A Chamber of Secrets
Hollywood’s Masonic temple, witness to the passage of time, is restored and reborn as an entertainment venue.
May 02, 2002|AL RIDENOUR | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES
It’s an impassive presence that seems to transcend the ebb and flow of Tinseltown glamour–a somber Neoclassical temple that stands in stark contrast to the evolving parade of movers, shakers, panhandlers and paparazzi that have passed before it. Built in 1921 as the headquarters of the Hollywood Freemasons, the property has just been restored and rededicated as the El Capitan Entertainment Centre by Disney’s Buena Vista Theatres, Inc., but this is only the latest incarnation of a building said to have once had a tunnel to Grauman’s Chinese Theater right across Hollywood Boulevard. These days it is best known for playing host to after-the-film playhouses for Disney’s kiddie films.
Just a couple doors east of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, site of the first Academy Awards, the former Masonic temple sits squarely across from the entrance to the Kodak Theatre, the award ceremony’s new home. And when viewed through that archway, it aligns like a picture that’s been waiting for a concrete frame.
With the limelight back on this block, “the time was right to bring this building back to its original beauty,” says Ed Collins, director of operations for Buena Vista Theatres. “The funny thing is, this building received its historic culture landmark designation in 1984, and it took us about 20 years to finally get a plaque on it,” he says, pointing to the bronze tablet installed at an April 9 ceremony.
Renovations included cleaning and relighting the facade, new plumbing and interior lighting and enhancing the air-conditioning. Guided by historical records provided by the members of the Hollywood-West Valley Lodge No. 355, which now meets in Tarzana, crews restored original fixtures, including backlighted stone filigree, wrought iron torchieres, Batchelder tiles and old post boxes once used by Masonic officers. Gazing up at refinished woodwork carved with unfamiliar symbols, Collins, whose father was a Mason, admits, “I never knew what they did except that they wore costumes and did a lot of things on Fridays and Saturdays.”
Hollywood-West Valley Lodge member Jerry Shubb, a former master of his lodge and secretary for the past 10 years, is not surprised by the confusion. “There are people running around who even think we’re devil worshippers,” he chuckles, “or at least some kind of dark, secret society. The truth is, we’re not a secret society–just a society with some secrets.”
Masonic ritual and regalia nonetheless can be quite mystifying to the outsider. A Mason attends meetings wearing a sort of abbreviated bricklayer’s apron, and officers may wear medallions, carry staffs or don a top hat according to their rank. Members of other Masonic bodies, such as the Shrine, wear jeweled fezzes, and the Masonic Knights Templar don Napoleonic hats with flamboyant plumes. Prominent in fraternal symbology is the builder’s trowel–a reminder to “spread the cement of brotherly love and affection”–and the architect’s compass, to “circumscribe our desires.” Shubb says the order’s purpose can be neatly summed up in one simple phrase: “To make good men better.”
The history of the Hollywood Lodge is inextricably linked to the landmarks that surround it. From 1903 to 1921 the members met in a structure in the approximate location of today’s Kodak Theatre. The first master, Gilbert F. Stevenson, lived nearby on a five-acre lemon ranch, which he later sold to a lodge brother who built the Egyptian Theatre on the spot. That buyer was Charles E. Toberman, the whirlwind developer often referred to as the “father of Hollywood.” Master of the Hollywood Lodge in 1914, Toberman was not only responsible for enticing Sid Grauman into Hollywood to create the Egyptian, Chinese and El Capitan theaters, but also for construction of the Hollywood Roosevelt, Hollywood Bowl, Pantages Theatre and the Max Factor Building. Before any of these developments stood along the boulevard, however, Toberman built the new lodge headquarters there, in 1922. At the time, the temple was one of the most substantial structures in Hollywood’s sparse mix of buildings and groves.
The architect appointed to the project was John C. Austin, who later worked on the Shrine Auditorium–also a Masonic headquarters–Griffith Observatory and City Hall. The new facility included a billiard room, pipe organ, ladies parlor, ballroom and lodge rooms, and was described in a contemporary account as “unsurpassed for beauty, attractiveness and richness of equipment.” Rooms were appointed with custom oak furniture upholstered in Spanish leather and were adorned with symbols of the order. In those early days when Hollywood was an independent city, the city attorney, city marshal, city treasurer and first mayor, George Dunlop, all were Masons. Arthur Letts, founder of the Broadway department store and artist Paul de Longpre, whose gallery and gardens drew many to the community, both were members, along with prominent judges and a significant number of bankers. The city’s first newspaper and doctor’s office were established by members, and the city’s electric car service was owned and operated by brothers of the lodge.
Many Freemasons were also notables in the fledgling film industry, among them Oliver Hardy, Harold Lloyd, Douglas Fairbanks Sr., W.C. Fields, Cecil B. DeMille and D.W. Griffith. In the freewheeling days before film permits, the Hollywood Boulevard temple was even commandeered for some guerrilla location work. Lodge minutes record that “Bro. Toberman reported that he found a door in the roof of the Masonic temple open, also a broken window in the skylight, which had caused some damage in the walls by letting in the rain. Shortly after, while attending a picture show, he saw a picture of the roof of the Temple on the screen with a crowd of men climbing out of the roof through the door mentioned and a shaking of the skylight by them, they being employees of the Universal Film Company.”
When the Great Depression threatened the lodge, it turned briefly to renting out the ground floor to a social club, which embarrassed the Masonic landlords by installing an illegal slot machine. Though membership took a dip around 1932, World War II saw an increase that Shubb attributes to the desire of enlisted men to join a international network that could support them on their tour of duty. Masonry’s patriotic ideals were also well tuned to the times, and local Freemasons like John Wayne, Glenn Ford, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry embodied those values onscreen.
The Vietnam War era, however, was not so kind. As new generations turned their backs and older members expired, a dip in membership was observed nationwide. By the late ’70s, the Hollywood Lodge was again renting out ground-floor space to a restaurant, and in 1980 moved out altogether. Relocating to Van Nuys (and later Tarzana), it became Hollywood-West Valley Lodge. When expensive fire and seismic upgrades forced members to put the Hollywood building up for sale in 1982, singer Rosita LaBello briefly converted their old stomping grounds into the Hollywood Opera & Theater Company. When that venture ran into the red, the property was sold back to the lodge. In 1987 another buyer turned the space into a short-lived nightclub. By 1989, Buena Vista and Pacific Theaters were spearheading neighborhood redevelopment with the restoration of the El Capitan Theatre next door. With the completion of that project, Collins says, Buena Vista began leasing the old Masonic temple for special events, opening the space to the general public as a “toy box” for the 1995 premiere of “Toy Story.” The combination of live shows, videos, games and costumed characters was successful, and in 1998, Disney purchased the building and began regularly creating themed environments in conjunction with screenings. Buena Vista also rents out the space to others for industry parties, premieres, record releases and product roll-outs.
Sadly, Disney’s refurbishing revealed no evidence of the secret tunnel, which lodge members allege was used as an escape route for movie stars eager to evade mobs at premieres. Collins notes that Red Line construction would have obliterated any such passageway should it have existed, but Shubb is not so skeptical. “I have not been able to personally confirm it, but I was in the building with a member who was involved with maintenance, and he showed me the exact spot where he remembered it being.” With the recent death of Shubb’s guide, however, the existence of the tunnel will likely remain as obscure as those handshakes, oaths and initiatory ordeals that remain the society’s secrets.