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A Chamber of Secrets

Hollywood's Masonic temple, witness to the passage of time, is restored and reborn as an entertainment venue.

May 02, 2002|AL RIDENOUR | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's an impassive presence that seems to transcend the ebb and flow of Tinseltown glamour--a somber Neoclassical temple that stands in stark contrast to the evolving parade of movers, shakers, panhandlers and paparazzi that have passed before it. Built in 1921 as the headquarters of the Hollywood Freemasons, the property has just been restored and rededicated as the El Capitan Entertainment Centre by Disney's Buena Vista Theatres, Inc., but this is only the latest incarnation of a building said to have once had a tunnel to Grauman's Chinese Theater right across Hollywood Boulevard. These days it is best known for playing host to after-the-film playhouses for Disney's kiddie films.

Just a couple doors east of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, site of the first Academy Awards, the former Masonic temple sits squarely across from the entrance to the Kodak Theatre, the award ceremony's new home. And when viewed through that archway, it aligns like a picture that's been waiting for a concrete frame.

With the limelight back on this block, "the time was right to bring this building back to its original beauty," says Ed Collins, director of operations for Buena Vista Theatres. "The funny thing is, this building received its historic culture landmark designation in 1984, and it took us about 20 years to finally get a plaque on it," he says, pointing to the bronze tablet installed at an April 9 ceremony.

Renovations included cleaning and relighting the facade, new plumbing and interior lighting and enhancing the air-conditioning. Guided by historical records provided by the members of the Hollywood-West Valley Lodge No. 355, which now meets in Tarzana, crews restored original fixtures, including backlighted stone filigree, wrought iron torchieres, Batchelder tiles and old post boxes once used by Masonic officers. Gazing up at refinished woodwork carved with unfamiliar symbols, Collins, whose father was a Mason, admits, "I never knew what they did except that they wore costumes and did a lot of things on Fridays and Saturdays."

Hollywood-West Valley Lodge member Jerry Shubb, a former master of his lodge and secretary for the past 10 years, is not surprised by the confusion. "There are people running around who even think we're devil worshippers," he chuckles, "or at least some kind of dark, secret society. The truth is, we're not a secret society--just a society with some secrets."

Masonic ritual and regalia nonetheless can be quite mystifying to the outsider. A Mason attends meetings wearing a sort of abbreviated bricklayer's apron, and officers may wear medallions, carry staffs or don a top hat according to their rank. Members of other Masonic bodies, such as the Shrine, wear jeweled fezzes, and the Masonic Knights Templar don Napoleonic hats with flamboyant plumes. Prominent in fraternal symbology is the builder's trowel--a reminder to "spread the cement of brotherly love and affection"--and the architect's compass, to "circumscribe our desires." Shubb says the order's purpose can be neatly summed up in one simple phrase: "To make good men better."

The history of the Hollywood Lodge is inextricably linked to the landmarks that surround it. From 1903 to 1921 the members met in a structure in the approximate location of today's Kodak Theatre. The first master, Gilbert F. Stevenson, lived nearby on a five-acre lemon ranch, which he later sold to a lodge brother who built the Egyptian Theatre on the spot. That buyer was Charles E. Toberman, the whirlwind developer often referred to as the "father of Hollywood." Master of the Hollywood Lodge in 1914, Toberman was not only responsible for enticing Sid Grauman into Hollywood to create the Egyptian, Chinese and El Capitan theaters, but also for construction of the Hollywood Roosevelt, Hollywood Bowl, Pantages Theatre and the Max Factor Building. Before any of these developments stood along the boulevard, however, Toberman built the new lodge headquarters there, in 1922. At the time, the temple was one of the most substantial structures in Hollywood's sparse mix of buildings and citrus groves.

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