FRIEZE FRAME

Re-creating the Masters

When people from outside Orange County find out that this is where you're from, they'll inevitably bring up the fact that Disneyland is all we've got going out here. They'll commonly observe that we were idiotic enough to name an airport after John Wayne. And, of course, they can't miss a potshot at our long and illustrious history of knuckleheaded, far-right-wing politicians.

According to them, however, we do have one saving grace: the Pageant of the Masters in Laguna Beach. People who have spent a half-hour ridiculing me for living in Orange County have turned around and told me how cool the Pageant of the Masters is. It is at this point that I know who the real knucklehead is because anyone who has lived in Orange County for any amount of time knows this and knows it well:

The Pageant of the Masters blows. Hard.

The Pageant of the Masters is to Orange County what the Walk of Fame is to Hollywood, what Fisherman's Wharf is to San Francisco, what the top of the Empire State Building is to New York City, what the production of an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical is to any major city, and what the Unabomber's cabin is to Montana.

People who live near these attractions know they exist and can even provide directions, but they never actually go there. Why would they? They're hokey tourist traps. Just like the Pageant of the Masters.

Want to see any serious Orange County artist throw a major conniption? Ask him/her how cool he/she thinks the Pageant of the Masters is. Whew, boy!

Tableaux vivants (living pictures) originated at least a thousand years ago in Europe. To make biblical events meaningful to peasants who spent all day begging for food instead of learning to read, the Best of the Good Book was routinely re-created with wood, papier-mâché and live actors in cathedrals or village parishes. Through the centuries, the living pictures moved into the streets and town squares, and the range of topics expanded to include art, history, politics, literature and mythology. Displays on carts were eventually paraded before spectators. They were called pageants.

Half of Laguna Beach's residents considered themselves artists by the 1930s. One of them opened the first Festival of the Arts—a stationary art show—in August 1932 on El Paseo Street near the Hotel Laguna. The following year, tableaux vivants produced by Roy Ropp were included, giving birth to that phrase that now makes us cringe: the Pageant of the Masters. In 1942, the whole hullabaloo moved to the Irvine Bowl.

Thousands of paintings, sculptures and bronzes have been re-created by presumably breathing actors over the years. Even a real actor—the late Bette Davis, who once maintained a home in Laguna Beach—volunteered one year. More than 200,000 suckers now see the pageant annually.

Confession time: I've been one of those suckers at least once. Maybe twice. I can't remember. I don't want to remember. I can remember being blown away—at first. Then the damn show dragged on. And on. And on.

I recall sitting there with my head rolling around like I had no control of my neck muscles and my eyes making contact with anything and everything other than what was up onstage. All of a sudden, I heard this rumble. One by one, guys in the audience started perking up. Many grabbed their spouse's binoculars, demonstrating a remarkable sudden interest in the show.

"What the fu . . .," I was muttering to myself before looking up at the stage and seeing a shapely young woman wearing nothing but bronze paint. The offshore breeze was blowing cold that night, if you follow me.

Tell you what: guys paid damn close attention to the next three or four re-created artworks. But then it was back to Blank Stare and Drool Island. By intermission, I'd had it. I would have volunteered to roll back and forth across a thumbtacked Laguna Canyon Road if it meant not having to sit through any more of that crap.

So, once before you die, go see the Pageant of the Masters. Then you'll know what the rest of us know: there are worse things than being home to Disneyland, John Wayne Airport and knuckleheaded, right-wing politicians.

Postscript: As this was being written, the city of Laguna Beach and the Festival of the Arts were squabbling over rent payments for the Irvine Bowl. Fest organizers claim if a deal isn't worked out, they may be forced to move the pageant. Los Angeles is lovely in the summer.

 
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