Cast, staff and audiences alike celebrate the return of Pageant of the Masters following a year away from the stage.
By Tanya A. Yacina
Since its opening in 1933, Pageant of the Masters has wowed audiences from all over the world with its “tableaux vivants,” or living pictures. Last year, that all changed, with the stage show taking its second pause in history due to the pandemic; prior to that, the pageant had only gone dark from 1942 to 1945, during World War II.
It wasn’t just the pageant—live events and performances were shut down worldwide due to COVID-19. But this slight interruption hasn’t stopped the show from returning in full force this year. The 2021 theme, “Made in America: Trailblazing Artists & Their Stories,” was originally slated for last season, but has been resurrected this summer, allowing the beloved tradition to once again light up the faces of captivated ticket holders with its artful, 90-minute display each night.
“The pageant production team and I were extremely disappointed last year having to postpone the show, and our volunteers were just as devastated as the employees, as you can imagine,” says Diane Challis Davy, the director and producer of the pageant who is currently celebrating her 25th year with the show.
“So many were missing their pageant family or sad to see the venue dark for a whole summer season. But we remained hopeful—as did our volunteers, the city, our fans—and voila. Here we are again.”
According to Challis Davy, a 45-year veteran of the organization, the health and wellness of the pageant’s patrons, staff and volunteers is top priority. They are abiding by all recommendations suggested by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, including establishing additional makeup areas and promoting fresh-air ventilation. Makeup artists are also wearing masks while readying the cast, and vaccinations were strongly recommended for all participants.
“For this year, the pageant focuses on art that’s made in America, but that does create a bit of a challenge—what art will be included? What is to be left out? We decided early on that we would not attempt to illustrate American history. That is impossible in 90 minutes,” Challis Davy explains. “I decided to tell the … [artists’] inspiring stories in the form of an 18-part series of short scenes.”
See for yourself the magic that Challis Davy and her team have created at Festival of Arts’ starlit Irvine Bowl amphitheater through Sept. 3.
Off the Stage
Pageant of the Masters is astonishing in its own right, but several other unique programs fall under its umbrella as well.
Take a Seat
Created in late 2020, the Pageant Legacy Society, where members’ names are engraved on plaques and affixed to the red seats in the Irvine Bowl (as well as listed in the program). This offers donors the opportunity to become a permanent part of festival history while also supporting its mission to make the arts more accessible to the local community. “Our hope was that patrons, art lovers and the community would support our nearly 90-year-old art tradition and help safeguard its future by joining, especially after the forced closure of the festival and pageant in 2020,” says Sharbie Higuchi, marketing and public relations director for Festival of Arts. Three levels—including Irvine Bowl Patron, Irvine Bowl Benefactor and Irvine Bowl Philanthropist—are available, each with a different donation amount and seating location.
Each year, Pageant of the Masters offers supporters the chance to help those who are less fortunate view the show: Through the Masters at Giving program, donations can be made toward the sale of discounted tickets in the Director’s Tier, which will then be passed on to charitable groups hoping to attend the pageant. Higuchi says this provides many memorable evenings to groups who may not be able to experience it otherwise. “This year, our list of charitable organizations includes COVID-19 front-line responders, senior centers, at-risk youth, veterans groups, art students, outreach organizations, military families, food banks and mentoring programs,” she explains. “Donations are used to support the arts and are fully tax-deductible.”
The Pageant of the Masters volunteers are the stars of the show as well as the heart and soul of the organization. Between 400 and 500 volunteers come together to put on the show each summer, dedicating more than 60,000 hours to support the arts as makeup artists, costume fitters, staff assistants and cast members. “The Pageant was created by volunteers in the community as a way to bring awareness to the arts and artists,” Higuchi explains. “This tradition has continued over the last eight decades with many people who have volunteered for dozens of years—and, for some, it’s a family tradition. … [Those] of all ages and all walks of life proudly volunteer each summer to keep our beachside town’s summer tradition thriving.” Locals of all ages are invited to attend the casting call each January, and no theater experience is necessary.