Ray Estrella Fought the Santa Ana Elks Lodge and the Lodge Won

The onetime exalted ruler tried to the lodge into the 21st Century

Ray Estrella Fought the Santa Ana Elks Lodge and the Lodge Won

It's as though all the world's grandparents have gathered in this crusty, muggy hall. The air smells of old person's cologne and stale popcorn, with the occasional sniff of secondhand smoke whenever the door to the patio opens.

Tucked between Main and First streets in Santa Ana and decorated with ancient elk heads mounted on layers of beige paint covering blocks of graffiti, Elks Lodge No. 794—the county's most venerable at 110 years old, considered the "mother lodge" of the 11-lodge Orange Coast District of the Elks—slumps next to a dilapidated Saddleback Inn and across the street from the Santa Ana Zoo. A steady stream of Latinos, none of them members, walks or drives by the lodge. The parking lot, which needs a paving job, seems to be a resting spot for old-timers and their motor homes. A little brown security tower stands in the middle of the lot, with a fake brown owl faithfully scaring away pests.

On this night, the lodge pulses with a mix of elderly people. Mexican families sit next to old white couples at the long folding tables that line the sage-painted hall. Pacific Islanders take their place among them too, and Asian elders are seen chatting with one another in their native tongues. An old black man sits alone near the stage, where a reddish-orange curtain is drawn back to make room for the night's entertainment: Monday-night bingo.

Mark Dancey
Mark Dancey

The convivial, celebratory mood belies the fact that just five months ago, this very building was the scene of the most heated ruckus in the recent history of the Santa Ana Elks, when the lodge's former exalted ruler, Ray Estrella—a 71-year-old, retired, bank senior vice president—confronted fellow Elk Dan Fernandez with an explosive allegation of sexual harassment.

A well-connected figure in the community who once worked as a community-relations aide to Governor Ronald Reagan and served as part of the Orange County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Estrella had hoped to turn around the struggling lodge, which he joined in 2000. He has seen its numbers shrink from 4,000 members to fewer than 1,500, he says. When Estrella brought his accounting skills and leadership qualities to the office of exalted ruler in 2010, he embarked on a five-year plan to re-energize the lodge by bringing in new members through outreach efforts to veterans groups and young Latinos, as well as hosting powwows for Native Americans.

But the lodge was already in disarray, with a lack of accountability among high-ranking Elks, according to Estrella. Roughly $2.5 million comes though the lodge each year from bar sales and outreach events, as well as the rent it charges various groups to use the facilities. But with weekly financial reports routinely revealing red numbers, Estrella puzzles over where all the money is going.

Then there was the labor abuse, political backstabbing and nepotism, all of which are destroying what should be a benign brotherhood of military veterans and crusty old cusses looking to share a beer, he says. Despite his efforts to reform the Santa Ana chapter of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the United States of America, Estrella faces expulsion from the national organization.

There are even rumblings coming out of the lodge that his time as exalted ruler may be expunged from the record books. "The membership doesn't know [anything]," says Estrella. "They know what they're told. I made the mistake of trying to have full disclosure."

* * *

Charles Algernon Sidney Vivian was born into a clergyman's family on Oct. 22, 1842, in Exeter, Devonshire County, England. As an adult, he became a successful dancer and singer in London before immigrating to New York City in November 1867. There, Vivian led a group of theater performers who gathered on the Lord's Day to party—to spite the city's blue laws. The group called itself the Jolly Corks, a nod to a Vivian routine in which he used a cork trick to dupe new members into buying rounds of alcohol.

According to Elks lore, when a Jolly Corks member died just before Christmas in 1867, the group assisted the member's wife and children, who had been left broke. With a vision to help more people in need, the performers formed the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, with Vivian elected as head, on Feb. 16, 1868. Their numbers swelled as members put on benefits and held social gatherings, touting the lodge wherever they went, and the New York State Legislature eventually gave them the authority to form a Grand Lodge to oversee chapters across the United States. When a charter for the Grand Lodge was issued, Elks founders formed Lodge No. 1 in New York on March 10, 1871. According to the organization's Chicago-based headquarters, the Elks now boast 2,034 lodges and more than 869,000 members nationwide.

Estrella joined the Santa Ana Elks 12 years ago at the invitation of a business colleague. Within months, he was asked to run for lecturing knight, one of the lodge's top posts; he won the campaign. After a four-year hiatus from the lodge, due to a hectic work schedule, Estrella returned, rising to the elected position of exalted ruler, a title he held from March 2010 to April 2011.

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