Kicking Up their Heels: Week of July 9th, 1921

Cocoanut Grove

One hundred years ago this week, an estimated 100,000 Elks invaded Los Angeles (population 576,573 in 1920) for their annual Grand Lodge Reunion, aka convention. According to Grace Kingsley, they were everywhere. Of course, they sampled the local night life, and she reported:

The Cocoanut Grove at the Ambassador is a lively little jungle these days, with the Elks and picture stars foregathering there every night for a little stepping, with tonight the night of the grand ball.

Buster Keaton unselfishly introduced his bride, Natalie Talmadge, to no less than twenty-five admiring Elks. One of these Elks, by the way, insisted on dancing with Natalie three times in succession. Evidently he hadn’t caught her name when introduced, and he didn’t know she was married. He was an energetic stepper, a trifle stout, and between steps he managed to remark “Wish I might call to see you some day!” “We’d be pleased to see you,” answered Natalie demurely, and that seemed to be all there was going to be of the incident for the time being. But when they stopped dancing the Elk managed to whisper to Keaton:

“She’s a peach. I like her.”

“She is,” acquiesced Buster. “So do I.”

“Let’s call on her,” suggested the Elk.

“All right,” said Buster.

And isn’t that Elk going to be surprised.

Buster Keaton and Natalie Talmadge

Keaton and Talmadge had just been married on May 31st, and plainly at that point no Elk would come between them. What’s remarkable now is that movie stars could go out in public without worrying about their safety.

Mary Newcomb

Kingsley had another tale of an Elk getting swatted down. Mary Newcomb, who was playing a journalist on stage in Parlor, Bedroom and Bath at the Majestic, got a mash note from a man in the audience:

Dear Miss, I’m a poor lonely Elk, wandering the wilderness of Los Angeles and scared every minute of being shot or, anyway, half shot. I think you’re the cutest girl I ever saw on stage. Will you take supper with me this evening?

Somehow, that invitation did not tempt her, and she graciously declined.

The Elks were a bunch of party animals! The convention lasted five days, with events held in different, far-flung locations* each day. Monday was Redondo Beach Day, and the Los Angeles Herald reported, “The Elks took a flying start yesterday on their week of festivities and landed in Redondo Beach with such a wallop that the earth vibrations will not cease for many days to come.” Tens of thousands of them turned up in the small town. In the morning, they gathered at the local Elks clubhouse for a reception and barbeque. Many lodges had their own band, and they played under every tree. Elks went for a swim and visited the boardwalk, and “the streets throbbed with their shouts of greeting and their laughter.” They held swimming and diving competitions. At 4 o’clock, they had a Marine Fashion Review, which was a parade with 85 women in bathing suits riding in cars followed by Elk marching bands and drill teams from Michigan, Texas, Colorado, California, and Washington. From 5 to 7 o’clock the bands went back to performing throughout Redondo Beach, and at 8 o’clock they held a dance. The fireworks were at 9:30, and the day ended with a midnight “girlie” show (no other details were given in the family newspaper about that event).

There weren’t enough hotels to hold them all, so some Elks camped out in Exposition Park. Here are Mr. and Mrs. William Sparks and their tent.

Tuesday was Santa Monica’s turn, and on Wednesday they were in Inglewood, Thursday in Long Beach and Friday in Pasadena. No one place could withstand the invasion for too long!  Exposition Park also hosted drill and band competitions and barbeques, and the city closed the streets of downtown several times for parades, including an evening electrical parade put on by the movie studios. The local newspapers helpfully published the program, so locals could observe or avoid the proceedings as they chose.

The new Grand Exalted Ruler, W.W. Mountain 

A little club business did get done; on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings they had meetings at the Philharmonic Theater in downtown L.A., where they elected W.W. Mountain their new Grand Exalted Ruler (the president) and the rest of their leadership, and they picked a place for next year’s convention, Atlantic City. However, the Herald reported: “meanwhile the 100,000 or more Elks and their friends and families who are guests of Los Angeles were kicking up their heels at the beaches and other Southern California amusement centers. They eschewed business worries, leaving such affairs to the officials of the lodge, who are supposed to look after these things.”


Busch Gardens, 1921

They also made the tourist rounds, with sightseeing trips to the movie studios, boat trips to Catalina, and a visit to Busch Gardens.

By all reports, the convention went smoothly, and everyone had a pretty good time. As Kingsley observed, “how the Elks will ever be able to go back to their humdrum lives now, I don’t see.” But afterwards, I bet the locals were happy to have a little humdrum back in their town.

The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks was staying true to its founding principles: it got its start in 1868 as a social club for minstrel show performers called the Jolly Corks. As a private club, they didn’t have to obey tavern opening laws. As their web site now emphasizes, the group raises money for worthy charities, veterans, and college scholarships, in addition to socializing. However, for a long time the organization left a lot of people out; black men couldn’t join until 1973 and women weren’t allowed in until 1995 (though there were unofficial ladies’ auxiliaries). Atheists and anyone not an American citizen are still excluded.

*The whole convention was an amazing logistical feat. Redondo Beach is about 24.5 miles Southwest of downtown L.A., Santa Monica is 15.5 miles West, Inglewood 17.5 miles Southwest, Long Beach 24.5 miles Southwest and Pasadena is 9 miles North. Tens of thousands of Elks got around the city by the Pacific Electric Railway. Even though our public transportation has improved a bit lately, I don’t think it could be done today.

Jake Berman made this much easier to read map in 2018

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