Pageants of the Masters preps for its 85th year, highlighting impressionist and alfresco artistry with an “Under the Sun” theme.
By Julia Clerk
Laguna Beach has a solid reputation as both a laid-back surfer town and a prolific artist colony, with many creators taking advantage of the beautiful scenery, great weather and inspirational vibe that the Orange County coastal city offers.
One of the longtime anchors of this artistic reputation is the annual Pageant of the Masters, the summer show that presents real people in costumes and makeup posing against elaborate backdrops to re-create artwork from across the centuries.
The crowning jewel of Laguna’s Festival of Arts, the pageant debuted during the festival’s second year. This summer, the popular show’s 85th edition runs from July 7 to Sept. 1, celebrating life and art “Under the Sun.” The theme pays homage to local and international impressionists and plein-air painters who left their studios as early as the dawning of the 20th century and took their easels to the coast or into the country to garner new inspiration outdoors. The event, held in the Irvine Bowl amphitheater that seats 2,600 people, will feature 90 riveting minutes of these “tableaux vivants,” or living pictures, enhanced by lighthearted storytelling and live music.
Everything Under the Sun
The “Under the Sun” theme was chosen by pageant Director Diane Challis Davy, who was inspired one evening last spring while watching the changing light dance on the foothills of Saddleback Mountain as the sun sank low on the horizon. That’s when the theme, a phrase from the Bible’s book of Ecclesiastes, occurred to her and seemed a perfect fit.
That phrase dovetailed with a promise to the Laguna Art Museum to help celebrate its 100th anniversary this year. “We chose a theme that would complement the tribute to the museum, and also allow us to present its context in California history and also works of the impressionists of Europe,” Challis Davy explains. “In other words, a theme that encompasses everything under the sun.”
Once the theme was selected came the difficult part of choosing the 39 pieces of art to be performed for this year’s show—in addition to “The Last Supper,” which is presented as the grand finale every year.
Challis Davy says images are chosen because of their design, subject matter, color and emotional impact, but also keeping in mind certain technical limitations on the size and scale of the pieces. “We try to pick a diverse collection of paintings and sculptures,” she adds. “It’s sort of like curating a museum show.”
It isn’t an easy task, notes Sharbie Higuchi, the event’s director of marketing, public relations and merchandising. Challis Davy receives input from pageant scriptwriter Dan Duling and a volunteer research committee which gathers in the fall for a “show-and-tell” meeting that has become the unofficial launch for the following year’s theme.
“As members present their ideas to the director and scriptwriter, as well as the rest of the committee, the excitement generated kicks off the creative journey ahead,” Higuchi says. “This group has grown from small numbers to over 100 volunteers.”
This year’s program will start with a homage of sorts to the Laguna Woman—the oldest human remains in the Western Hemisphere—found in Laguna Beach in 1933 by Howard Wilson. “Under the Sun” will begin each of its 57 nights with a tableau of a bronze sculpture of the earliest known inhabitants of the coast, titled In the Beginning by Jorge Fernandez, who hails from Chile. The original sculpture can be seen in the public parking lot at Seacove Drive and South Coast Highway.
While the second half of the show revolves around European impressionists like Monet and Gauguin, in addition to American John Singer Sargent, Act 1 moves through mostly local history with chapters focused on the mission era, the ranchos, orange crate labels, modern surf-related artwork and more. The pieces performed in Act 1 will span from an 1857 oil painting by Jean-Francois Millet called “The Gleaners” to the 2008 bronze sculpture The Spirit of Imperial Beach by James A. Wasil.
Several pieces in the show are re-creations of works by early painters in Laguna Beach, which boasts a reputation as a creative haven stretching back to the early 20th century. German-born painter William Wendt moved to the area in 1912 and continued his already popular “plein-air” craft. This notable local figure is depicted in “William Wendt at Work” by William Griffith in the pageant lineup. Back in 1912, Wendt was elected to the National Academy of Design and, six years later, he formed the Laguna Beach Art Association with other local masters including Edgar Payne, George Gardner Symons, Frank Cuprien, Anna Hills and Hanson Puthuff. Both Payne and Hills are among those with paintings presented in this year’s pageant.
A portion of the first act is also dedicated to Roger Kuntz, with a three-piece section titled “Laguna’s Renaissance Man.” Kuntz lived in La Verne, in LA County, but spent summers in the Laguna area, staying at a Crystal Cove cottage starting in 1958. He created several drawings and paintings based on those experiences, working with an approach somewhere between representation and abstraction, and always making several versions of each piece until he found just the right balance of those styles.
This year’s pageant also highlights well-known local artists such as Joseph Kleitsch, one of Challis Davy’s favorites, who came to the U.S. from Hungary; Rex Brandt, who lived in nearby Corona del Mar; and Millard Sheets, a watercolorist who often depicted landscapes and is also known for the many bank branches he designed around Southern California with vivid mosaics and stained glass windows.
Over the years, works by scores of artists have been showcased at the pageant since it began in 1933 as a publicity stunt to draw attention to Festival of Arts.
“A parade of local volunteers costumed as characters in famous works of art—‘Whistler’s Mother,’ ‘Mona Lisa’ and ‘Atlas,’ among others—marched downtown along the Coast Highway to the location of the second Festival of Arts, where they later appeared, one at a time, inside a tiny, boothlike set, holding their poses as tableaux vivants—living pictures,” Higuchi says.
Together, the parade and show were titled “Spirit of the Masters Pageant.” “The show was so brief that the audience didn’t even sit down to enjoy the spectacle; they merely took a break from viewing the artists’ displays to peek at the living pictures,” Higuchi adds.
Vaudevillian Lolita Perine, businessman Howard Sheridan and Marie Ropp organized that first, very basic presentation. And it was enough of a success that they felt it was worth trying again the following year. Then, in 1935, Marie Ropp and her husband, Roy, renamed the 1933 Spirit of the Masters Pageant as Pageant of the Masters. “Together, they created the production template for the Pageant of the Masters, incorporating narration, music and painted backdrops to accompany the presentation the living pictures,” Higuchi says.
“I think we are incrementally evolving into an ever-faster-paced and more entertaining show, especially in the last 10 years,” Challis Davy says. “The use of video projection and synchronizing our special effects and music are helping to modernize our show.”
Sustained by Volunteers
All told, it now takes 35 full-time, year-round staff members and an army of some 500 volunteers to put on the annual show. Behind the scenes, pageant preparation is a fun, family atmosphere created by the permanent staff and volunteers who return to work the show generation after generation, year after year. Rehearsals start in February for the summer shows.
Challis Davy first became enamored with the show while attending numerous performances with her father and brother throughout her childhood. She decided to volunteer and was cast in a role in 1976, moved to the costume department in 1980, and has been with the pageant ever since.
The next generation of pageant volunteers is already being groomed. Austin Newburry, a high school freshman from Laguna Beach, has been volunteering for three years as an actor. Newburry says he’s back again this year because he likes the people, it’s for a great cause (the festival provides scholarships and arts education), he lives nearby and he gets 109 community services hours a season (which will look great on his college applications). “I like the art and the way that being involved allows me to experience it,” Newburry says. “Volunteering has given me a sense of respect and understanding of art.”
Not all volunteers come from nearby. Higuchi says that people apply from up and down the Southern California coast. One year, they even had a lady from Chicago participate, ticking off an item on her bucket list.
Makeup artist Rusty Miller from Whittier admits that she knew practically nothing about makeup when she first started volunteering at the pageant 17 years ago. Now she works on three to five characters each night (compared to most newbies, who only do one character per night). To ensure that amateurs can apply each actor’s cosmetics in a consistent and professional-looking manner, Makeup Director Allyson Doherty takes each volunteer through step-by-step tutorials and creates mannequin heads showing the products and colors used for each character along with providing individual makeup kits.
Perhaps the toughest and most time-consuming goal of pageant preparations is making 3-D human beings appear 2-D. Makeup to flatten out features, hand-painted latex headpieces and costumes made from basic muslin material hand-painted to match the artwork by Costume Director Reagan Foy and her team are among the devices paired with expert sets, lighting and posing to create the desired effect.
The backstage area is surprisingly small, so on performance nights, the cast works on a strict rotation with volunteers arriving in batches and moving through the stations and up to the stage. “It’s a testament to the backstage management that the show runs as smoothly as it does,” Challis Davy says. “We have a system for moving the cast and the sets that has been perfected over the decades.”
For the crowd seated in the Irvine Bowl, it appears as a flawless production, with every piece moved seamlessly into place as the orchestra plays and the storyline whisks the audience from California to Europe and all points in between. And, although the presentation takes place in the darkness of night, beneath the twinkle of stars, prepare to be illuminated by the brilliance of artwork created “Under the Sun.”