Mystic Nobles in the District

Shriners Parade, Washington, D.C. Nile, Seattle, Wash., 5/6/23 i.e., 6/5/23. District of Columbia United States Washington D.C. Washington D.C, 1923. [June 5] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2016826905/.
The 1923 National Shrine Convention kicked off with a parade of 25,000 Shriners marching straight down Pennsylvania Avenue, each adorned in their colorful uniforms representing units from all around the country. Pictured above is a group of Shriners from Seattle, Washington marching in the parade. (Photo Source: Library of Congress)

In June of 1923, Washington, D.C. prepared for thousands of men to descend upon the city for the 49th annual session of the Imperial Council of the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine. In other words, the Shriners were coming to town. Over the course of June 5, 6, and 7, the city would become a sea of fezzes as thousands of Shriners took part in a number of different events throughout the city, including a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, a massive concert at American League Park, and even an open invitation to overtake the White House by the President himself.

Shriners Parade, Washington, D.C. Harding & McCandless. District of Columbia United States Washington D.C. Washington D.C, 1923. [June 5] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2016826906/.
In addition to being the President of the United States, Warren Harding was also a Shrine Noble, and took part in many of the events and meetings held in D.C. throughout the convention. (Photo Source: Library of Congress)

Not only was Warren Harding the President of the United States in June of 1923, but he was also a Shrine Noble, and he took it upon himself to make sure that his Shrine brothers felt comfortable in the capital city. To accomplish this, Harding ordered that the entire lower floor of the White House be kept open for any Shriner who wanted to drop by as long as they knew the password of the Mystic Shrine— no invitation required.[1] As would be expected, the Shriners did not pass up this unique opportunity and swarmed the White House in droves, making themselves at home with the President and First Lady. Just after 10 a.m. on June 4, 250 Shriners, bandmembers and chanters marched to the White House Lawn to give a brief concert in front of the North Portico, which Mrs. Harding acknowledged favorably from the upper window of the House.[2]

A few days later on June 7, the Shriners would make music history again at American League Park. Nearly 6,000 shrine musicians, who had traveled to the District from across the country for this event, gathered together on the baseball field.[3] Each musician donned his respective and unique uniform, which in juxtaposition with hundreds of “glistening horns,” created a scene that The Washington Post described as having its “colorful effects a-plenty.”[4]

John Philip Sousa, 6/8/23., 1923. [June 8] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2016835119/.
John Philip Sousa, a D.C.-based Freemason and Shriner, conducted thousands of Shrine bandmembers in a concert at American League Park during the National Convention. He premiered his piece "Nobles of the Mystic Shrine" during this concert, which he had composed specifically to commemorate the occasion. (Photo Source: Library of Congress)

The man chosen to lead this massive, and colorful group of musicians, was none other than the great John Philip Sousa, a D.C.-based Freemason and Shriner himself. Sousa became a member of the Washington, D.C. Almas Shrine Temple on April 21, 1922, and was quickly made the honorary conductor of the Almas Band.[5] 

Sousa led the band in the premiere of his newest composition, “The Nobles of the Mystic Shrine,” which he had composed specifically for this occasion. The new march “evoked resounding applause from the throng in the grandstands,” who were undoubtedly excited to have a composition named in their honor.[6] Sousa then led the gargantuan group in another one of his popular marches, “The Thunderer.” The marches were met with such immense excitement that each one was played twice.[7]

After Sousa led his bit, W.C. White, leader of the Almas temple band of Washington, D.C. led the ensemble in a march of his own composition, the “Saracen Guard,” followed by the ever-classic “America,” and both selections kept the audience just as enthralled as the beginning of the program.[8] The concert concluded with the “Star Spangled Banner” bringing every one of the 20,000 audience members to their feet. The Washington Post remarked of the concert:

“The occasion was an unusual incident in band history. And it is believed that it was the greatest gathering of band musicians ever held. It surpassed in numbers the massing of musicians by Sousa at the Great Lakes naval training station during wartime, when he had 1,257 players together at one time. It is safe to say that the neighborhood of the concert yesterday never in its existence heard such a great volume of sound.” [9]

Shriners Parade, Washington, D.C. President receiving parade, Mrs. Harding & Pershing, 6/6/23. District of Columbia United States Washington D.C. Washington D.C, 1923. [June 6] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2016826882/.
President and Mrs. Harding, Jim McCandless, the Imperial Potentate, and General Pershing, another fellow Shriner, reviewed the Shrine parade from a viewing box along the route on Pennsylvania Avenue. (Photo Source: Library of Congress)

And if the Shriners overtaking the White House and the baseball stadium didn’t cause enough of a scene in the District, the convention itself kicked off with a parade of 25,000 Shriners marching straight down Pennsylvania Avenue, each adorned in their colorful uniforms representing units from all around the country.[10] President and Mrs. Harding, Jim McCandless, the Imperial Potentate, and General Pershing, another fellow Shriner, reviewed the parade from a viewing box along the route, smiling and saluting every man as they marched by. From floats, to bands, to chanters and colorful regalia, the Shrine parade was a sight to see, and Harding even remarked that the parade was the “best he ever witnessed.”[11]

Even with all of this unusual pomp and circumstance, the Shriners proved to be kind and welcome guests in the District, accepting the hospitality of their hosts and abiding by any official orders they were given. Indeed, the group who set out to prove this “the greatest national homecoming,” succeeded in making it “a gathering of the faithful of the Shrine in the shrine of all the States, and the greatest republic on earth.”[12]

Click to listen to the U.S. Marine Band performing Sousa's "Nobles of the Mystic Shrine" march.

Footnotes

  1. ^ The Washington Post (1923-1954); Washington, D.C. 1923. “Noble Harding Keeps Open House For Host of Visiting Shrine Brothers: Entire Lower Floor of White House Thrown Open; Password Open Sesame,” June 5, 1923. http://search.proquest.com/hnpwashingtonpost/docview/149361768/abstract/....
  2. ^ Ibid.
  3. ^ “United States Marine Band ‘The President’s Own’ Program Notes.” 2020. The United States Marine Band. https://www.marineband.marines.mil/Portals/175/Docs/Programs/020220.pdf?....
  4. ^ The Washington Post (1923-1954); Washington, D.C. 1923. “3,509 INSTRUMENTS IN MASSED CONCERT: Nobles Sousa and White Lead Bands Before 20,000 Shriners and Their Friends.,” June 8, 1923. http://search.proquest.com/docview/149326268/abstract/DCB9BC99BABF4F74PQ/1.
  5. ^ Dugan, Major Patrick W. 2018. “The Nobles of the Mystic Shrine Bands.” SBO. August 30, 2018. https://sbomagazine.com/current-issue/6294-the-nobles-of-the-mystic-shri....
  6. ^ The Washington Post (1923-1954); Washington, D.C. 1923. “3,509 INSTRUMENTS IN MASSED CONCERT: Nobles Sousa and White Lead Bands Before 20,000 Shriners and Their Friends.,” June 8, 1923. http://search.proquest.com/docview/149326268/abstract/DCB9BC99BABF4F74PQ/1.
  7. ^ Ibid.
  8. ^ Ibid.
  9. ^ Ibid.
  10. ^ The Washington Post (1923-1954); Washington, D.C. 1923. “25,000 Nobles Act as Escort of Leader to Meeting: President Speaks and Dignitaries Attend,” June 6, 1923. http://search.proquest.com/hnpwashingtonpost/docview/149355912/abstract/....
  11. ^ Ibid.
  12. ^ Ibid.