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Secret Handshake Central

Pageantry Abounds at the Masonic Museum

December 07, 2003|AL RIDENOUR

Think of Freemasons, and dollars to doughnuts the fez comes to mind. But what about false beards, turbans, helmets and chain mail? Worn in secret "degree" ceremonies and once seen only by initiates, these theatrical trappings and other fraternal artifacts are on view at the American Heritage Masonic Museum in the Scottish Rite Temple near Hancock Park.

"One of the things that surprises visitors," says curator Sean Foran, "is that the degrees are actually historical dramas with costumes, backdrops and dozens of actors."

Freemasonry began in England around 1717 as a society founded by craftsmen to foster spiritual and ethical living, and it quickly spread to the continent and America. In the early 20th century, Freemasonry was a hit with Americans who couldn't get enough of fraternal orders. Replete with arcane mysticism and symbols borrowed from the Egyptians and other ancients, basic Masonic initiation progresses in three earned levels, or "degrees," of allegorical lessons imparted in theatrical productions complete with props such as the stonemason's trowel and the architect's compass. Those interested in delving deeper can do so in such "appendant bodies" as the Scottish Rite; the York Rite, which uses images drawn from the crusades of medieval Christianity; and the Shrine, a distinctly American group known less for esoteric mysteries than philanthropy, small cars and fezzes.

Foran, a retired school administrator and Past Venerable Master of the Los Angeles Scottish Rite, began collecting material roughly 15 years ago and was tapped by a representative of the Los Angeles Valley Scottish Rite to plan a museum, which opened to the public in 2002.

The quality of Masonic stagecraft exhibited in Los Angeles, Foran says, benefits from proximity to the film industry. Many of the faux-Arabic robes and medieval tunics were created by artists working at the studios during the 1930s and '40s, and wigs and beards created by crews including Hollywood makeup artists Bud and Percival Westmore fill an entire gallery. The museum also houses a reference library with more than 5,000 volumes as well as a re-creation of the city's first Masonic meeting place, with furnishings on loan from the site, Lodge 42 at El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument.

The order has drawn fire from conspiracy theorists over the centuries, but Foran is eager to dispel misconceptions. "There's nothing secret about Freemasonry. No one's preventing anyone from walking into this museum or any library and learning whatever they want about us. The other misconception," he says, "is that it's a religion. It's not! We are a charity-oriented organization that has something for everyone in the family--not just a bunch of doddering old men."

Foran would like to see the museum attract the high-tech generation: Future plans include expansion to the temple's basement, where interactive pavilions would represent distinct eras of Freemasonry. "In the American Colonial Pavilion," Foran says, "we'll have a hologram that would answer questions, maybe Ben Franklin or maybe Washington." The basement's planned entrance is a simulated quarry, where visitors can experience a subterranean drop in temperature, emerging to view set-pieces and projected scenes of medieval stonecutters wrangling quarried rock into soaring Gothic cathedrals.

Realization of these dreams, like the journey from Babylon to Jerusalem dramatized in a Masonic ritual, is fraught with difficulties. "Everything around here unfortunately operates on a shoestring," Foran concedes. "We get by, but we're not the Getty."

The American Heritage Masonic Museum is on the second floor of the Scottish Rite Temple, 4357 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles; (323) 930-9806.

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