Backtrack: Talk of the Town

In a city temporarily teeming with Shriners, silent-film star Harold Lloyd was the most famous man in a fez.

June 2017Add a comment

Amid an array of Shriners decked out in full regalia, it was a nondescript bespectacled fellow in a white Buick who sent shivers through the 150,000 spectators on June 11, 1941. The occasion: a special Shriner’s parade in Indianapolis. The man in glasses: movie actor Harold Lloyd.

Attired in exotic Arab garb, thousands of Shriners from 40 cities gathered at 16th and Meridian streets, then marched through downtown Indianapolis. The first of two parades on June 11 was so huge, it took a full three hours to travel the route. There were Shrine bands, drill teams, even hula dancers, each group more intricately choreographed and elaborately attired than the last. The Zor Temple members from Madison, Wisconsin, surpassed them all by prancing the streets on tall, hairy, spitting, knobby-kneed camels.

Still, it was tall, knobby-kneed Harold Lloyd who most thrilled the onlookers. Along with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, Lloyd has long been considered one of the “big three” of the silent-movie era, known for daring physical stunts like dangling from a clock several stories above the street in his most successful film, 1923’s Safety Last!. On this day in 1941, in a city full of Shriners, he was by far the most notable one. The next day, his Mystic Temple comrades would bestow on him the title of Imperial Captain of the Guard. He eventually rose to become the Shrine Imperial Potentate of North America, the Shrine-iest of all Shriners.

Lloyd’s signature stunt: hanging from a clock high above the street, as in this 1923 film still.

That day, on the front page that blared the news of a fatal Nazi attack on a ship, The Indianapolis Star provided some happier news, too: “Three-Hour Pageant Thrills Throngs as Tides of Color, Melody and Mirth Wash Dull Care Away.”

Indy’s history of Shrine activity had been ongoing for decades by then. The city’s order built the Murat Shrine Temple in 1909, naming it for a French general who served under Napoleon in Egypt. The local group had first hosted the Imperial Council’s Annual Session in 1887, and again in 1919. But the 1941 session, and its attendant parade, was bigger and more stupendous than anything this city had ever seen.

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