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.
But it is in the auditorium where the theme explodes. The ceiling, which looks like a sheik's tent with billowing curves and an ornately patterned canopy, is rendered in plaster. From the center hangs a chandelier worthy of an emir's palace. Dripping with crystals, and glittering with 500 bulbs, it is nearly three stories tall.
"People come from all over the world to see this thing, because the TV cameras start right on it every time we have a show here," says Vausbinder.
Besides the opulence of the decor, there's the seating. Although Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, which in the past has competed for the Oscars crowd, can seat only a little more than 3,000, the Shrine seats 6,300.
The auditorium's most recent improvement was the $200,000 refurbishing of its organ, one of the country's largest with 4,485 pipes, and stops capable of mimicking anything from chirping birds to thunderclaps. Most of the money from rental fees (for everything from college graduations and Frank Sinatra's 80th birthday gala in 1996) goes back into building upkeep.
Behind a 5-ton curtain, 83 scenery drops hang above the massive stage. "USC and UCLA used to play their basketball games on this stage," says Vausbinder. "And this is where we have our two-ring circus," he says, pointing out the elephant-size door to the rear.
In fact, the stage can accommodate animals larger than mere elephants. In 1933, it was used as the backdrop for the presentation of a chained King Kong. Judy Garland walked the stage in "A Star Is Born," as did Val Kilmer in "The Doors."
"Here's the spot," says Vausbinder. "It's right here where Michael Jackson was filming that Pepsi commercial when his hair caught on fire."
At its opening in 1926, the shrine was the nation's largest theater, and for the next four decades, until the completion of the Music Center in 1965, it was the only major cultural venue in Los Angeles. The architects appointed to the job were some of the city's finest, including A.M. Edelman, noted for his theater design, G. Albert Lansburgh (the Wiltern and ElCapitan theaters) and John C. Austin (Griffith Park Observatory and L.A. City Hall).
Today, in an upstairs room of the Shrine, some of Al Malaikah's history is preserved. It's a small museum open by appointment and filled with mannequins costumed in arabesque vests and pantaloons. These are the ceremonial outfits of the 11 units within Al Malaikah. Many are dedicated to marching in parades, such as the Tournament of Roses. The Mossafers, an "Arabic band," are perhaps the most flamboyant, donning false beards and plumed turbans for their outings.
The clown unit entertains at hospitals and schools. Al Malaikah has no miniature parade cars, says Vausbinder. "What we have here are the old Model T paddy wagon and police roadster. That's what the Al Malaikah Koppers drive," he says, gesturing toward a mannequin dressed as a Keystone Kop.
The Shriners have long-standing Hollywood ties. Vausbinder points out a picture of Harold Lloyd, noting that the actor not only served locally as chief rabban (second-in-command) but also as imperial potentate, the highest office in North America. Tom Mix, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Buck Jones and John Wayne were also members. The Duke, in fact, donated his movie guns to the temple. Mel Blanc and Red Skelton were members (Skelton in the clown unit). Glenn Ford and Michael Richards (of "Seinfeld") are still on the rosters, and "Ernie Borgnine," he says, "just participated in a ceremonial last year."
Pausing before a display of fezzes, including one from the cap's namesake town in Morocco, Vausbinder explains that they can be worn only after initiation. And the initiation, he insists, is not secret. "It's only a secret up until the time you go into it."
Shrine initiation, for Vausbinder, was less nerve-racking than receiving the Masonic "third degree," to become a Master Mason. Though ostensibly secret, it's widely understood to involve relentless questioning (as in "getting the third degree") and intimidating theatrics.
When pressed for details, however, Vausbinder gets defensive. "I don't know! You go through the Masonic order and you'll find out!" he says. "And frankly, I don't know why you don't. I have applications right here." A busy schedule, he says, is no excuse.
If Vausbinder is edgy, it's because Shriners are a dying breed. Even during a chat with a reporter, he's taking calls regarding funeral arrangements for his predecessor. The Shrine's national Web site reports a loss of "46 nobles every 24 hours," and Al Malaikah's newspaper lists more than 30 nobles in 30 days upon whom "the Black Camel has called."
He's hoping the attention showered on the Shrine Auditorium today by Oscar-watchers can help. "After a big show, a lot of people want to see the place, and I'm happy to show it," he says. "That's how we get the word out. That's something we really want to do."