They are men. Their average age is about 65. And their signature trademarks are a fez -- a red hat with a tassel -- and the tiny cars they drive in parades.
More than 20,000 members of the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, Masons better known as the Shriners, are converging on Baltimore for their first national convention here since 1939.
At least 18 hotels from Timonium to Baltimore-Washington International Airport are booked for the weeklong event that opens with a public ceremony Sunday and could bring the city up to $24 million in revenue.
Parades on Monday and Wednesday will fill downtown streets with revelers.
"It's one of the biggest conventions we've hosted," said Debra Dignan, associate vice president of convention sales for the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association. She said the Church of God in Christ convention in 2003 drew about 27,000 people.
The Shriners have packed in day after day of events. There will be bands playing alongside clowns -- so many that they are aiming to beat the Guinness Book of World Records for the largest number of clowns in a parade. Harley-Davidson motorcycle riders will cruise alongside three-wheelers, called "Camel Wheels," and minicars. There will be jesters and bagpipe players and horse patrols and antique cars.
Leading it all is Raoul L. Frevel Sr., the imperial potentate, Abingdon resident and owner of Atlantic Caterers in Baltimore. "I'm the grand pooh-bah," said Frevel, a member of the Boumi Temple in White Marsh.
Frevel said the Shriners conduct serious business amid the jovial festivities. The organization, long steeped in Middle Eastern pageantry and rituals, raises money for 22 hospitals in the United States, Canada and Mexico that provide free care to children. At this year's convention there will be a debate over whether to move one of their hospitals from Montreal to Ontario.
No 'secret society'
Though Baltimore has no hospital, local members transport hundreds of patients a year to Shriner hospitals in Philadelphia and Boston. "People like to perceive the Masons and the Shriners like a secret society and it's not at all," Frevel said. "It's more like a college fraternity. Other than a password and grip, there's nothing secret about it. The only secret is we spend $1.7 million every day taking care of burned and crippled kids."
Shriners trace their roots to 1872, when a group of masons in New York City established the first shrine temple, which they named Mecca.
Several years later, the Imperial Council was founded and the rituals and mythology -- largely from the Middle East -- were adopted to help recruit members. They began philanthropy in 1922 when the first hospital for disabled children was founded in Louisiana.
While the organization's population boomed after World War II, and once reached nearly 1 million, the numbers have plummeted over the past few decades as older members die and younger members are more difficult to recruit.
Today there are more than 400,000 Shriners belonging to 191 temples across North America.
"We're not dying out like many Mason" groups, said Gary W. Dunwoody, 65, of Little Rock, Ark., who as deputy imperial potentate will replace Frevel at the Baltimore convention. "We're gradually coming back. The bad thing is we're about half of where we were. The reason I don't think we'll die off is because we're one of the few fraternal organizations that has a philanthropy."
The Shriners say that joining is easy. Members must be male, at least 18, believe in a higher deity -- they can be of any religious faith -- and be master masons. An initiation fee usually runs several hundred dollars, with each temple charging varying annual dues, about $100.
There are rituals and initiations that must be completed to be inducted into the Shrine, which can vary between temples. Once conducted in private, the rites are now open to the public and largely consist of theatrics and pageantry. There is a serious part where members learn the obligations and tenets of being a Shriner and a more lighthearted part with practical jokes and costumes.
Open to the public
Part of the push to make the rites public was to avoid criticism that the Shrine was a religion. "It never was intended and never will be intended to take the place of religion," Dunwoody said. "That's one of the reasons we went public."
The rites have become condensed over the years to attract younger members, who often come from families with a long history of Shriners.
Baltimore Who's Who of Shriners includes state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, bakery magnate John Paterakis Sr. and U.S. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger.
Ruppersberger said his father, grandfather, great-grandfather and son all joined the Shriners. "It was a family thing," said Ruppersberger, who joined when he was 24.
Ruppersberger is trying to work with the Department of Defense to open up Shriners hospitals to injured veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Frevel said it was the fun and fellowship that drew him to the Shriners. But now, he is most proud to be part of a fraternal organization whose hospital board will manage a $625 million budget this year.
This convention, he said, is for the "Joe Shriner," the everyday nobles who like to work hard and play hard.
"It's going to be a great time," Frevel said. "It's one big party, too."