The Jerusalem Temple
Glad-U-Kum to Mardi Gras
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY THE HISTORIC NEW ORLEANS COLLECTION
The best part was riding down St. Charles Avenue in the limousines right after the Hermes Parade. That was really fun!” Judy Walshe Whann (Mrs. Robert Whann) remembers of her reign over the youthful Krewe of Apollo on the Friday before Mardi Gras. Her ride up the avenue stopped short of Lee Circle. In those years, Apollo and a high school girls’ krewe, Les Pierrettes, held balls at the Jerusalem Temple building.
The Jerusalem Temple had an auditorium suitable for Carnival balls, plus a large room on the ground floor that could also be used for dances. As you entered, you could read an intriguing sign: Glad-U-Kum. The sentiment was kindly meant, and the pseudo-Arabic spelling was dear to the hearts of the building’s owners, the Shriners.
For some years now, a church has occupied the building on St. Charles Avenue at the corner of Clio Street but it’s best known as an oddity when glimpsed from a streetcar window. The design owes much to the Middle East, not usually an inspiring source for local architects. But Emile Weil, who designed this circa-1920 edifice, had as his clients a local chapter of the group called the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine and he delivered just what they wanted. We know them as the Shriners.
Shrine members are Masons and are proud of their long tradition of communal activities and ritual. New York Masons founded the Shriners in 1872, with the idea the new group would focus on fun and philanthropy – with a Middle Eastern slant. Officers were Nobles or Potentates, chapters were to be called Temples and the group used Arabic emblems (members wear a Fez, a flowerpot-like Moroccan hat) and language (Shriners might salute each other by saying “Es Selamu Aleikum!” — meaning “Peace be with you!”)
Jerusalem Temple in New Orleans was granted its charter in 1888, and by 1910 was hosting the 36th annual session of the Imperial Council. Future plans for building the local temple were outlined in the program of the council. By the 1920s the Jerusalem Temple was open.
The auditorium inside was a popular spot for visiting performers. In 1925 Paul Whiteman and his orchestra played there, under the auspices of Werlein’s music store. Whiteman’s program proclaimed that “the greatest single factor in the improvement of American popular music” was his setting orchestral arrangements for “that blatant method of treating music” that “came to be known as jazz.”
The actress Eleonore Duse brought her troupe with her from Rome. Ballerina Anna Pavlova and her Corps de Ballet performed an eclectic program including California Poppy and Krishna’s Wedding. Monologist Ruth Draper took the stage, as did motivational speaker Emile Coué.
Jessie Tharp presented the Abbey Theatre Irish Players, the National Theater of the Irish Free State, in 1932. Actor Barry Fitzgerald starred in Juno and the Paycock by Sean O’Casey and The Playboy of the Western World by J. M. Synge.
The Jerusalem Temple served the entire community at a time when some locations were not open to all races. Black soprano Dorothy Maynor had previously appeared to a small crowd at Dillard University but, according to The Louisiana Weekly, the “better seating” at the Jerusalem Temple meant that patrons should purchase tickets to fill the hall “even if it means a personal sacrifice.” Endorsing organizations of the event included the B Sharp Music Club, the Urban League and the NAACP as well as the Music Department of Newcomb College, Le Petit Théâtre du Vieux Carré and the Philharmonic Society of New Orleans.
An auditorium that could host such performances was obviously well suited for a tradition of Carnival activities, as Alan Smason can attest.
Smason has had a lifelong relationship with the Jerusalem Temple. “I still keep up my membership as a Shriner,” he says, and his late father, optometrist Arnold Smason, served a year as Potentate (president) of the temple.
The night before he was born, Alan’s mother, Annette Smason, was there, “dancing at the Moslem Ball.” Moslem was a krewe with Shriners as members. Shriners also sponsored a women’s krewe, Noblads (“the NOBles’ LADies”). Moslem would later merge into Mecca and then into the Knights of Sparta, says Smason.
Family connections to Jerusalem Temple were strong. Smason’s grandfather had a drugstore next to the building but moved up the avenue next to the Pontchartrain Hotel. His mother Annette operated Smith’s Record Shop adjacent to the drugstore; she celebrated both her 5th and her 50th birthdays with parties at the Jerusalem Temple, and is a longtime member of the Krewe of Venus. (“The year my father was Potentate, my mother was Queen of Venus,” Smason notes.)
Smason’s own interest in Mardi Gras includes writing scripts and narrating balls and parades. Groups he has served include the krewes of Okeanos, Iris, Carrollton, Thoth, Babylon, Mid-City, Venus, Knights of Sparta, Zeus, Pandora and Freret.
Mardi Gras days at the temple were a big event. “You could go inside for a hotdog and when you came out, there was Mardi Gras, right there!” Smason recalls. One year he and his late wife Sally had such good costumes (“I went as a Smurf!”) that only a lot of convincing could get them inside for the Shriners’ party.
Uptown high schoolers might have been to dances downstairs at the Jerusalem Temple, but when Apollo and Les Pierrettes had balls, the action was in the auditorium.
Betty Anne Gordon (Mrs. John A. Gordon) served as longtime chairman of Les Pierrettes, which had a limited membership. “The most you could have at the Jerusalem Temple, according to the Fire Marshall, was 200 members.” She still recalls with pleasure her krewe members: “They were so young and fresh, it was so nice to see it through their eyes – they were just delighted with themselves.”
At every ball the female krewe members would look out nervously over the auditorium. “The boys would stay in the hallways. There would be nobody in the call-out seats and the girls would say ‘nobody came!’ But then, when the lights went down, you could see all these black tuxedoed figures,” Gordon remembers. “ I think Perlis’s men’s shop loved us – the boys were all growing so fast, none of them owned his own tuxedo and they all had to rent one!”
The Jerusalem Temple today is owned by the Church of the King, a Mandeville congregation. The Jerusalem Temple Shriners have a headquarters in Destrehan. There is still a Shrine Circus annual fundraiser (Alan Smason’s father became friends with aerialist Karl Wallenda over years of working to bring the circus here) and Shriners still have their clown units, motorcycles and funny cars.
There are 400,000 Shriners throughout the U.S., Canada, Mexico and the Republic of Panama. There are 22 Shriners Hospitals for Children providing care for orthopedic conditions, burns, spinal cord injuries and cleft lips and palates. These hospitals have helped some 835,000 children – at no cost to parent or child – since the first Shriners Hospital opened in 1922.
And, to add to their other good deeds, the Shriners have left some fond Mardi Gras memories.