Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, June 13, 2001

100 years of fezes and philanthropy

By Will Hoover
Advertiser Staff Writer

Nelsson Becerra Sr., left, and Rudolph McIntyre visit the Moana Hotel in Waikiki. Shriners were the Moana's first guests in March 1901, and, coincidentally, the Aloha Shriners and Moana Hotel each celebrate their 100th anniversaries this year.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

King David Kalakaua in a tall felt fez? Umm, maybe, although no one has found a photo. The clown wig and big red nose is more difficult to imagine.

Then again, he WAS the Merrie Monarch.

He was also the only king in history to become a Shriner. On Jan. 14, 1891, during a trip to San Francisco and against his doctor's wishes, a very ill king went through the ceremony that made him a Shriner; he was already a member of the Masons, a prerequisite for becoming a Shriner. Six days later he was dead.

Had the king lived a few years longer, into 1901, he'd have seen the Shriners Aloha Temple become a reality on June 12 of that year. The event that set the process in motion occurred three months earlier at the newest, most elegant establishment in Waikiki, the Moana Hotel.

This year, both the Shriners Aloha Temple and the Moana Hotel are celebrating their 100th anniversaries. The Shriners have planned events throughout the week in Waikiki, including a visit to the Moana Hotel by the No. 1 head Shriner himself, Imperial Potentate Bob Turnipseed of Hayden Lake, Idaho.

The Shriners, in fact, were the hotel's very first guests.

"The Shriners occupied the whole hotel for three weeks in March of 1901," said Tony Bissen, Moana Hotel historian. "It was still standing when it was over, but we don't have any report as to the condition of the hotel," he added jokingly.

The Shriners had been scheduled to arrive on March 11, the day the hotel opened, but the ship didn't set sail from California on time, and airplanes had yet to be invented. Instead, on March 13, 218 gregarious, fez-wearing revelers arrived in Honolulu Harbor and descended on Waikiki. The first registered guest at the Moana was Lou Winsor, head imperial potentate of the Shriners Saladin Temple in Reed City, Mich.

A total of 113 more Shriners checked in after Winsor, until all 75 rooms were filled. The remaining 104 Shriners found lodgings elsewhere in Waikiki. The group was in town to establish the Aloha Temple. Naturally, something of that magnitude required 21 days of discussion, not to mention untold trips to the Men's Lounge on the first floor, which was outfitted with pool tables, cigars and alcohol by the barrel and bottle.

In those days the Shriners were a less-visible organization than today. It would be many years before they would become known as the guys who tool around on funny little cars and scooters in clown getup. And they were two decades from the philanthropic mission to which the Shriners would become most dedicated.

Although the historical record is a bit fuzzy (some of it purposely so), the Shriners began in New York City in 1872 after a bunch of wise-cracking Masons who dined together at the Knickerbocker Cottage restaurant decided what the world could use was a fraternal order that was lean on rituals and heavy on fun and games. It was ultimately decided that an exotic theme might be suitable, something in a vaguely Moroccan mode.

Thus, the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine came to be. The order was filled with lofty symbols, mysterious regalia and hoity-toity titles. And, there were those red fez hats with the tassels.

Observers weren't sure whether to laugh or be scared. The Shriners were a Masonic order. There was an aura of dark secrecy.

Still, in the intervening decades, the Shriners flourished. Even before they settled on their ultimate purpose in 1920 — absolutely free hospital care for any child who otherwise couldn't afford it — Shriners had charted a course of good-deed-doing, coming to the rescue of the Johnstown Flood victims in 1889 and sending a king's ransom in relief money to those in need after the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906.

Today, there are some 600,000 Shriners in North America. The Aloha Temple has about 2,300 members. But the Shriners also have a troubling problem that service groups from the Elks to the League of Women Voters have faced in recent decades: Their members are getting older and hanging up their fezzes and younger folks aren't stepping in, perhaps finding such organizations stuffy and their rituals irrelevant. The result has been dwindling numbers.

Sociologists blame this trend on increasing work and family constraints, and competition from activities such as TV, movies, sports and other pastimes. Some, such as political scientist Robert D. Putman, contend that Americans simply aren't the joiners they were back in the good old days, preferring more independent pursuits.

Last year, the Shriners did away with the requirement that, in order to belong, you must first be a 32nd-degree Mason in the Scottish Rite or a Nights Templar Mason in the York Rite.

These days, to be a Shriner, one must simply be a Mason.

Still, the Aloha Shriners find themselves in an unusual predicament. They are a fun-loving bunch of guys with a serious mission who belong to a colorful fraternal order that's fit for a king. One hundred years after it all began, some wonder if it could end too soon.

Complicating the situation is a Shriner policy that doesn't allow the recruitment of new members.

"A person is supposed to ask," said Rudy McIntyre, librarian and former deputy director for the Shriners Aloha Temple. "I'm not saying that's always the case, but that's the policy. That's one of the reasons the numbers have gone down. People don't realize that they have to ask a question first.

"An engraved invitation won't be coming."