Pageant of the Masters brings joy to both viewers and participants.
By Katherine Duncan and Sharon Stello | Photos courtesy of Pageant of the Masters
Whether it’s painting a masterpiece, catching the perfect wave or satisfying wanderlust with a dream vacation, the moments that make us smile are as limitless as they are diverse. The current edition of Pageant of the Masters, under the theme “The Pursuit of Happiness,” explores sources of glee from ancient times to modern day as viewers are introduced to artists’ varied takes on what makes life worth living.
In line with the distinctly American theme, the first act focuses primarily on pieces by U.S. artists. “I feel confident that a healthy dose of old-fashioned Americana—Winslow Homer, Currier & Ives, Norman Rockwell—brought to life, will be a crowd-pleaser,” says longtime pageant scriptwriter Dan Duling. The second act highlights works from around the globe, celebrating the universal appreciation for beauty and dance, among other areas.
“I think audiences are really going to enjoy the way this show will encourage us all to think about what happiness means to us, and just maybe how we can be happier in the future,” Dan adds. “Art certainly has the capacity to inspire and entertain, and, through the art of ‘living pictures,’ that’s what we’re hoping to do as well.”
This year, audiences sitting in the outdoor amphitheater will experience joy as numerous volunteers are transformed with detailed costumes and props, flawless makeup and sophisticated lighting to re-create classic and modern art pieces—a tradition in Laguna that dates back more than 80 years. The 90-minute shows, which are accompanied by live narration and original music from a professional orchestra, will take place at 8:30 every night from July 8 through Aug. 31.
A newcomer and a veteran weigh in on what it’s like to play a role in this extraordinary event.
Season After Season
Laguna resident Judy Flanders, a representative for a wholesale wine company by day, has used makeup to transform cast members for more than 20 years. When she moved to the area from Texas, she got involved with the pageant in hopes of meeting new people. During registration, she says she checked nearly every category when noting her interests on the sign-up card. Judy was then tasked with stage makeup, and while she didn’t have any previous experience, the assignment turned out to be a perfect fit. “I was one of the lucky ones who has loved what I’ve done since the beginning,” she says.
Judy takes pride in her craft, but the camaraderie is her favorite part of being involved. “There are so many wonderful people down there,” she says. “… No matter how bad my day is, you walk in there and it’s like you can’t help but be happy.”
In addition to joining the makeup team each summer, she has participated in many other ways over the years, including seeking out artwork for the director’s consideration as part of the research committee; marching with the pageant group in Laguna’s annual Patriots Day Parade; and measuring prospective participants to determine if their proportions accurately represent a figure in an art piece.
With so many roles that need to be filled, Judy advises newcomers to be open to trying different tasks—you never know what might turn out to be your calling.
New to the Scene
This year marks Ken Bisconti’s second season as a cast member. Although he’s relatively new to the experience, he says the event defines his summer. “We … manage our whole vacation schedule and summer schedule and work schedule around the pageant because it’s become such an important part of our lives,” he explains.
Ken, who runs a Web analytics company for IBM, initially applied for a role in the production in 2014 after his wife encouraged him to join. Similar to Judy’s experience, his wife signed up to get involved with the community after the couple moved to town in 2010.
Ken auditioned for the first time last year and received a coveted cast position, playing George Washington in Emanuel Leutze’s “Washington Crossing the Delaware.”
“It was a great role. … I not only got to be in this iconic piece, but I actually got to do a little bit of movement and acting,” he says.
This year, he was assigned an entirely different part: an Egyptian man in “The Coffee House, Cairo” by Arthur von Ferraris during the second act. But for Ken, like Judy, it’s the people that make the pageant an experience of a lifetime.
“The camaraderie in your piece is great and getting to see the enjoyment everybody is getting out of it as team, especially the kids … and the audience’s reaction is a ton of fun,” he says.
All in the Family
For a Laguna mom and her two boys, volunteering at Pageant of the Masters is a shared passion.
While Diane Babcock is applying makeup to help Pageant of the Masters characters come to life in the re-created artwork onstage, her two sons are getting ready for their roles. Both portray old men this year: Tripton, 10, is part of “Middle Age: Season of Strength” and Reidley, 7, is cast in “The Swing.” The Babcocks are one of several Laguna Beach families who dedicate half their nights in July and August to supporting the popular production of living pictures. “It’s a very clean, family-friendly environment,” Diane says. “It’s fun and there are a lot of good people.”
This is Diane’s 24th year of involvement, Tripton’s third and Reidley’s second. Diane has assisted theatrical productions with her cosmetics artistry since high school and, when she met a pageant volunteer while interviewing for a holiday job, she decided to offer up her talents. More than two decades later, she still enjoys creating the magic. “To see the amazement on people’s faces when they come out of the show, it’s a lot of fun,” she says.
When her boys were old enough, it was a natural progression to sign them up. Tripton and Reidley particularly enjoy making new friends, staying up late and indulging in the cookies and hot cocoa.
“It’s nice to get to know the other people and play with them,” Tripton says. Reidley agrees, adding, “I like it because I don’t have to go to bed so early.” While Diane and her boys may not always see each other during rehearsals or performances—each is needed in a different place—they gather for a snack afterward. “It’s really fun to just all go together,” Diane says. “It’s what I love and what I do. … And now they’re a part of it. … They have a really fun time as well.”
Of course, there are challenges that come with the gig. “We don’t do our family vacations during the summer like everybody else does,” Diane says, quickly adding that she doesn’t mind spending beach season in beautiful Laguna. However, it’s sometimes difficult to be both mom and supervisor: Diane once had to apply Tripton’s makeup and they disagreed about what should go where, but she says it’s all trivial considering that the pageant has played a significant role in the family’s formation. Diane met her husband, Brent, on a blind date arranged by another show volunteer who worked in his law office. While Brent doesn’t take part in the pageant himself, it no doubt holds a special place in all of their hearts.
By the Numbers
Explore the production’s standout statistics.
1: Standing ovation in pageant history—for the re-creation of Felix de Weldon’s U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial statue
3: Pageant directors since 1964—Don Williamson (1964-78), Glen Eytchison (1979-95) and Diane Challis Davy (since 1996)
4: Age of the youngest cast member in pageant history
5: Dress rehearsals before the pageant opens (three of these are performed in front of a full house)
7: Months from casting call and the start of set construction to opening night
8: Performances in the 1933 presentation, compared to the current average of 56 performances—not including previews—every summer
42: “Living pictures” on this year’s program
500: Volunteers participating in the pageant each season
150,000: Audience members attending the event annually
An Inside Look
Pageant of the Masters is a widely recognized event, but there are a few little-known facts that make the show shine.
- Live narration is presented every night by Richard Doyle, an actor at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa. This is his fifth year telling the stories behind the paintings and other artwork re-created on stage, tying the pieces together in a cohesive theme for audiences each night.
- A professional orchestra, made up of instrumentalists represented by the Orange County Musicians’ Association Local 7 union, accompanies each show; Pageant of the Masters commissions original scores for the season.
- Some of the guest speakers—prerecorded for the production—are famous actors like Charles Shaughnessy, known for his role as Maxwell Sheffield on “The Nanny” sitcom, and Firesign Theatre’s Phil Proctor, who voiced memorable characters in the Pixar films “Toy Story” and “Monsters, Inc.”
- A live animal is part of the pageant this year: Ghost, a white male quarter horse from Texas, has a cameo during a tribute to George Washington.