Shriners clown around, revenue rolls into town

More than 20,000 to fill city hotels - and try to break a world record


News From Around The Baltimore Region

July 04, 2005|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

The men streaming toward yesterday's Orioles game sported red hats. Not because they are Cleveland Indians fans, but because "it's what we wear," said Jack Van Veen, a member of the Ancient Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, otherwise known as Shriners.

"It will be fun to look out in the stands and see a sea of fezzes," said Van Veen, from Whitby, Ontario.

The arrival of more than 20,000 Shriners, best known for their trademark red fezzes with gold tassels, has transformed downtown Baltimore. In addition to bringing a little-seen hat style to the Inner Harbor, members were also pulling up in Harley-Davidsons and minicars, which they plan to ride during today's parade.

"Everybody was scared to come downtown because of the traffic, but the traffic's not so bad," said Greg Olley, also a Shriner from Whitby.

The Shriners hope to set a world record for clown gatherings during their parade today. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, a 1991 clown convention in Bognor Regis, England, ranks as the largest clown assembly: 850.

The group's rituals are based in Middle Eastern traditions, which is why members wear red fezzes. The caps bear the name of the wearer's home chapter.

The convention began yesterday and runs until Thursday. At least 18 hotels between Baltimore-Washington International Airport and Timonium have no vacancies, and tourism officials estimate the convention could bring up to $24 million in revenue.

Shriners hold their annual convention in a different city every year, where they elect new leaders and set their agenda. The nearly 500,000-member organization raises money for 22 children's hospitals in North America.

The group is expected to take a vote tomorrow on whether to move its only Canadian hospital from Montreal to London, Ontario. The last time a Shriner's hospital moved was in 1997, when a San Francisco hospital was relocated to Sacramento, Calif.

At a cost of $1.7 million a day, the Shriners' 22 hospitals in North America provide free health care to children being treated for burns and orthopedic conditions.

The convention also gives members a chance to catch up with old friends and make new ones.

"We try and have it around the Fourth of July because that means more people can get away and travel and take the time to renew old friendships," said Olley as he and Van Veen rested inside the convention center.

Paul Phillips of Jackson, Tenn., comes to Shriner's conventions every year with his wife, Kathleen.

"The fun and the fellowship are what I look forward to the most," Paul Phillips said.

"There are a lot of people we only see once a year, at conventions," said Kathleen Phillips.

The Phillipses said they would travel around Baltimore and visit the Shriners market set up in the convention center, where vendors were selling everything from hats to recreational vehicles.

The Chicago Cubs have a farm team in Jackson and Kathleen Phillips was especially interested in going to Camden Yards so she could see former Cub Sammy Sosa play. She was crestfallen when she heard that Sosa has been temporarily sent to the bench.

"Really? That's too bad," she said.

As Shriners lined up to start walking to the ballpark, many proudly donned their fezzes. But at least one decided against wearing his. "They're actually really hot," said John Palmer of Nashville, Tenn., as he tucked his into a box.

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