Bimbo’s Initiation and the weird history of fraternal orders

Bimbo’s Initiation is a cartoon from the Fleischer studio, released in 1931. Bimbo accidentally falls down a manhole into an underground lair where a group of masked characters invite him to join their “mystic order.” Even though he declines, they then put him through a series of frightening experiences to initiate him in. It might appear they are an evil cult, but really it was a representation of “fraternal orders” that were popular at the time.

For those who don’t know, fraternal orders were/are men’s clubs, where guys could get away from home and act like “real men” for a while.   According to movies and cartoons acting like real men involved wearing funny hats, drinking lots of alcohol, making sacred pledges, using secret handshakes, and going to conventions to do the same things with brothers from other lodges.  It’s full of opportunities for men to make themselves look foolish, and so it was a popular theme for live action film and cartoons. It’s been done by Laurel and Hardy, The Honeymooners, The Three Stooges, The Little Rascals, The Flintstones, Spongebob Squarepants, and more. I have put some examples towards the end of this post. The story lines in these old shows are often built around the wives disapproval of the men attending the conventions.  HERE is a list of famous fictional fraternities.

It is a big subject, so I am going to focus on the initiation ceremonies involved in joining these clubs. There are still initiations and hazing in pledging to fraternities and sports teams on campus.  Sometimes we hear about them in the news when the stunts go tragically wrong. Personally, I went through an initiation event in the US Navy when my ship crossed the equator. I am officially a “shellback.”

We have one great resource to understand what these old initiations were like when Bimbo’s Initiation was produced. An entire business grew from supplying these clubs with costumes, props, and bizarre devices for running meetings and initiating the new members.  Many of these involved electric shocks, firecrackers, and the whacking of butts.  Great grandpa and his pals sure had a weird sense of humor.  Check out some of these pages from the Demoulin Brothers catalog.   This 160 page version of the catalog is from 1930, the year before Bimbo’s Initiation was released. As scary as they look, you can imagine how they could inspire some physical comedy.

Yes, they had a human centipede.

I swear this next one looks like water boarding.

Here are a few animated examples. First, here is Bimbo’s Initiation.

The Simpsons had The Stonecutters lodge:

Spongebob had an episode dedicated to the concept of lodge initiations.

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