The Elks Uncorked

In “The Bohemian Club” (June/July, 1980), Richard Reinhardt’s sprightly treatment of one of our most exclusive fraternal organizations, the author noted that the club rented its first San Francisco headquarters in 1872 “from a local fraternity called the Jolly Corks, which long since has joined the dust of the Tontine, the Pickwick Club, and the Rinky Dinks.”

But the Jolly Corks of San Francisco, it appears, were not alone, as reader Ed Waltenspiel of Moraga, California, has written to remind us. The Jolly Corks, he points out, first popped up in this country in 1867 with the arrival of a British actor named Charles Algernon Sidney Vivian. A convivial sort, Vivian soon was accepted into New York City’s somewhat raucous theatrical world, to which he introduced the cork game, a popular diversion among British actors. In the game, a newcomer would be asked if he would like to join the “Jolly Corks,” a barroom coterie whose members sat around a table. If the newcomer agreed, he was asked to pay an initiation fee of fifty cents, his name was entered in a little black book, he was invited to sit down and was given a cork. The other members would then take out a cork and place it on the table. The “Imperial Cork” (Vivian himself) then explained that at the count of three, the last man to raise his cork would have to buy the rest a drink. Invariably, the newcomer would find himself left holding his cork on high, while the rest of the members simply covered theirs with their palms. To disabuse the newcomer of any notion that he had thus won the game, it was explained that while he may have been the first to raise his cork, he was also the last—for no one else was ever going to raise his.

This harmless foolery somehow caught on among New York theatrical men, and the Jolly Corks became a large drinking society with headquarters over a saloon on Delancey Street. But many members thought the organization should devote itself to higher things than drinking and playing games, and at a meeting in February, 1868, it was resolved that the Jolly Corks be reformed into a benevolent order, and that a committee be appointed to draft rules and a ritual and to select a new name. Imperial Cork Vivian, who was also a member of the British Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes, leaned toward naming the new order after that animal, but he was overruled, and on February 16, 1868, the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks—the B.P.O.E.—came into being.

“The B.P.O.E.,” Mr. Waltenspiel concludes, “is an organization of which I am proud to be a member. Our current national (Grand Lodge) budget includes approximately $1,000,000 for scholarships. Our California-Hawaii Elks alone raise $1,500,000 annually for cerebral palsy therapy programs. So, the ‘Benevolent’ still functions—and there are those who maintain that the B.P.O.E. stands for the Best People On Earth!”


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