliary fraternity of Masons dedicated to conviviality and fellowship. The two men determined to correct the situation.
At a second get-together Florence brought sketches and notes of an encounter he had while on tour in Marseilles, France. He was entertained at a party by an “Arabian” diplomat—although who or what country he could have represented is open to question, there not being independent Arab nations at the time. Perhaps it was one of the North African states. At any rate, following a musical entertainment, Fleming and other guests we initiated into some kind of secret society. He claimed later to have also attended rituals in Algiers and Cairo. The society, if it existed, was probably made up of Europeans caught up in the Orientalist craze that was sweeping the continent.
Fleming agreed that it would be great fun to dress up as Moors. He went to work using Florence’s notes and designed costumes, a logo featuring a medallion with an incongruous Pharos’s head and Islamic Crescent and Star suspended from an Ottoman scimitar, and a set of rituals. Despite the costumes, the new organization had nothing to do with Islam as a religion. It was only to be the theme of an extended pantomime.
Fleming and Florence initiated each other on August 13, 1870. Ten months later on June 16, 1871 the first eleven other members were initiated. Fleming was proclaimed Grand Potentate. After a little more than another year, the Mecca Shrine was opened.
Growth initially was slow. By 1875 only 45 members had been initiated. Recruitment was naturally limited by the requirement that all candidates must be 32nd Degree Freemasons. And not just any masons, only those from the Scottish and York Rite lodges. That excluded members of the sometimes politically radicalized lodges in Italy and other Catholic countries, as well as members of all-Black Prince Hall Freemasonry.
While it may have been a drag on general recruiting, the Shriners turned it to their advantage, positioning themselves as a lodge for “the right kind of men,” meaning prosperous, White, and Protestant. Practicing Catholic were forbidden to join by their Church because Masonic secrets could not be revealed to a Priest in the confessional. Lapsed Catholics, or men like Florence who were willing to swear secrecy in defiance of the Church were sometimes, but not often, admitted to American Masonic Lodges. Jews, although not banned, were not encouraged to join—and admittance to a Masonic lodge required the sponsorship of a Master Mason.
In 1876, in order to encourage growth, a national governing body, the Imperial Grand Council of the Ancient Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine for North America was created with Fleming elected the first Imperial Potentate. And it worked. Growth became steady and picked up as the Shriners became more visible.
By 1888, there were 7,210 members in 48 temples in the United States and Canada. In 1900, there were 55,000 members and 82 Temples.
With a wealthy base membership Shriners began building elaborate temples in major cities, most in a Moorish Revival style, often with elaborate domes and faux minarets. Among the most notable buildings were the Medina Temple in Chicago; the Al Malaikah Temple, better known as the Shrine Auditorium which was the home of the Academy Awards and other nationally televised awards shows and events; The former Mecca Shrine in New York City built in 1923 and now prestigious performance space The New York City Center; and the Yaarab Temple in Atlanta built in conjunction with movie mogul William Fox and known as the Fox Theater, one of the grandest of all movie palaces.
Whether on the grand scale of those buildings or more modestly in smaller cities, Shrine Temple typically encompassed a lavish bar, dining and banquet rooms, meeting rooms, ball rooms, and most importantly a commodious auditorium—quite frequently the largest and most pushily appointed in a city. These auditoriums made Shrine Temples cultural and performing arts centers, homes to theater and dance troops, symphony orchestras, concerts, conventions, and even sporting events—the Shrine Auditorium in L.A. was home for more than 20 years to the legendary UCLA Basketball Team who played on its enormous stage.
And, of course, the Temples hosted annual performances of the Shrine Circus, founded in Detroit in 1906 and which continue to tour the country, the second largest traveling circus company, after Ringling Bros. in the U.S.
Although ritual meetings and some social events—smokers often featuring boxing matches or other entertainment—were stag affairs, facilities were often opened up for balls and social events, in smaller cities usually the highlights of the social season. Wives and daughters of Shriners formed to auxiliaries of their own, the Ladies’ Oriental Shrine and Daughters of the Nile which co-sponsored events and conducted their own rituals and social events.
As the Shrine grew, so did its reputation for somewhat rowdy behavior and heavy drinking at its bars. Conservative Protestant ministers, especially the many leaders of the Temperance movement, began to criticize the organization to which many of their leading church members belonged. In addition to complaints that members were being debauched by drink, ministers attacked the Shrine as a shill for alien Mohammedism. In response, the Shriners ceased to call their buildings Temples, which implied a place of worship, although they continued to call chapters Temples. They also put forth a public relations effort to assure critics that they were not secret Islamists. They also ramped up public charity.
Each local Temple typically supported favorite causes, but in 1920 the Imperial Council voted to establish a Shriners Hospital for Crippled Children. It was quickly decided that instead of establishing a single hospital, clinics would be built across the country. The first Shriner’s Hospital opened in 1922 in Shreveport, Louisiana and by the end of the decade thirteen more hospitals were in operation. Admission was open to any child, regardless of race, religion or relationship to a Mason or Shriner with a “treatable” condition. Originally concentrating in orthopedic cases, Shrine hospitals are also widely known for their treatment of severely burned children. Until last June all eligible children were admitted without charge. Now those with insurance have their carriers billed, but those without continue to receive free care.
The heyday of the Shriners was undoubtedly the 1920’s. Lavish spending on new buildings and the hospital charity were made possible largely because of Prohibition. Because of the ritual secrecy of the organization and the social and economic prominence of the members, Temple bars rolled discretely on, almost never the subject of an embarrassing raid. The safe haven helped Shrine membership balloon and many non-members attended wet events. Shrine coffers seemed unlimited.
But the Depression hit the Shriners, like every other aspect of society, hard. In New York City, Atlanta, and other cities local Temples defaulted on mortgages or lost their buildings to tax sales. Which is why many of the grandest buildings are now concert halls or arts centers.
By 1938, however, Life magazine in a cover story was able to report that the Shriners were ”among secret lodges the No. 1 in prestige, wealth and show…the typical city, especially in the Middle West, the Shriners will include most of the prominent citizens.” They boasted a membership of 340,000 members in the U.S. that year.
Despite their well documented charity, Shriners also maintained their reputation as hard partiers. Shrine conventions could bring up to 20,000 members to host cities, boosting the local economy—especially bars, restaurants, strip clubs, gambling and prostitution—from spending by the notoriously rowdy revelers.
Today, like all lodges and civic organizations, the Shriners are challenged by the bowling alone culture. But despite a modest decline in membership, they have fared better than other organizations, likely because of their reputation as a fun loving group. They have attempted to broaden their membership by actively recruiting minority members. In 2000 they opened membership to all Master Masons, regardless of the Rite, but the biggest potential pool of new recruits were from the fast dwindling numbers of the Prince Hall Masons.
Today Shriners remain overwhelmingly White and mostly Protestant, but are no longer so exclusive to local elites. Most current members are solidly middle class, a mixture of white collar managers, small business people, professionals, and even higher level working people. My neighbor down the block, for instance, is a motorcycle riding elevator repairman who spends most of his weekends performing in a Shrine clown unit.
Now known as Shiners International and based in Tampa, Florida, they boast 340,000 members in 195 Temples in the U.S., Canada, Brazil, Mexico, the Panama, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Europe and Australia.
And they still like to drive those funny little cars….