The swallows prefer Capistrano. The movie stars take Malibu. But those with a hungering for tableaux vivants migrate to Laguna Beach, Calif. for the annual Pageant of the Masters. Explanations are definitely in order and herewith provided: Every summer since 1933, except during World War II, citizens of Laguna Beach have been dressing up as figures from famous artworks, then posing onstage before paying audiences. As each living masterpiece is unveiled (participants must remain frozen for about 90 seconds), audience members ooh and ahh in disbelief: Naw, it couldn’t be—that’s Aunt Flora, not Mona Lisa! The pageant, which runs until August 29, has been going on for so long that you’d have to call it (thank you, Tevye) Tradition.
More than 400 community volunteers have worked to stage this year’s show, painting backdrops, sewing costumes, practicing poses. Since 1941 the pageant has taken place in the Irvine Bowl, a 2,662-seat amphitheater located in a canyon in the Laguna foothills, just a few blocks from the center of town. Re-created paintings are presented onstage in a 12-ft. 8-in. by 30-ft. frame. Trick lighting makes them appear two dimensional. This year’s Cecil B. De Mille-ish event features 50 works. Along with paintings, there are re-creations of jazz age sculptures, Egyptian jewelry (King Tut in a gold belt buckle), German porcelains, Roman reliefs, circus posters and Japanese woodblocks. Displays aren’t limited to the stage either. Every so often living statues appear on the amphitheater roof and on the nearby brushy hillsides. As it has every year since 1936, the pageant concludes with a re-creation of da Vinci’s Last Supper.
The pageant began in this seaside city 50 miles south of Los Angeles before the onslaught of surfers, Hare Krishnas, killer bees, Frisbees, traffic jams, strawberry margaritas and tan-through bikinis. Nowadays the pageant seems jarringly out of place in a beach town where the guys are called Butch, the gals Pumpkin, and everyone has the disposition of Flipper. What started as a campy sideshow to promote the town’s annual Festival of Arts—where locals display their handiwork—has evolved into a sold-out spectacle. “Why are you doing this?” is not a question that needs asking. At $9 to $25 a ticket, this year’s 51-night show figures to gross about $2 million. The nonprofit pageant provides financial aid to the local arts and sets aside $150,000 each year for college scholarships.
Part of the fun of watching the pageant is to see if the models wiggle or breathe. More than one baby Jesus has cried in his mother’s arms; more than one anxious child has wet his pants onstage. Getting the models in and out of the tableaux requires the precision of an aerial acrobatic team. Each switch must be made in less than two minutes lest the audience fall asleep.
When you’re smeared with makeup, wearing a glazed muslin costume, freezing for 90 seconds under hot lights can seem like an eternity. Starting this year all models wear safety belts that keep them attached to the scenery. It wasn’t always so. Last summer an Egyptian slave passed out, hit the stage and cracked his jaw. In 1978 Orpheus ascending became Orpheus descending: The strap holding him in an uncomfortable, ill-balanced position snapped, dropping him on his back as the audience gasped. Pageant immortality has been bestowed upon Cathe Mennen, who in 1969 earned the highest compliment from a pigeon. It mistook her nude bronze statue for the real thing. Attempting a landing, the bird slipped on her gooey body makeup and scratched her thigh. Mennen bled but remained stoically immobile, thus earning a standing ovation.
Showing off your body is one of Laguna Beach’s most popular pastimes. Just walk through the supermarkets, where everyone looks as if he or she just lost a game of strip poker. It comes as no surprise that competition to get a spot as a nude model in the pageant is fierce these days. Many find the chance to flash it in the name of art irresistible. “To be a pageant nude is to be one of the elite, to be treated like a king or queen,” says pageant director Glen Eytchison, 30, who spends the entire year selecting and mounting scenes for the pageant. Nudes are given preferential treatment: private dressing rooms, special makeup attendants and someone to hold a towel in front of them as they walk toward the stage. “I’m a pretty moralistic guy,” says Larry Ball, a laid-back, sandy-haired Western Airlines pilot who has played Orpheus for three separate summers and has been a volunteer for 10 years. “At first I was very shy, especially when my daughters came to see the show.” Compliment his technique and he blushes. “I’d be nothing without the lights, music and everybody backstage,” he says. Although Ball is in superlative shape from volleyball, jogging and swimming, he looks, close up, older than he appears onstage. “I can’t tell you my age,” he says. “Some young stud will come along and bump me out of the show.”
For most volunteers the pageant is a social outlet, a way to meet new friends and stay in touch with old ones. “Those of us in the Last Supper have been doing it for years and are like a family. It’s a very prestigious experience,” says Don (St. Peter) Kucera. Charles Thompson, a toupee and wig maker, has been Christ for the past 16 years. “Once in a while I’ll be recognized on the street,” he says. “Someone will say, ‘Hi, Jesus.’ I have difficulty with that.” Others, such as Larry Chalfant, a graphic artist in the Marines, see the pageant as a family affair. He, his wife and four children tried out as models this year and all got parts. In 1957 former Laguna Beach resident Bette Davis volunteered her services. She painted numbers on the back of theater seats and posed one night as Sir Joshua Reynolds’ Tragic Muse.
No one in 1935 could have anticipated the pageant’s longevity. “Certainly not me,” says Margo Goddard, a widow who played a Degas dancer in the first pageant. “Back then it was just a way to get through the Depression.” Goddard, 76, a former assistant librarian, holds the distinction of being the pageant’s first nude. In 1936 she played Salome carrying John the Baptist’s head on a platter. She recalls changing her clothes behind a garage across the street from the theater and being gawked at by rowdy boys while she stood onstage dripping wet paint. “I left, angry,” she says. But Goddard came back year after year until recent health problems set in. Her greatest triumph was playing the flag-waving, bare-breasted Liberty in Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People. Why did she love to pose? “It was the ham in me,” Goddard says. “I loved hearing the applause.”
So there you have it. To be in the Pageant of the Masters you don’t have to be able to sing, dance, play the piano or memorize lines. Just stand frozen—try not to breathe—and the world will come to you.