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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

The architect appointed to the project was John C. Austin, who later worked on the Shrine Auditorium--also a Masonic headquarters--Griffith Observatory and City Hall. The new facility included a billiard room, pipe organ, ladies parlor, ballroom and lodge rooms, and was described in a contemporary account as "unsurpassed for beauty, attractiveness and richness of equipment." Rooms were appointed with custom oak furniture upholstered in Spanish leather and were adorned with symbols of the order. In those early days when Hollywood was an independent city, the city attorney, city marshal, city treasurer and first mayor, George Dunlop, all were Masons. Arthur Letts, founder of the Broadway department store and artist Paul de Longpre, whose gallery and gardens drew many to the community, both were members, along with prominent judges and a significant number of bankers. The city's first newspaper and doctor's office were established by members, and the city's electric car service was owned and operated by brothers of the lodge.

Many Freemasons were also notables in the fledgling film industry, among them Oliver Hardy, Harold Lloyd, Douglas Fairbanks Sr., W.C. Fields, Cecil B. DeMille and D.W. Griffith. In the freewheeling days before film permits, the Hollywood Boulevard temple was even commandeered for some guerrilla location work. Lodge minutes record that "Bro. Toberman reported that he found a door in the roof of the Masonic temple open, also a broken window in the skylight, which had caused some damage in the walls by letting in the rain. Shortly after, while attending a picture show, he saw a picture of the roof of the Temple on the screen with a crowd of men climbing out of the roof through the door mentioned and a shaking of the skylight by them, they being employees of the Universal Film Company."

When the Great Depression threatened the lodge, it turned briefly to renting out the ground floor to a social club, which embarrassed the Masonic landlords by installing an illegal slot machine. Though membership took a dip around 1932, World War II saw an increase that Shubb attributes to the desire of enlisted men to join a international network that could support them on their tour of duty. Masonry's patriotic ideals were also well tuned to the times, and local Freemasons like John Wayne, Glenn Ford, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry embodied those values onscreen.

The Vietnam War era, however, was not so kind. As new generations turned their backs and older members expired, a dip in membership was observed nationwide. By the late '70s, the Hollywood Lodge was again renting out ground-floor space to a restaurant, and in 1980 moved out altogether. Relocating to Van Nuys (and later Tarzana), it became Hollywood-West Valley Lodge. When expensive fire and seismic upgrades forced members to put the Hollywood building up for sale in 1982, singer Rosita LaBello briefly converted their old stomping grounds into the Hollywood Opera & Theater Company. When that venture ran into the red, the property was sold back to the lodge. In 1987 another buyer turned the space into a short-lived nightclub. By 1989, Buena Vista and Pacific Theaters were spearheading neighborhood redevelopment with the restoration of the El Capitan Theatre next door. With the completion of that project, Collins says, Buena Vista began leasing the old Masonic temple for special events, opening the space to the general public as a "toy box" for the 1995 premiere of "Toy Story." The combination of live shows, videos, games and costumed characters was successful, and in 1998, Disney purchased the building and began regularly creating themed environments in conjunction with screenings. Buena Vista also rents out the space to others for industry parties, premieres, record releases and product roll-outs.

Sadly, Disney's refurbishing revealed no evidence of the secret tunnel, which lodge members allege was used as an escape route for movie stars eager to evade mobs at premieres. Collins notes that Red Line construction would have obliterated any such passageway should it have existed, but Shubb is not so skeptical. "I have not been able to personally confirm it, but I was in the building with a member who was involved with maintenance, and he showed me the exact spot where he remembered it being." With the recent death of Shubb's guide, however, the existence of the tunnel will likely remain as obscure as those handshakes, oaths and initiatory ordeals that remain the society's secrets.

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