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Elks Lodge Hit Hard by Membership Drop, Costs

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Times Staff Writer

For only the second time this year, Esteemed Leading Knight Herbert Smith’s weekly mortality report contained some wonderful news for his brothers at Long Beach Elks Lodge No. 888: None of the members had died.

The message was greeted by enthusiastic applause from several hundred people in the huge, concrete-domed Lodge Room.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Nov. 19, 1987 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday November 19, 1987 Home Edition Part 1 Page 2 Column 6 Metro Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
A story in Monday’s editions of The Times about an Elks lodge in Long Beach erroneously reported that there are 335,000 Masons in the United States. There are about 3 million members of the Free and Accepted Masons.

Twenty-seven years ago, the lodge boasted the largest Elks membership in the nation, with about 9,300. But, as fraternal organizations across the country have struggled to maintain their memberships, the lodge’s ranks have slipped to about 3,300.

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Death alone claims 120 members a year, and there are few new ones, particularly younger men, to take their place.

“Young people don’t seem to want to join old-line organizations,” said Harry Rybock, 69, who attributed the lodge’s deteriorating membership to too much “old blood.”

On Monday meeting nights, a scattering of gray-haired men sit at the lodge bar--192 feet in length and once dubbed the “longest in the world”--staring intently at a football game on television.

Stark Contrast

It is in stark contrast to the years following the lodge’s 1960 opening, when members would elbow their way up to the bar to watch the meetings on closed-circuit television after being unable to find a seat in the Lodge Room.

Now the headquarters along Willow Street, once hailed as “the most beautiful lodge in Elkdom,” is for sale.

The prospect will likely mean demolition of a Long Beach landmark, built at the dawn of the Space Age, that looked something like a flying saucer set down in the midst of bustling suburbia.

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“The dome” will be replaced by a smaller, more pragmatic structure due for construction on a parcel next door. Elk leaders hope that the new, $5-million lodge will attract a herd of younger members with its exercise room, Jacuzzi, handball courts and members-only policy.

“We’re trying to get membership of 4,500, and (then) let people wait in line to get in,” said Mel J. Hohlman, secretary and a former exalted ruler, the title given each year’s lodge leader.

The lodge is open to outsiders except on Monday nights, when the male-only club is sealed for the weekly meeting of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks. On two meeting nights a year, however, family, friends and prospective members are welcome to attend.

On one such night recently, organ music lilted through the chamber as those attending filled about 500 of the 680 seats. A somber mood was set by the dimming lights recessed inside the smooth ceiling, which peaks about 15 feet above the floor.

The Elks honored visiting “brothers” from other lodges and gave away dollar coins to entire rows of members chosen in a drawing.

Exalted Ruler Richard Wiseman wielded his gavel to order the doors shut. An elaborate ritual followed in which “knights,” standing at podiums marked “charity,” “justice” and “brotherly love,” placed an American flag, a Bible and elk antlers on a table at the center floor.

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When the lodge “esquire” informed Wiseman that the altar had been properly arranged, the lights were dimmed and a chaplain recited the prayer. Then the meeting was declared officially under way.

Over the next two hours, they went through more routines--reports on hospitalized members following the good news that none had died--then heard a talk by a world explorer, who laced the narration of a film about his trip to Thailand with well-received condemnations of opium use and cigarette smoking.

Pomp and Ritual

Although fraternal organizations pride themselves on the pomp and ritual of such evenings, it apparently does not hold as much interest for younger generations.

While the nation’s population has increased about 9% since the Elks’ national membership reached 1.6 million in 1976, the group’s ranks have dipped to 1.55 million today.

The Shriners’ membership peaked at 941,000 in 1978 and has fallen since to 850,000, a spokeswoman said. The number of Masons, now 335,000, drops about 10,000 a year. There are no national figures for Odd Fellows, a spokesman said, but “the trend is we’re still losing.”

Mike Kelly, assistant to the grand secretary at the Elks’ national headquarters in Chicago, blamed the decline on the hesitancy of baby boomers to join--at least until now.

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“The Elks outlook requires a certain maturity, outlook and philosophy,” he said.

Membership in the Elks is open exclusively to “American gentlemen.” That means they must be citizens, age 21 and up, with no criminal records. Atheists need not apply.

Until a few years ago, it also meant that members must be white. Rules were changed in 1973 so that Elk lodges are presumably color blind.

“The order is open to any race, color or creed, but they’ve got to be investigated and voted on by the members,” Wiseman said.

Retired policemen use their law enforcement contacts to conduct background checks, he said.

Despite the removal of the color ban, Hohlman acknowledged that the Long Beach lodge still has no black or Latino members, although it has a few Asians.

The lodge also does not have any women, who are still excluded by the rules. They must join their own groups, the Lady Elks or the Emblem Club.

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After paying a $50 initiation fee and $98 a year in dues, new members undergo an elaborate, 50-minute “solemn and serious ceremony” to become Elks. Seven Elks officers participate in the 23-page ceremony, and all recite their parts from memory. They compete with other lodges at the state and national level for accuracy and precision in presenting the ceremony.

Proudest Achievement

Although lodge officers have done well in state competition, Wiseman said, the Long Beach club’s proudest achievement is the $170,000 a year it donates to such charities as the Long Beach Food Bank, Meals on Wheels and the Long Beach Rescue Mission. A four-year effort raised $60,000 to buy a heart monitoring machine for Long Beach Community Hospital.

The largest source of revenue for charity is bingo. The lodge has games every Tuesday, drawing about 250 players, the vast majority of them non-members.

Wiseman said he joined the Elks 23 years ago because he wanted to do more charity work.

“I quit coming after about two months,” he said. “I didn’t see anybody I knew.”

At the time, the new Elks lodge boasted such a large membership that it was considered impersonal and cliquish. Wiseman said he did not become active again until about 1974, when the place seemed more intimate.

When the lodge was new, it attracted members in droves because the Elks had taken the gamble of building the facility in the suburbs near Long Beach Airport.

Housing Tracts

It was a time when Long Beach housing tracts sprouted with young families with station wagons full of children and downtown Long Beach, where previous Elks lodges had been located since 1904, started into a decline.

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The sprawling complex included a banquet room for 400, the lodge room that could be expanded to seat 1,100, shuffleboard, an Olympic-size swimming pool and a reflecting pool filled with waters from Elks lodges across the country.

The dome was topped with a fiberglass golden elk.

Today, the shuffleboard courts are part of a storage area. The swimming pool is no longer used. Even the reflecting pool is left dry because of cracks that opened up through the years.

The banquet room, which extended from the east side of the dome, was demolished to make way for an expansion of a long-term residency hotel next door.

And the fiberglass elk? It is still there, although pranksters sawed the elk off at its hoofs and turned it upside down about a year ago. Members returned their symbol to its customary position in about a week, Wiseman said.

On the block for an asking price of $4.5 million, the lodge would have limited use for any buyer, so demolition is likely. Wiseman said the organization has received three offers for up to $4.2 million from developers who would tear down the building.

The move is not without precedent. The Glendale Elks had to overcome a local historic preservation ordinance in order to tear down their lodge to make way for a smaller one in 1985. The old lodge was later destroyed by arson.

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Long Beach Elks say they too are stuck with a white elephant. The old lodge’s high ceilings and long hallways may have been fashionable when the building was dedicated in 1960, but it is a nightmare to heat and cool in 1987, Hohlman said. The monthly electricity bill for the 78,000-square-foot lodge runs about $10,000.

Nevertheless, he said, “A lot of our members don’t ever want to see it sold.

“It’s a landmark. They refer to it as ‘the dome,’ ” he said.

Although the dome may stir nostalgia among the Elks or local residents, it has not so far tugged at the hearts of Long Beach planning leaders or preservationists.

“It’s interesting and different,” city Planning Director Robert Paternoster said, “but I don’t know if it’s great architecture.”

Some of the Elks said they do not mind leaving the site.

“I’m looking forward to it. I consider this building kind of an albatross,” said Ed Guerry, an air quality inspector and Elk member for five years. “A lot of guys like it because it is so unique, but I don’t think it has the club atmosphere.”

Ernest Hardin, an Elk greeter, put it more bluntly, “We aren’t going to miss this place because the membership isn’t there any more.”

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