Tuesday, May 20, 2014

At the Shrine

All photos courtesy of the Shrine Auditorium website

I recently attended a college graduation at the Shrine Auditorium on the edge of the USC campus just south of downtown Los Angeles.  The building seems ripe for the ghosts of L.A.’s past given the distinguished hall’s history.

The place is home to the Shriners, or the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine founded by Walter Fleming and William J. Florence in 1870 in New York.  Today the organization is 340,000 members strong, each of whom wears the signature red fez at public events and parades.  In its long history, Shriners have included presidents, scientists, senators, stars of screen and stage, and professional athletes.

The Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, Historic-Cultural Monument 139, reopened in 1926 after a fire gutted the original building.  That 1920 disaster nearly killed six L.A. firefighters.  The auditorium holds 1200 people on its cavernous stage and 6300 patrons in the theater proper.  There is also an exhibition hall next door that resembles an airplane hangar.  Over the years, the theater has hosted all the major awards shows, including the Academy Awards.  In 1984, Michael Jackson was badly burned while filming a Pepsi commercial on the Shrine stage.  Frank Sinatra and Bruce Springsteen, as well as a host of other performers, have performed at the Shrine.  The unique Moorish architecture has served as a backdrop for many red carpet processions of stars as they made their way into the auditorium for a glamorous night of partying.

I arrived early for the graduation and was able to wander around the place.  Although worn in places, the hall is magnificent.  It has the musty, dusty smell of L.A. history.  The seats are plush and comfortable, and even the back of the expansive balcony offers a great view of the stage.  There are places in Los Angeles that absorb the years, and the Shrine is one of them.  As I wandered around, I could hear voices and audiences across time, and down in front of the stage I wondered what movie stars might have graced those seats, waiting on pins and needles for their names to be called and the orchestra to begin playing.

I’m not sure anyone at the graduation knew, much less felt, the history.  This audience was focused on its sons and daughters who moved across the stage into the rest of their lives.  The crowd cheered the graduates with the requisite horns and noisemakers, the hand-printed signs, the balloons and flowers.  I arrived in the silence of history, and my feet barely made a sound in the thick carpet.  And after all the hoopla and celebration, I left as the crew began to break down the risers and podium and sound equipment.

It is a unique and moving experience to inhabit the intersection of the past and future in the space of three hours.  The ghosts of the Shrine Auditorium stood alongside parents and friends witnessing the moment of transition to the future for hundreds of students.  Sometimes, if one is quiet and alert, the past, present and future exist in the same dimension.  The effect is magical.

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