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It's No Secret: Local Shriners Welcome the Spotlight of Oscar Night

March 25, 2001|AL RIDENOUR | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With the entertainment world's spotlight on the Shrine Auditorium, site of today's Academy Awards show, the big theater may not seem especially "mystic." But for more than 9,400 Southern Californians, that's what it is: "The Al Malaikah Shrine Temple of the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine."

Better known as Shriners, these "nobles," as they call themselves, would be happy to share a bit of Oscar's limelight, if for no other reason than to dispel the idea they are a secret society. It's an opportunity they're especially eager to seize because their numbers are dwindling and this year may be the last before the event moves to the Academy's new theater at Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue.

"A lot of people really don't know what a Shriner is," says Willard Vausbinder, a retired police captain from Northridge who has been a Shriner for 32 years and functions as the temple's unofficial historian. "They think it's a religion. They think it's the world's biggest secret. It's none of these things. It's strictly a fraternity, a fraternity for men who are Masons." (Masons describe themselves as the oldest fraternity in the world, founded in 18th century Europe by stone masons who traveled widely to build cathedrals. Members have included Mozart, George Washington, Jonathan Swift, Rudyard Kipling and Gerald Ford.)

Shriners have a higher profile than Masons, thanks to their 22 children's hospitals (including one in Los Angeles) providing free care for children with burns or orthopedic problems, their circuses, occasional appearances in diminutive parade cars and, of course, their iconic red fezzes.

For the last eight years, Vausbinder has served as temple recorder, setting agendas and taking minutes during monthly meetings, which are sometimes held in the Shrine's main auditorium, and maintaining membership records. In 1988, he presided over Al Malaikah as potentate.

While Vausbinder admits that his familiarity with Middle Eastern culture is limited, he says Al Malaikah "is Arabic for Los Angeles." From his office, tucked next to the Shrine's main entrance, Vausbinder also oversees rentals of the auditorium (owned by a California corporation, whose stockholders are Shriners).

Last year alone, the Shrine Auditorium, which is across the street from USC, hosted the Oscars, the American Music Awards, the American Comedy Awards, the Soul Train Music Awards, the Screen Actors Guild Awards, the Blockbuster Entertainment Awards and 10 graduation ceremonies, among other events.

The pseudo-religious terminology used by Shriners started as a word game. The acronym for "Ancient Arabic Order of Nobles of the Mystic Shrine," Vausbinder notes, is AAONMS. "Transpose those letters, and it spells, "A MASON." All Shriners are concurrently Masons. Being Masons, they are officially members of an organization of men dedicated to "brotherly love, relief and truth."

Shriners trace their roots to a crew of Masons who in 1872 met regularly for lunch at the Knickerbocker Hotel in New York. "They got to talking about the ritual of Masonry, how dull it gets sometimes," Vausbinder says. "One was a medical doctor, Walter Fleming, and another, Billy Florence, was an actor, a comedian who performed around the world. During his travels, he met an Arabian ambassador living in Marseilles, France," he says. "The ambassador invited him to a stage play, where he saw people dressed in bright exotic garments and fezzes."

Thus inspired, Florence and Fleming opened the still-extant Mecca Temple in New York and soon this flashy new order, with its fondness for pomp and play, earned a reputation as the "playground of Masonry."

During a 1921 nationwide gathering of Shriners in Portland, Ore., Vausbinder says, "there was some, you know--rowdiness--or whatever. The Imperial Potentate decided we needed some direction, some responsibility, or we were going to just die on the vine." Shriner literature mentions in particular a loose-cannon musician wandering the streets at 4 a.m. performing "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles."

The Los Angeles chapter was founded in 1888. The original temple, built in 1907, burned down in 1920 in an explosive fire, which Vausbinder says resulted from the combination of an untested heating system and recently lacquered floors.

By 1926, the current temple was built on the same site, serving both as a location for Shriner meetings and a rental venue. Even glimpsed from the southbound 110, it would be hard to miss the Moorish detailing of its cupolas topped with crescent-moons. But its interior, Arab-influenced detailing is even more impressive: Everything down to the outlines of storage closets and cast-iron elevators follows the motif.

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