The year the Shriners partied in Detroit

Hundreds of thousands of spectators line Woodward for the first of three major parades in this photo that graced the front page of The Detroit News June 22, 1937.

Mr. Jones

Editor’s note: In early 1997 local historian Thomas L. Jones was invited to the Detroit News to present lectures about Detroit history to interested News staffers. His stories delighted his audience and afterward he visited our Reference Department and Catlin Library, acting like a “kid in the candy store” as he explored decades-old newspaper and photo files. Library Manager Pat Zacharias invited him to write for the Rearview Mirror project, an invitation that resulted in a chapter on cigar manufacturing in Detroit and another on the notorious Black Legion. Mr. Jones suggested this chapter on the huge 1937 Shriner convention in Detroit but he died on Aug. 6 before he could complete it. He was 51. This chapter is dedicated to his memory.

For three days in June of 1937, the city of Detroit belonged to a 100,000-strong army of partying Shriners from all over the country. They converged on the city in such numbers that they double-filled all available hotel rooms, camped out in tents at Fort Wayne, filled up 100 Pullman cars parked at the Michigan Central Depot, and made themselves at home on the largest fleet of passenger ships ever gathered on the Detroit River.

They left behind almost $10 million dollars. The restaurants did a land office business to the tune of about $500,000.

While in the automobile capital of the world, the conventioners spent $395,000 buying 455 new cars to drive home in afterward.

And everyone filled their suitcases buying huge quantities of liquor and souvenirs.

But mostly they paraded. The three day event produced three long parades that thrilled 1.8 million Detroiters. The election of a new imperial potentate seemed a minor event compared to the fun they were having all over the city. A June 23 Detroit News headline proclaimed: “Shriners frolic in hospital as children shout in glee.”

The Ancient Arabic Order of Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, an offshoot of the secret society of Masons, began as a group dedicated to fun and charitible work, especially helping children and hospitals. The costumes, parades, performances, trained animals and parades cheered the sick and well alike.

The article about the hospital visit, continued:

“Theirs is the most outlandish get-up of all Shrine apparel. They wear kilties, laced corset-style, and the panties that peek shyly from underneath are multi-colored. Their sporans are fancily beaded handbags. Their fake whiskers must be seen to be fully apppreciated.

“They didn’t pay any attention to the amazed looks on the faces of the youngsters. Fun was to be had and they got right to it. A burly villain who obviously had stepped right out of a story book picture, kept all the other madmen in order with a big curved sword.

“From ward to ward the party and squeals of happiness spread. It had to end sometime and the outlandish men reluctantly moved away from the gaity they had created. Leaving, to move on to the many other hospitals left for them to visit, they looked back at the small faces pressed against the windows, waving and laughing. And when the kilted nobles waved back there was no doubt that they were having one swell convention.”

A Shriner whirls around the dance floor with a pretty girl. There’s no clue as to how he got the bandage over one eye.

At one hotel, desk clerk Lee Tovatt looked up to see a horse waiting to sign in. Nonchalantly he handed him a pen. “He found out that down where this horse comes from they don’t teach them to write, but they do teach them to add, so the little, 87 pound horse added all over the place. He also learned it’s a mighty easy thing to give a horse kiss, because that’s what he had been doing with his convention spare time–giving horse kisses to all who bend over in the right general direction.”

The horse, named Brilliant, stayed with his noble in the hotel with no problems. Women and children crowded around with sugar cubes.

“If these women don’t quit talking baby talk to Brilliant and cramming sugar down her throat,” said the guardian, “they are going to make her tough to live with.” But overdoses of sweetness were everywhere.

Several delegations invaded the Detroit News building, wandering around entertaining the staff.

Washington Boulevard became the “Garden of Allah” for the revelers, who did the hula on the highway — Shriner talk for dancing in the street.

The convention attracted not only party types, but also major Detroit corporations who saw potential customers everywhere.

But the main business of the Mystic nobles was parading.

On Tuesday, June 22, a four-hour march attracted half a million spectators.

The groups, or temples, were arranged in reverse order of which group came the greatest distance to attend the Detroit meeting.

Detroit motorcycle police and mounted police, in lines 12 abreast, led off the parade at 9:30 in the morning.

The Moslem Drill Team leads the parade down Woodward past Grand Circus Park.

      Detroit Police Commissioner Pickert, wearing a Shriner fez, stood in an open car as the city and the crowd applauded the convention. The host Moslem Temple of Detroit came next in formation gorgeously arrayed in green with their scimitars displayed to the cheering crowd.

Next came Grand Rapids in green jackets, gold sashes and red pantaloons.

Then the Imperial Potentate, Judge Clyde I. Webster of Wayne County Circuit Court, rode in a pure white car with a special Shriners’ license plate, No. 1. He stood in the tonneau waving.

More potentates, bands and platoons with pantaloons and turbans followed. They marched to the music of 75 large bands dressed in bright satin costumes.

Imperial Potentate Clyde Webster, a Wayne County Circuit Court judge.

Kaaba Temple of Davenport, Iowa, brought the first float, a huge golden cob of corn atop a purple and yellow carriage on which proclaimed “Davenport–where the West begins!”

The Chicago unit, the largest delegation, was next with a pink and white striped group of caliphs drawing a golden sphinx and a live camel and a band of a 110 musicians wearing white and green and flying yellow pennants.

More colorful groups followed playing “Maryland, My Maryland,” “Dixie,” and “My Old Kentucky Home.” Zuhrah’s chanters brought a float of the “Little Brown Jug” with a huge gopher. The band played the University of Minnesota marching song. They also brought a machine gun float and one with nobles taking their ease.

More colors: red and gold jackets, baggy white pantaloons, green socks and white shoes. Rameses Temple from Toronto played “The Maple Leaf Forever” and “God save the Queen”.

It seemed there was no end to the bands.

A xylephone, Daniel Boone, a red and yellow calliope drawn by a silver car, Zenobia, Karnak Temple, Union Jacks, brass drums and on and on.

Finally the parade ended, but there was more.

An evening parade on June 24 attracted half the city. Between 800,000 and 900,000 attended Arabian night. There were people in every window, every crevice, every cornice; so precariously did they perch themselves on tree-tops and roofs, that they became as much a spectacal as the Shriners themselves.

The sight inspired one News reporter:

“Your reporter may sit four hours and watch the Shriners pass and he may make as many notes of what he sees as there are men to this giant ensemble, but he comes away with a confused sense of having looked at some thing blindingly beautiful and purposeful, with here and there a touch of not too low comedy to give the needed relief.

“The late Flo Ziegfeld given such materials to his hand, would have produced effects somewhat similiar, even thought the Shriners walk without women, because the stage is so vast, the company appears to be inexhaustible numerically and the colors that decorate the scene are summoned from every palette.

“A babel of noise accompanied the gaudy representation. Bombs burst in the air. Torpedoes banged on the pavement, airplanes droned above. The public address voice constantly informed the crowd, identifying the temple groups as they passed.”

Detroit companies spent lots of money — more than $100,000 — on floats that displayed their wares.

Ford Motor Co provided the largest float at 80×20 feet wide. It had thousands of lights and a ton of batteries to illuminate the night parade. Chrysler provided six floats, and other car makers also joined in.

Crowds happy to be up past midnight swarmed the streets in a scene reminiscent of Armistice Day. Ticker tape and confetti covered the “Garden of Allah.” The route of the parades were west on Jefferson from Elmwood to Woodward, then north.

Revelers partied late into the night during the three-day convention.

      The J.L Hudson Co contributed a company of costumed women illustrating the times and manners from 1881 to 1937; The City Pattern Works float was a ship with exceedingly pretty girls; Packard Motor ‘s float featured historic and recent cars finished in silver and star dust.

Cadillac Motor sent Ralph De Palma, the old demon race driver, in a car with masses of American beauty roses; Stroh Brewing Company’s float was a Bavarian Village garden. And it looked like those girls at the tables were really drinking.

Chevrolet’s float advertised the next national Soap Box Derby set for August in Ohio; the American Legion sent the old 40 and 8 French box car and locomotive manned by some legionnaires who gave the scene a war-time flourish.

Detroit Federation of Musicians contributed 30 men in dinner clothes making swell music, and even the Detroit Red Wings provided two dimpled darlings leaning on hockey sticks.

The floats sailed by for hours and the events merged into a feast of sound and color. The visiting Shriners whooped it up and then they left. The cars and trains and boats transported the travelers home. And Bagdad faded and became Detroit once again.

The Medinah Temple of Chicago marched in the evening parade on June 24, the last day of the convention.

The Kismet Temple from Brooklyn, N.Y., marches past.

By Vivian Baulch / The Detroit News