An international fraternal organization
of over half a million members, known as Shriner
s. Originally founded in 1872 by a group of Freemasons
for social/party purposes, the Shrine today is also very dedicated to funding philanthropic causes, especially children's hospitals specializing in burn treatment. The 2002 budget for medical care and research
at Shriners' hospitals is nearly $600 million
. There are 191 chapters (or Shrine Temples) in North America.
Typical Shriner public shenanigans include circus acts and marching in parades (or sometimes driving in go-carts--ever see those guys in the red fezzes with the little cars?), and sending clowns to visit injured children. A great example of the philosophy of having a good time while doing good.
An old guy named Kenneth W. Smith is currently the imperial potentate of the Shrine. While it may seem weird for a person who no doubt has a regular life and family outside the Shrine to go about as a "potentate" of anything, think about the sway this guy has: when he talks, at least half a million citizens listen.
Interesting Shriner side note: the Savannah, GA, temple refused to march in this year's St. Patrick's Day parade, which is the second largest in the U.S. after New York. The parade commission asked them to reduce the number of Shriner units to help shorten the parade (which often runs over three hours), and they said, in true brotherhood style, "Take all or none of us." Made the front page news in Savannah, and the citizenry has lamented the absence of the Shriners, which in the past have included a beer-bellied gypsy with a ruby in his navel and a cadre of Keystone Kops handing out citations to the fetching young ladies in the crowd.
More info at, of course, www.shriners.com.