The Road Trippers
For the traveling degree team at Round Table No. 876, making lifelong memories is all in a day's work.
By Ian A. Stewart
The seed for what would eventually become the best, most memorable, enjoyable, and meaningful series of Masonic degrees Alex Ashjian has ever witnessed was planted during what was, quite frankly, kind of a dud of a performance. Ashjian, the secretary and a founding member of Round Table No. 876 in Glendale, was sitting in on a neighboring lodge’s third degree conferral. But even with the minimum quorum of lodge officers met for the event, the ceremony lacked that certain je ne sais quoi. “Myself and the person I came with, we were the only two people on the sidelines,” Ashjian says. “It was a struggle.”
Ashjian felt each misstep painfully. One of his proudest memories in Freemasonry was his own third degree, when he looked out at a roomful of strangers and felt so moved by the amount of time and energy he knew they’d invested in him. Now, he decided, he wanted to do the same for others.
Today, Ashjian and his fellow members of Round Table № 876 are part of the most active—and elaborate—traveling degree team in the state. Since late 2021, the 42-member lodge has staged an incredible 33 degree performances. What’s even more impressive is that Round Table, as a special affinity lodge, has only raised a single member of its own. Instead, the lodge that was birthed out of an informal Masonic supper club has made its mark staging can’t-miss degree nights for all their neighbors.
The lodge was constituted in late 2019, and held its first stated meeting in March 2020—just in time for the pandemic to bring all in-person meetings to a halt. After a nearly two-year hiatus, the lodge reconstituted last year with a special focus on staging word-perfect degrees, complete with homemade costumes, for its sister lodges. Some, Ashjian says, need the help because they lack the manpower to hold such degrees themselves; others simply want to try something special.
Round Table’s membership is uniquely well-positioned to provide it. Out of 42 members, 27 are past masters of another lodge. That means even on short notice, there’s always someone close by who’s able and ready to pinch hit for a missing officer. It takes 15 people to put on the most complicated part of the third degree. Round Table’s mobile degree team typically includes 23. For each character featured in the performance, the lodge has at least two and often several more members who’ve memorized the part. That includes keeping multiple sets of each costume bagged up and ready to go. The costumes were all hand-made, many of them by Ashjian’s wife, Valentine. The lodge also brings its own props and working tools—all part of its well-rehearsed performance.
Ricky Lawler, the grand lecturer for California, is as impressed as anyone by the lodge’s commitment. He’d worked closely with the lodge to approve their performances but didn’t get to see one in person until last May. “It was excellent and meaningful,” he says.
Even with its packed calendar of degree dates, the lodge makes sure to hold a rehearsal before each performance. “From the beginning, the whole concept was, Let’s make the degree something that the candidate will remember for the rest of his life,” Ashjian says. “When the candidate sees that so much work and training goes into the degree, that makes it even more special.”
Devin Badoyan was on the receiving end of those efforts last September, when Round Table members staged his third degree at Ararat No. 848 in San Marino. That night, more than 100 people gathered to see Badoyan raised as a Master Mason—including his brother, Christopher, and his father, Seb. “Obviously, it was a once-in-a-lifetime event,” Badoyan says. “Honestly, I don’t know how to put it into words. It was just a spectacle. It was amazing.”
Instilling that sense of wonder is precisely the goal of the traveling degree team. And while the nature of the relationship they form with candidates is inherintely transitory, Ashjian says what they leave behind is more permanent. “For the candidates who go through this, it’s something they’ll never forget,” he says. “They feel the brotherly love. That’s the glue that binds people into our fraternity.”
The lodges are able to take something away from the events, as well. Having a big event that the lodge can rally around and invite members to can be important, particularly for those that have been slow to rebound from the pandemic layoff.
Already, Ashjian says the lodge has a full calendar of events planned through the summer. (It takes three months to plan each degree.) On April 13, the lodge and Valle de France No. 329 are cohosting a degree with Grand Master Randall Brill. Ashjian says the lodge is already looking into putting on degree performances in Northern California and, perhaps in the future, beyond. Even far from home, though, he says the reception they receive is the same. “What I hear over and over, usually from older members, is: ‘I’ve been a Mason for 40 years and I’ve never seen something like this,’” he says.
“That always puts a big smile on my face.”