This sublimely silly program has resided quietly in our ephemera files under the heading "Clubs: Masonic" for quite some years. I am so fond of it that I decided it was time to give it an airing, and in so doing could not help but ask myself some questions. Who were these dudes? What was the Kismet Temple they occupied? Why are they wearing this curious headgear? And what accounts for the sense of humor so unusual in items relating to fraternal orders?
In 1928 the Kismet Temple was located at 92 Herkimer Street in Bedford Stuyvesant, and the full name of its occupants was the "Ancient Arabic order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine." This particular program invites members to an initiation and wecome ceremony for the visiting head of the order, "Ill[ustrious] Clarence Martin Dunbar, Imperial Potentate." The "Official Divan 1928" lists members and their functions which include Alchemists, Imperial Bench Warmers, Camel Milkers, Purveyors of Sneer Zem Zem, Keepers of the Seraglio and Feedologists. The Illustrious Potentate of Kismet Temple for 1928 was Thomas A. Davis, of 151 Columbia Heights.
But by 1928 the Order was already almost 60 years old. One of the founders of the Order, commonly known as the "Shriners", has a strong connection to Brooklyn--in fact, he is buried in Green-wood Cemetery. William Florence, a well-known actor and a Freemason, was attracted to the idea of a new Masonic fraternity that would stress fun and fellowship. Taking ideas for costumes and ritual from a musical entertainment with a Middle Eastern theme, Florence, along with Dr Walter Fleming, created the ritual and costumes, and in 1871 the first members were initiated.
A Brooklyn Daily Eagle article of 1887 reports that Noble Wayland Trask "has been given the authority to organize a shrine in Brooklyn, to be called the Kismet Temple." At first the group met at 38 Court Street, but soon meeetings were held at the Aurora Grata Cathedral (formerly the East Reformed Church) at Bedford and Madison Avenues. Over the following years the newspaper reports on a series of Arab-themed parties, dinners and excursions involving "hasheesh" "zem-zem water" ball games and all manner of entertainments.
It was in 1910 that the Brooklyn Shriners dedicated the new, custom-built Temple on Herkimer Street near Nostrand Avenue. The architecture was in the Moorish style, and its auditorium seated 2,326. It was equipped with a stage, dressing rooms and an organ, with a basement banquet room and kitchen, a ballroom and a smoking room. The temple was built by Clarke and Stowe and designed by architect R. Thomas Short, (himself a Noble of Kismet Temple,) at a cost of $125,000.
Among 502 candidates initiated into the Shrine in 1923 at the Kismet Temple were Theodore Roosevelt Jr, Assistant Secretary of the Navy and the Rev Dr Newell Dwight Hillis, pastor of Plymouth Church. Other prominent Shriners have included President Truman, General Douglas MacArthur and comedian Harold Lloyd, who was a past Imperial Potentate.
But as with any organization, there was controversy among the Shriners. In 1929 the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a decision of the Texas Supreme Court, in the question as to the right of African American Shriners to organize lodges and use emblems, regalia and constitutions similar to those employed by whites. The Eagle noted: "So the Texas Negroes may be Shriners, if they flock by themselves, and no dignity that costume and formalities can lend to them can be abridged. The decision is a just one." There is much more to be written on this, as on the whole notion of a vaudeville-flavored oriental theme that reads so differently today than it did in the 1870s--but I'll leave that to someone else.
By 1966 white flight from Brooklyn was in full flood. The nobles of Kismet Temple decided to sell their Brooklyn property to the Friendship Baptist Church and establish a temple further out on Long Island.
Behind the brass bands, the games, the costumes and the fun of the Shriners lay a serious purpose. The organization has created 22 children's hospitals in the United States, Mexico and Canada. There is never any charge for treatment at Shriner's hospitals, which treated 125,125 patients in 2007 according to the Shriner's web site.