Art Comes Alive at the Pageant of the Masters

Phil Brock For Council 2014

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Santa Monica Convention and Visitors BureauWhen one lives in a city as breathtakingly beautiful and unique as Santa Monica, inevitably that city will be shared with visitors.

By Zina Markevicius Kinrade

July 24, 2014 -- The stage went black, and when the lights flashed back on, George Washington appeared two dimensional. The actor portraying the first president became a still art piece.

Through lighting and other tricks, the scene transformed into Emanuel Leutze’s famous oil painting, “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” It was just one highlight of this year’s Pageant of the Masters, a theatrical presentation of live art with engaging music and narration in Laguna Beach.

Launched in 1933, the Pageant follows a long tradition of tableaux vivant, or “living pictures,” popular throughout history and referenced by Jane Austen in her novel “The House of Mirth.”

Participants dress up in clothing and makeup to match famous paintings or sculptures, then stand still with props and backgrounds. The Pageant of the Masters takes the execution of this concept to the next level, utilizing sophisticated stage techniques that cleverly trick the eye.

Pageant of the Masters
The 2014 theme, “The Art Detective,” included a variety of art pieces and stories about the artists, models, and even thieves. Photo by Zina Markevicius Kinrade

While most of the scenes are presented already complete, like the unveiling of an oil painting, the portrayal of Leutze’s painting was set up before the audience. Videos showed the actor backstage getting dressed in his costume and getting makeup and a headpiece for hair and the general’s hat.

The painted background is moved into place by stage hands. The other players climb into their spots in the painted boat, take their poses, and hold still.

At this point, the colors are more muted than the real painting, and the makeup appears clownish. Yet once the stage goes black, and the carefully calibrated lighting turns on, the combined effect is remarkable.

Even spectators looking up close through binoculars cannot see the full dimensions of the live human actors. The crowd is hypnotized as the stage appears to go flat, from a three dimensional view to a two dimensional picture, and the scene suddenly depicts “Washington Crossing the Delaware” like an excellent reproduction.

Some scenes are more captivating than others. For example, Thomas Graham’s oil painting, “Alone in London,” features a woman leaning on a wall, looking out onto the Thames.

While the background painting was well done, the sole actor did not match the energy of the multi-player pieces, such as “Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward” by Sir Samuel Luke Fildes. That 1874 painting portrays the desperation of the poor in cold Victorian England.

The Pageant’s version of the oil on canvas included at least eight live actors, at least four of them children. One little girl covered in a shawl wiggled just a little bit, and far from taking away from the live presentation, her slight movement added to the excitement. She reminded the audience how surprisingly still the rest of the actors remain.

The featured sculptures regularly dazzle the crowd. Completely covered in body paint, even on their eyelids, the actors hold graceful poses for long minutes as the audience studies them carefully.

In the Strauss Memorial by Edmund Hellmer, the Austrian composer is depicted in the center in bronze, encircled by white marble figures romantically reaching for each other. The actors matched Strauss’ confident high chin and the graceful outstretched arms of the surrounding men and women.

The brilliant Maine Monument by Attilio Piccirilli is another example. The gilt bronze sculpture stands in New York’s Central Park, and the gilded actress stood triumphantly over three charging horses in this portrayal. In addition to the elegant woman, her long robes and the horses featured expert detail to match the original.

Benvenuto Cellini’s “Saliera (Saltcellar)” from the 16th century was also a highlight. The partially nude man and woman, partially reclining and gazing at one another, shined in gold.

The Pageant of the Masters is a summer event, running nightly from July 9th through August 30th in an outdoor amphitheater in Laguna Beach. The show opens with music from a live 28-piece orchestra, which performs cheerful accompaniment throughout. Narration adds a touch of humor and much interesting background information.

The 2014 theme, “The Art Detective,” included a variety of art pieces and stories about the artists, models, and even thieves.

Historical details spanned from the Monuments Men successes of recovered art following World War II to the still-missing paintings from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The “Saltcellar” was one piece stolen from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna but found and returned.

A clever production of live art, music, and smart narration, the Pageant of the Masters is a unique experience that is definitely worth the drive.

Pageant of the Masters, (800) 487-3378,

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