, Muskogee, OK

December 13, 2009

Bringing back a treasure

Let’s breathe life into Masonic Temple theater

By Wren Stratton

It must have been quite a leap of faith in 1926 to build our Masonic Temple.

Here we were, this pioneer town and the temple was huge by any standards. The Masons had been chartered in Muskogee in 1888 and the crowd that gathered for the temple corner stone laying in March 1925 were in the hundreds. The land was Creek, donated by Chief Pleasant Porter. For 83 years it has stood as sentinel over our downtown, on Sixth Street, just off Okmulgee Avenue.

Watching and waiting

In the day, after an evening of theater, you simply climbed the staircase to the roof for an evening of dance. Did you know Tony Goetz conducted the Shriner Band and that his funeral was held at the temple?

I grew up as a Rainbow Girl at the temple, my first excuse for a floor-length dress. Demolay was a pretty big deal then, too. They have some very cool historical pieces still there, like a Simplex Movie Projector from the 1920s.

My reason for revisiting the temple was an interest in the theater which resides in the heart of the building. The theater is on the main floor and is surrounded by the grand rooms where the different Masonic groups meet. In the basement of the building is a 6,500-square-foot dining room perfect for dinners and parties, with a great kitchen.

But the theater . . . aaaah the theater. It seats 1,700 with the original seats, not in too bad shape. They have brass numbering still in place. The stage is wonderful, the flooring still in good shape. (Okay, maybe a few rotten places but they are not in the main area.) The riggings and curtains all need to be replaced. But there is space above the stage, fly space for drops, and there are great dressing rooms in the basement. The foyer sports arched doorways and a glassed in ticket booth. Does it look elegant and full of character? Absolutely.

The expensive down side to the theater is a lack of air conditioning. Also, the electricity needs to be updated and probably better stage lighting should be done.

I talked with a group of men, who obviously love the building and are trying desperately to find a way to bring her back. They are on the brink of pursuing State Historical Designation, just need to push through the associated bureaucracy.

Their hope is that if they could get the money to put in the air conditioning, maybe they could make it more available for arts and other events year-round. Something I didn’t realize is that the Shriners and Masons are two separate entities.

When the Masons host a charitable event, all the money goes to the receiving charity, not the Masons. They have not traditionally raised money just for the temple. But that is changing. They have established a Masonic Temple Foundation. As you might imagine, utilities and just generally keeping her from deteriorating any further, eat up the funds.

Once you’ve seen her, you can’t help but be caught up in the romance of the building. She is a grand old lady and deserves our love and attention. I guarantee if we could pull the money together, she would make a wonderful addition to the arts venues of Muskogee. Maybe just one step at a time.

If you have an interest in supporting arts events at the temple, then the contact is John Mills, president of the Building Board Association, at 869-9712.

She’s been watching, as Muskogee grew and changed. She has seen an entire generation of folks born and died. The temple is waiting patiently for her moment once again to hold her rightful place in our community as a source of beauty and pride.