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Geffen houses a Masonic past

By Richard Clough

November 13, 2005, 9:00 pm

When the Geffen Playhouse reopened its doors last month with a
renovated main stage auditorium and improved acoustics, it took
another step away from its roots.

The unassuming stone building tucked away next to Ralphs grocery
store on Le Conte Avenue was once a Masonic clubhouse that played
host to scores of Freemasons and Masonic hopefuls and was a staple
of Westwood’s social scene.

Freemasonry is a global fraternal organization of mostly men who
believe in a higher power and engage in philosophic
self-exploration as an attempt at spiritual fulfillment.

The organization has been fictionalized and popularized in books
and movies such as the 2004 film “National
Treasure.”

The Geffen’s Masonic origins speak of a past association
between freemasonry and the UCLA community that was much more
prevalent in the early years of the university than it is
today.

In many ways, the Geffen is a microcosm of the dissolving
relationship between freemasonry and universities.

Freemasonry’s historic influence on education has been
significant, but while Freemasons were once a visible and viable
part of university life, even the mention of freemasonry on campus
today elicits mostly blank stares.

“One of the things that was common in the 1920s is that
there would be a Masonic lodge associated with a specific
university,” said John Cooper, the grand secretary of the
Masons of California.

Cooper, who received his master’s degree from UCLA in
1965, said the lodge associated with UCLA was the Liberal Arts
Masonic Lodge, which still exists on Westwood Boulevard but has
long since lost its university ties.

And while there are still over 70,000 Freemasons in California
alone, few of them are in college. As the visibility of freemasonry
on campuses has declined, interest in the organization has waned
among the younger set.

Rise of the Westwood Freemasons

Though freemasonry predates UCLA, the university’s growth
parallels an increasing Masonic presence in Westwood.

Freemasonry’s origins are not entirely clear. Basing much
of its symbolic ritual on that of medieval European stonemasons,
who prepared and placed stones for building construction, the
organization’s roots are widely considered to be at least
several hundred years old.

However, many Freemasons say their organization is often
regarded by the general public through a filter of misconceptions
and half-truths centering on the organization’s secret
nature. Masons do have secret handshakes and passwords, and their
meetings are often closed to non-Masons, but their stated
intentions are aimed at charity and self-improvement, not secrecy.
Founded on principles of liberty, fraternity and the search for
truth, the interests of freemasonry and universities have long been
amenable.

“Freemasonry in American history has often had a
relationship with university life,” said John Slifko, a
Freemason who is currently seeking a doctorate in geography at
UCLA, which explores the relationship of print and freemasonry in
early American civil society. “You see that throughout the
19th and 20th centuries.”

“But in recent decades, freemasonry seems to be becoming
more insular, crystallized, withdrawing into itself. It’s
lost its contacts with university life,” he said.

In 1929, the founding year of UCLA’s Westwood campus, the
building that is currently known as the Geffen Playhouse was
founded as the Masonic Affiliates Clubhouse.

The building was one of the first 12 structures in Westwood,
according to a history of the playhouse written by local business
owner and Westwood historian Steve Sann.

The clubhouse quickly became a popular hangout for UCLA students
interested in becoming Freemasons.

“There (were) not a whole lot of things to do there in
Westwood, so it was a social center,” said Cooper, who
frequented the clubhouse as a student in the early 1960s. “We
would have dances and social events for Masonic-affiliated
students.”

The clubhouse featured a ballroom, library, study hall, kitchen,
snack bar and dormitories.

Meanwhile, the national Acacia Fraternity ““ for students
who were Masons or were sponsored by Masons ““ opened a UCLA
chapter in 1948 at the corner of Le Conte and Hilgard avenues.

Frank Reinsch, a professor of German for nearly 30 years and a
Freemason, was key in setting up the Acacia chapter at UCLA.

Cooper was president of Acacia in the 1963-1964 school year, a
period of relative prosperity for freemasonry at UCLA. Cooper said
at that time, men could not become Masons until they turned 21
(today the age is 18), but since most of the students were under
21, they had to be sponsored by a Mason in order to join the
fraternity. In this sense, Acacia was a sort of association for
Masons-in-training.

Familiar names

Beyond the official Masonic organizations in Westwood,
Freemasons ranked among the more well-known and well-regarded
members of the UCLA community.

The namesake of the Tom Bradley International Center is one of
the better-known Masons from the Los Angeles area. Elvin
“Ducky” Drake, the legendary track coach after whom
Drake Stadium was named, was also said to be a Freemason.

Roscoe Pound, the renowned dean of Harvard University Law School
and a well-known Freemason, was one of the first faculty members of
the UCLA Law School. But Pound’s tenure in Los Angeles was
brief and his involvement in Westwood’s Masonic community was
not necessarily extensive.

“I don’t even think that I knew of anything that he
participated in other than teaching in the law school,” said
Frances McQuade, who started as a secretary in the law school in
1949 and calls herself the school’s first employee.

Though Pound, who died in 1964, was not active in Los
Angeles’ Masonic community, his presence on campus
nonetheless increased the profile of freemasonry for UCLA
students.

A declining presence

In the late 1960s and 1970s, freemasonry took a series of blows
on campus when UCLA lost its Masonic-affiliated institutions.

Declining use of the clubhouse led to its closure in 1970.

The building was sold to Westwood proprietors Donald and Kirsten
Combs, who converted it into a furniture store before it became the
Westwood Playhouse in 1975. Twenty years later, the David Geffen
Foundation purchased it and made it the Geffen Playhouse.

In the 1970s, a lack of interest in the Greek system led to the
closure of many fraternities and sororities. The Acacia Fraternity
house closed in 1974.

Stephen Doan, who graduated from the UCLA Law School in 1974,
was a member of the clubhouse when it closed but was not a member
of the fraternity.

“It was not very cool to be a member of a fraternity at
that time,” Doan said.

The 1970s seemed to ring the death knell for freemasonry on
campus, and the effects of the organization’s decline are
visible today in the advanced age of most Masons.

“There are 75,000 Masons in California (and) the average
age is somewhere around 80,” Slifko said. “It’s
really losing touch with that which is new.”

A lasting legacy

Even with the decline of freemasonry’s association with
UCLA, a Masonic presence on campus remains.

Despite the closing of the UCLA chapter, the national Acacia
Fraternity still has over 30 chapters in the United States, and in
1999, the fraternity started a scholarship for UCLA students.

The Frank H. Reinsch Memorial Scholarship, funded by the
fraternity and listed through the UCLA Scholarship Resource Center,
gives eight scholarships of at least $4,750 each to UCLA students
who are the children or grandchildren of Freemasons.

Angela Campbell, director of the resource center, said the
scholarship is a popular one, and had about 20 applicants last
year.

Additionally, UCLA boasts one of the few freemasonry experts in
the United States. Margaret Jacob, a history professor, estimates
that there are only 15 to 20 freemasonry experts in the United
States, including herself.

And despite the decreasing visibility of freemasonry among
youths, some Masons believe the fundamental nature of freemasonry
and its emphasis on self-improvement will maintain a younger
membership.

“A lot of men are joining the Masons who are in their 20s
and 30s (and) who are interested in the philosophy,” Doan
said.

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