Rotarians, Shriners, and Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie converge upon Seattle beginning on June 6, 1954.

  • By Alan J. Stein
  • Posted 12/01/2004
  • Essay 7158
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Beginning on June 6, 1954, the Rotary International holds its national convention in Seattle, which is followed immediately by the national convention for the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine. Also in town for a visit is Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia. This is probably one of the most hectic weeks in the history of the city -- as well as the Olympic Hotel, which plays host to them all.

The Festivities Begin

The month began with the arrival of thousands of Rotarians from around the world for the annual convention of Rotary International. Although most of the convention was held at the Civic Auditorium, many guests stayed at the Olympic, where the organization held numerous session meetings. During their free time, more than 10,000 Rotarians from over 89 nations toured the city.

Founded in 1905, Rotary is a worldwide organization of business and professional leaders that provides humanitarian service, encourages high ethical standards in all vocations, and helps build goodwill and peace in the world. The name "Rotary" derived from the early practice of rotating meetings among members' offices.

An old-time camp meeting was held at Seward Park, where 2,000 Rotarians arrived in shifts for a salmon barbecue. Other members toured eight Navy vessels on Elliott Bay, which were open to the public as part of Seafair. But the big event of the convention, which everyone attended, was the final meeting at Civic Auditorium to hear keynote speaker Secretary of State John Foster Dulles.

Smile with the Nile

As soon as the Rotarians left on June 11, more than 10,000 Shriners swarmed into town for their annual convention. The Shrine was founded in 1872 by a group of 13 men belonging to the Masonic Order. It was originally established to provide fun and fellowship for its members, but has since grown to become a strong philanthropy.

Known for their wacky hijinks, most of the Shriners came to town dressed as Arabs, wearing flowing robes, fake beards, and fezzes. Some rode on donkeys, others went around goosing the ladies with electric buzzers. A burlesque ambulance delivered a few men wrapped in bandages to the lobby of the Olympic Hotel, where the convention was held.

Topping it all off, the Olympic was busy preparing for a visit from Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia. Selassie had enacted his country's first constitution before being exiled following Italy's invasion in 1935. Following his return to power in 1941, he was considered by some to be the Messiah. The Lion of Judah was checking into the hotel that afternoon.

Hi, Emp!

The Emperor arrived by plane on the morning of June 11, whereupon he was whisked to Boeing for a tour. From there, he traveled to the waterfront for a trip to Bremerton. While marching along the pier to inspect a military honor guard, a man in a red tasseled fez walked by, waved, and yelled "Hi, Emp!" Selassie gazed quizzically at the Shriner and then turned to his interpreter who also gave the strange fellow a once-over. The interpreter could only respond to the Emperor with a shrug.

After inspecting the Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Selassie and his entourage -- which included his son and daughter-in-law, Prince Sahle and Princess Sybel -- returned to Seattle and made their way to the Olympic Hotel. After checking in, a press conference was held in his suite, followed by a reception at the Rainier Club.

Meanwhile, the Shriners had gotten down to business. As much as they loved fun, the organization's chief interest was supporting children's hospitals. Meetings were held to discuss new ways to raise money and give hope to the children who needed it most.

Manic in the Streets

That evening, the Shriners held a pageant at High School Memorial Stadium, near the Civic Auditorium, and Emperor Selassie was invited to attend. Before he arrived, he finally got briefed on Shriner history and Shriner behavior. Later, Selassie explained through his interpreter that he liked the colorful dress of the men, as well as their enthusiasm.

The next day, the Emperor rested in his room and responded to correspondence, while the Prince and Princess explored the city and went shopping. At the same time, the Shriners were up to their old tricks. Some of them popped open a manhole cover at 4th Avenue and Pike Street, where they dipped fishing poles into the sewer. Nearby, another group placed a table in the middle of Pike Street and had tea while traffic whizzed by. Back at the hotel, one of the men amused himself with a little device that slipped easily into an unsuspecting bystander's pocket. It was a siren that got louder and louder for a full minute, and could not be turned off.

A good time was had by all. The Shriners enjoyed their stay, as did the Emperor, who tipped the hotel staff with gold coins. Seattle was also very grateful to John Foster Dulles. Before the Secretary of State left town, he averted a crisis of protocol by delivering Ethiopian flags to the Olympic, the Rainier Club, and Memorial Stadium in preparation for the emperor's visit.


"Rotary Wheel Begins Turning as Conclave Opens Here," The Seattle Times, June 6, 1954; "Dulles Saves Seattle in Ethiopian-Flag Crisis," Ibid., June 10, 1954; "Shriners to Open Convention," Ibid., June 10, 1954; "Selassie Lauds B-52 Bomber Here," Ibid., June 11, 1954; "Seattle-on-the-Nile Surrenders Cheerfully to Booming, Colorful Swarms of Shriners," Ibid., June 11, 1954; "Glimpse of Emperor Awes Throng," Ibid., June 11, 1954; "Shriners Fez Puzzles Emperor," Ibid., June 11, 1954; "Pandemonium and Fez Boys Arrive Early," Ibid., June 11, 1954; "Emperor Rests from Round of Festivities," Ibid., June 12, 1954; "Conquering Lion of Judah Wins Seattle's Admiration," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 12, 1954; Other information provided by Rotary International and Shrine of North America.

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