In 1870, there were several thousand Masons in Manhattan, many of whom lunched at the Knickerbocker Cottage at a special table on the second floor. There, the idea of a new fraternity for Masons stressing fun and fellowship was discussed. Walter M. Fleming, M.D., and William J. Florence took the idea seriously enough to act upon it.Florence, a world-renowned actor, while on tour in Marseilles, was invited to a party given by an Arabian diplomat. The entertainment was something in the nature of an elaborately staged musical comedy. At its conclusion, the guests became members of a secret society. Florence took copious notes and drawings at his initial viewing and on two other occasions, once in Algiers and once in Cairo. When he returned to New York in 1870, he showed his material to Fleming.
Fleming took the ideas supplied by Florence and converted them into what would become the "Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine (A.A.O.N.M.S.)". Fleming created the ritual, emblem and costumes. Florence and Fleming were initiated August 13, 1870, and initiated 11 other men on June 16, 1871.
The group adopted a Middle Eastern theme and soon established Temples meeting in Mosques (though the term Temple has now generally been replaced by Shrine Auditorium or Shrine Center). The first Temple established was Mecca Temple (now known as Mecca Shriners), established at the New York City Masonic Hall on September 26, 1872. Fleming was the first Potentate.
In 1875, there were only 43 Shriners in the organization. In an effort to spur membership, at the June 6, 1876 meeting of Mecca Temple, the Imperial Grand Council of the Ancient Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine for North America was created. Fleming was elected the first Imperial Potentate. After some other reworking, by 1878 there were 425 members in 13 temples in eight states, and by 1888, there were 7,210 members in 48 temples in the United States and Canada. By the Imperial Session held in Washington, D.C. in 1900, there were 55,000 members and 82 Temples.
Shriners often participate in local parades, sometimes as rather elaborate units: miniature vehicles in themes (all sports cars; all miniature 18-wheeler trucks; all fire engines, and so on), an "Oriental Band" dressed in cartoonish versions of Middle Eastern dress; pipe bands, drummers, motorcycle units, Drum and Bugle Corps, and even traditional brass bands.
The Shriners are committed to community service and have been instrumental in countless public projects throughout their domain. They also host the annual East-West Shrine Game which is a college football all-star game. Shriners also hold the Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospitals for Children Open, a golf tournament which is held in Las Vegas.
Once a year, the fraternity meets for the Imperial Council Session in a major North American city. It is not uncommon for these conventions to have 20,000 participants or more, which generates significant revenue for the local economy.
Ben Ali Shrine Center, Sacramento, California, bears the charter # 154 and is one of seven Centers in California, one of 19 in the Western Shrine Association, and one of 191 in North America.
The territorial jurisdiction of Ben Ali Shrine Center is a sizeable one, including twenty-three counties, which ranges from San Joaquin to Siskiyou from Alpine to Trinity, and east to the Nevada state border. This territory comprises over 44,200 square miles, an area exceeding that of the State of Ohio, and one that is larger than some countries in the world today.
The Shrine reaches its sizeable jurisdiction in a very direct way through its Shrine Clubs, which currently number thirty-three, and which extend from Escalon on the south, to Siskiyou on the north. The Clubs have a combined membership over 4,000 and are the embodiment of the Shrine in their respective localities. Each one has its corps of officers, its budget, and is program of activities. Yearly each one is the source of many new candidates for the Shrine's exciting ceremonies. Shrine Clubs literally are the lifelines of the Shrine.
Likewise, in many communities throughout the Shrine's jurisdiction, there is at least one official representative of the Potentate who acts as the "eyes and ears" of the Shrine Chief Executive Officer, during the year of his administration. In addition, since the days of its origin, Ben Ali has frequently held special meetings, and has staged certain of its ceremonies in different communities throughout its official domain.
Ben Ali is proud of its history. Since 1922 the Shrine's name and its fez have been synonymous with wholesome fun, convivial fellowship, and the cheerful support of good causes. The Shrine numbers in its members outstanding leaders in virtually every walk of the political, economic, educational, social, civil, religious, and cultural side of life. It is an organization noted for having fun, but its constructive purposes, characterized by "hospitality without rudeness and jollity without coarseness."
Ben Ali traditionally has prided itself on the fact that it attempts to improve whomever and whatever it touches - persons, places, and things.