February 29, 2020

Photo Essay: The Mystic Shrine for the Brotherhood of Ancient Angels

It’s the oldest and largest fraternal organization in the world, and yet most of us who aren’t a part of it are still mystified by its symbols, rituals, and clandestine operations.

But recently, Freemasonry seems to have piqued the interest of newer generations—and it’s shown signs of rebounding in the 21st century, with former lodges and temples getting reused for new purposes and introducing the uninitiated to the cryptic and enigmatic world of secret handshakes and ancient iconography.

The Al Malaikah Shriners—an adjunct group to the Masons—are still headquartered in the same auditorium near Exposition Park that they've called home since 1926.

Formally known as "Al Malaikah Shriners Ancients Arabic Order Nobles of Mystic Shrine," it's perhaps known better to some as a concert venue...

...or as one of the historic past locations of the Academy Awards ceremony...

...its architects, John C. Austin (a Mason) and G. Albert Lansburgh employed the Moorish Revival style both inside and out to evoke Arabic influences and Islamic art that would be appropriate specifically for this adjunct fraternal organization to the Masons.

And it's still all arches, spires, and domes.

Walk into into its Royal Street vestibule (open-air until getting glassed in in 1993) and stumble upon one of the Shriners' meetings, and its rituals may seem a bit mysterious.

But its philanthropic mission—providing child healthcare at little to no cost—is very real.

Founded in 1922, its Shriners Hospitals for Children is second only to the Shrine Circus—at least in terms of longevity—among the Shriners' current endeavors.

But this is Hollywood, after all—and of course the LA Shriners count among their former members silent film star Harold Lloyd, singing cowboys Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, Clark Gable, and more.

They all passed under the stained glass windows featuring the Shriners' insignia—a scimitar (or curved sword) with a crescent made of two claws embellished with a sphinx head and a five-pointed star.

They all lived out their fantasies of Lawrence of Arabia and Arabian Nights, with their turbans and tunics.

And the fraternity continues to attract new members who want to join Al Malaikah (or "angels" in Arabic).

When it first opened in 1926, The Shrine was the largest indoor auditorium in the world, with a capacity of over 6,700 seats. (It now seats just over 6,300, not counting the attached Expo Hall.)

This one was actually the Shriners' second LA temple, after their 1906 temple burned down in 1920. Fortunately, their replacement hasn't suffered the same fate as their first temple.

Today, you can still watch a show from the orchestra section or cantilevered balcony under the fabric of a plaster tent...

...and gaze up at the world’s largest crystal chandelier, 20 feet in diameter and weighing 4 tons.

Its auditorium has had a starring role in such features as the original King Kong, The Bodyguard, and A Star Is Born (the 1954 and 2018 versions).

It's also where Michael Jackson's hair caught on fire during the filming of a 1984 Pepsi commercial.

And although I didn't realize it while I was there, the Shrine also stood in for the stage and fly system of the San Francisco Opera in one of my favorite movies ever—Foul Play. (See detailed screenshots and scene breakdowns here.)

Outside The Shrine, it's hard to shake the feeling that you're looking at a mosque...

...with its two domes perhaps playing a role during calls to prayer.

In reality, they're probably just decoration...

...because at least one of them is just empty inside.

Under skylights elsewhere, there are hallways leading to dressing rooms...

...and beneath the dressing rooms, there are many more passageways, some leading to stagecraft...

...and others to the basement-level chorus rooms (with their groovy water fountains).

All the way up on the third floor, off the lobby area, there's the Grace Dee Mays Museum.

There's no shortage there of perhaps the most recognizable icon of the Shriners—the fez.

It's been the official headgear for its members since 1872...

...although it's not the only way to really drive home that Arabian theme of theirs.

Other references to Morocco an elsewhere in the Middle East also abound... do various depictions of clowns.

Perhaps it's in tribute to the troupes of members who dress up as clowns for hospital visits, charitable events, and other temple functions.

And don't forget Fezzy Bear, who rides a Rose Parade float every year on New Year's Day in Pasadena! As the Shriners Hospitals' mascot, he's the "Love to the Rescue" ambassador and provides comfort when no human can.

For wonderful photos of the Shrine in and out, click here

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February 26, 2020

Photo Essay: The Inland Empire's Last 'Golden Age' Movie Palace, Saved from Demolition

In the entire Inland Empire of Southern California, the California Theatre is the only movie palace of its kind that remains. (Especially now that the Fox Riverside has been given a major makeover, though it was never as "palatial" as the California.)

circa 2009 (Photo: AmeriqueCC BY-SA 3.0)

Located basically a block away from where Route 66 runs through the city of San Bernardino's commercial core—and built as a vaudeville stage and movie palace in 1928, just two years after the "Mother Road" was first established—the California Theatre is perhaps best known for hosting the last performance of Will Rogers (a fundraiser for Salvation Army) before perishing in a plane crash in Alaska in 1935.

Back then, San Berdoo was just a "railroad town"—but the theater itself was grandiose enough to book not only Rogers, the "poet lariat" who performed roping tricks while he shared his musings on politics and modern society, but also early test showings of such major Hollywood productions as The Wizard of Oz.

Fortunately, MGM execs (including Louis B. Mayer) came out east to attend the test screening—and as a result, the song "Over the Rainbow" didn't end up on the cutting room floor.

That was 1939. Will Rogers had already been gone for four years by then, though his ghost might've never really left the theater—or San Bernardino. After all, he'd joked about being able to do a better job as the city's mayor by phoning it in from Los Angeles than most politicians who occupy their offices full-time.

Shortly after his death, people started referring to Route 66 as Will Rogers Highway—though it wasn't officially dedicated as such (at least between his home state of Oklahoma and the Los Angeles terminus at Santa Monica) until 1952.

Like its cousin in Riverside, the California Theatre was opened and operated by Fox West Coast Theatre Corporation...

...but this one was designed by Los Angles architect John Paxton Perrine in the Spanish Revival (or "Spanish Eclectic") style.

At the time, it was considered lavish and luxurious, with plush seats and air conditioning.

According to a plaque erected by Native Sons of the Golden West, its architectural style was meant to evoke fantasy...

...a "garden of dreams" that would liberate audience members from their "usual occupations" and "customary thoughts."

And that was before the stock market crash that triggered the Great Depression in 1929—although Prohibition was already in full swing, and adults certainly must've needed some way to escape the doldrums of a sober life.

Like most old movie palaces, the California Theatre has got its share of ghost stories...

...though during my visit, I saw no shadowy faces peering out of the arched, recessed windows above the backlit marquee.

I didn't feel a nudge from any of the dearly departed celebrities that once graced its stage...

...or get a chill from any former chorus girl or stagehand who might've had their hearts broken or fallen off the stage during their show's run.

There was no mist or smoke, no orbs dancing in my camera's flash.

And the California's renowned Mighty Wurlitzer Theatre Pipe Organ—nicknamed "The Little TPO That Could"—did not play at the hands of an invisible organist.

Actually, I wish it had—because this Opus 1850 Style-216 model is so rare, it contributes to the theater's landmark status.

One of only a dozen or so of this type ever created, this one dates back to 1927—when it was built specifically for the California Theatre, which makes it the only such organ in Riverside and San Bernardino counties to still reside its original theater home.

After I felt like I'd fully canvassed the inside of the California, I swung around to the back and the sides of the theater to see what secrets I could uncover out there.

I just happened to look up—and see two huge murals of Will Rogers, painted by 1984 Olympic muralist Ken Twitchell in 1997-9, staring down at me from the exterior of the theater's flyspace.

It's good to see a performing arts center with such regional significance thriving in San Bernardino—a city that declared bankruptcy in 2012 (though it emerged from it five years later).

Now, the California Theatre has got a full schedule of legit theater productions as well as silent movie screenings—in addition to having hosted the San Bernardino Symphony since 1929.

But in the 1960s, such a fate wasn't certain—at least, until the San Bernardino Civic Light Opera Association stepped in. The organization's president at the time, Alexandra Grow Jenks, and its producer and GM, C. Dale Jenks, launched a campaign to save the theater from demolition.

The CLO bought the movie palace from the then-owner, exhibitor General Cinema, and changed its name to The California Theatre for the Performing Arts.

The blade sign out front that once spelled out "CALIFORNIA" has been removed, but it's still unmistakably the same old movie palace that's been dazzling local audiences for 90+ years.

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