When I was a kid growing up in Livingston, NJ, there was a big drab looking building right at the center of town, which was painted tan with olive trim. Though it seemed massive and ominous to me at the time, and capable of holding a great number of people, I never saw a single soul ever enter or exit the place during my entire childhood––which made the building a bit of a mystery to me. Even way back then in the late 1960s, it seemed like a relic from a different era, another place in time when World Wars raged and automobiles were big, dark and boxy. From a distance you could see that the asphalt roofing tiles had been laid out in such a pattern as to spell the letters B.P.O.E in two tones of grey and brown. One of my friends at the time pointed to the initials on the roof one day and told me that they stood for “Best People On Earth.” “Really?” I thought. “Isn’t that kinda presumptuous and elitist of them?”
Of course, when I got a little bit older, I would come to realize that the building was a lodge, and that the letters really stood for Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks. Personally, I’ve never become a member of the Elks, Rotary Club, Shriners or any other such fraternal order. Like the Odd Fellows, Illuminati and Freemasons, I was never really sure if they were secret societies typified by strange nocturnal rituals and bent on world domination through conspiratorial shenanigans, or just places where middle-aged men could get away from their wives for a while and have a few beers with the boys. I’ve always suspected that they were a little of both.
So, with this limited knowledge that I had of the Benevolent and Protective Order, it came as something of a surprise to me when I first caught wind that the Elks Lodge in South Orange, NJ was hosting a monthly concert series called Rent Party, which featured not only local bands, but also nationally and internationally known acts as well. And unlike the lodge itself, which is the exclusive dominion of members of the order, the performances were open to the public. So I figured this would be a good chance for me to take a glimpse into the hidden world of the mysterious Elks, and at the same time have a few beers and enjoy a good show.
The lodge, which is located on Prospect Street in an upscale suburban community, looks pretty much like the classic image of a haunted house. It’s a big old former farmhouse set on a hill on a good-sized piece of property directly across the street from an impressively gothic looking stone church. And it’s probably one of the most unlikely places you’d ever expect to find a monthly rock and roll show taking place.
I arrived at the lodge for my first visit to an Elks Rent Party shortly after the band had already begun playing so that I could case the joint veiled in the anonymity of the low lights and loud music. It was almost like walking into a basement frat party circa 1962 (imagine the toga party scene in the movie Animal House, but without the togas). The room where the party was taking place was not big at all––not even really large enough to be called a “hall.”
The old house was converted into the Elks Lodge way back in 1929, and the interior probably looks much the same today as it did back then. It’s an intimate setting with a hardwood dance floor and dark wood paneling on every wall. There was an old-timey bar at one end of the room and a small makeshift stage was set up at the opposite side where the band played. Behind the musicians, a shuffleboard table ran the length of the room. Over it, framed 8×10 photos of past Elks Lodge presidents, dating back nearly a century, hung in long rows. There were also foosball and pool tables, adding to the basement rec room ambiance of the place.
The side of the room where the music was taking place seemed to be mostly occupied by civilian “non-Elks” who had come for the show, while just a few feet away the regular members were hunkered down around the bar. This led me to wonder what the deal was with this unusual marriage of live music and the Elks. I also couldn’t help but wonder if the Order’s members resented interlopers, like myself, invading their sacrosanct space. All trepidations aside though, I found the place to be a very comfortable hang out––especially when I discovered that the tap beer was only $7 a pitcher! And there was a decent selection of it to boot. Even Rent Party’s mission statement promises “Good music and cold beer at a reasonable price.” Now that’s a motto I can get behind!
In addition to all the good things like this that Rent Party at the Elks offers, it is also actually doing good things for local people in need. You see, though the Elks are a not-for-profit organization, the Rent Parties are not designed to raise money to pay their rent, as the name might imply. Their purpose is to raise funds to help fight hunger in the towns of Maplewood and South Orange. Each monthly show is a benefit that supports two local food pantries, and they have sponsored two community garden plots. They have also created a program called BackPack Pals, which provides food on the weekends for kids in need, who usually get their meals during the week at school. The Elks have even started a community garden right on the front lawn of their own lodge!
Rent Parties feature lots of area-based acts, including local New Jersey and New York favorites like Deena And The Laughing Boys, James Maddock, The Insomniacs and Freedy Johnston. Some more well-known musicians have also graced the Elks’ small stage, including the likes of Marshall Crenshaw, Garland Jeffreys and Willie Nile. And for the most part, they all donated their time and talents to support the efforts of those trying to raise money for the cause of fighting hunger.
With so much positive energy emanating from the old Elks Lodge, I thought I should pay them a visit and find out who the people behind this Rent Party phenomenon were, and how the whole scene came about. I sat down at the Elks Lodge bar recently to discuss the club and the concert series with Jim Walsh, a Past Exalted Ruler of the lodge, and Jerry O’Connell, Lecturing Knight of the lodge.
How did the Rent Parties come about here?
Jim Walsh: About four years ago, in October 2009, the year of the South Orange Elks Lodge’s centennial anniversary, a couple of local guys named Chris Dixon and Dave Wagner approached us and said, “Look, it’s a win/win situation––the band plays for nothing, the admission fee goes to charity and whatever you make on the bar, you make on the bar. All the money that we make at the door becomes a donation to the local food banks, one in South Orange and one in Maplewood.”
Why did they pick the Elks Lodge as the venue to hold the show?
JW: Because it only holds a certain amount of people—90 to 100 people—and they thought the sound was very good here.
Jerry O’Connell: Chris was looking for a venue, and if it hadn’t been for the Elks, he wouldn’t have been able to do it. How many other venues they approached, I’m not sure.
Was he an Elk at the time or just a stranger that came in off the street?
JO: He was not an Elk at the time…but he is an Elk now.
JW: Everybody that is involved with the Rent Party is now an Elk.
JO: It started out small and got bigger. There are some shows that are very crowded and others that are not as well attended…but there are always people here. There are some die-hards that come to every one, and at every single one, there are new people that have never seen it before too.
Do you have any idea how much the parties have generated for the food drive since they started at the lodge four years ago?
JW: I don’t know the exact figure off the top of my head, but it’s close to $40,000. It’s been about $10,000 a year––some years a little less, some a little more.
JO: And some years HK Community Fund [a local grassroots nonprofit organization aimed at fostering civic responsibility] would match whatever was taken in at the door.
What would you say to somebody who came to a Rent Party and then decided they wanted to become a member of the lodge?
JW: We’re a charitable organization, we’re about charity––we care, we share, and that’s what it’s all about. We care about our community, we care about our veterans, and we care about our special needs kids that we take care of. So basically, if you’re willing to commit to a charitable organization, you’re welcome. If you’re not about what’s going on in your community and with your neighbors, then you know what, it’s not worth having you here. But if you’re willing to lend a hand, do some work, reach into your pocket every once in a while, you’re welcome.
[Rent Party and the Elks have even taken their show on the road to hold the events at other lodges in Springfield and Cranford in an effort to help out other food banks in NJ. Still, Jim is cautiously optimistic about expanding the concept and branching out too far from its home base in South Orange, saying, “We’re willing to do it for as long as it can go, but if we were to expand it to someplace else, it might lose its…charm. And you know what? It’s the place. If you’ve been here, if you’ve seen it, there’s something about this place that, well, it is what it is. It’s a charming place. And I’ve been here over 30-something years!”]
How many active members do you have at this lodge currently?
JO: 209 Elks and we’re always looking for more. And I understand that you’re looking to become a member…
It was at this point in the conversation that Jim slid a membership application across the bar toward me…and a pen. While I’ve never been much of a “joiner,” it’s a little hard to say no to a Past Exalted Ruler––especially after several reasonably priced pints of Bass Ale. I read through the questionnaire, providing the basic information required, but had to ask for clarification on some queries, such as number six: “Are you now a member of or directly or indirectly participating in the activities of any group or organization, or supporting or adhering to the beliefs or tenets advocating the overthrow of the Government of the United States or any of its political subdivisions by force or violence?” Of course I’m not, but I couldn’t help wondering if anybody who was ever got tripped up by this question and answered in the affirmative.
After the application was completed, I was treated to another pint and escorted upstairs to a small office by the current Exalted Ruler of the lodge, where I was asked the exact same questions again. Fortunately, I aced question number six for a second time. Then the ER showed me the secret handshake, and imparted unto me the wisdom that only Elks may possess. And with that, I was accorded all the rights and privileges of a full member of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks.
I’ve gone to several Rent Party events since my first visit, seeing some of my favorite local acts. I’ve even had the pleasure of playing at one of the shows with a band I was in. Spirits are always high during the parties and a great time is usually had by all. It’s a very positive vibe in a comfortable, albeit somewhat unexpected, setting. Everybody from the musicians to the Rent Party coordinators to the Elks themselves really give it their all to make sure the parties are a well run and good natured affair––and they do it all in the name of caring and sharing for a good cause. You know, maybe they, I mean we, really are some of the Best People On Earth, after all.
Rent Parties are held on the second Friday of each month at the Elks Lodge 1154, 220 Prospect Street, South Orange, NJ, 07079, (973) 762-9848. The minimum donation is $5, but as the Elks say, “The more you give, the better you’ll feel!” For more information, please visit rentpartylive.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.