Fifty Years Later, OC's Original DIY Art Festival Is Still Going Strong

For the cantankerous artists of Laguna Beach in the 1960s, the Festival of Arts was the only game in town. Art was growing more abstract in the world outside of Laguna Beach, but it progressed more slowly within the Festival of Arts, and a lot of insulted artists couldn't get in.

When I first showed there in 1959, the makers of abstract or unusual art were grouped in one aisle, known as “Red Alley.” As more artists joined, the ratio of those who applied to the Festival of Arts and those who were accepted became wider. The juries had better and better selections from which to put together the show.

Egos were wounded among some touchy people. Angry “rejects” decided to start another festival in town, one without a jury. The rebels set up shop in 1965 on a vacant lot near the library. They ran their art show during the same weeks that the Festival of Arts was on. The new show did not happen the next year. Raucous protests, staged by outraged losers, surrounded the jurying process at the Festival of Arts in 1966 and 1967, as the world was dealing with the Vietnam War and flower power.

Frank Tauriello and Marilyn Zapp, married pro painters, were the first individuals to build a practical alternative art show in Laguna. They were not timid about expressing their opinions. Tauriello was a mild man with big, soulful eyes and tons of talent, while Zapp was a wide-mouthed, rubber-faced whiner who was more a commercial artist. Zapp attacked the Festival of Arts' jurying system by locking horns with Mayor William D. Martin, who was sitting on the festival's board of directors. Her argument was vetoed unanimously. In the loud chaos that followed, the police had to be called. Zapp and Tauriello then tried to change the nature of the City Council by running the soft-spoken and bemused Tauriello as a candidate. He didn't stand a chance, but his principles influenced several others. Two sympathetic men were elected, even though Tauriello wasn't.

His campaign manager was a sexy little bulldog painter from Texas, Dolores Ferrell, who approached me in the late spring of 1968. I had a reputation for promoting experimental and psychedelic art, and I knew where those artists were who were doing more radical work than could be seen at the Festival of Arts. Ferrell foretold a completely uncensored forum for creative statements, probably knowing that I'd had my censorship issues with the Festival of Arts in the past: In 1964, I had my metal sculpture Medusa in the festival; there was an outcry because it was nude and, worse, it had little pubic snakes to match the big pit vipers growing out of her head. (I had left in outrage over what I saw as bourgeois values, not to return until 10 years later, when the board invited me to be on the jury.)

“Bring your group and come join our new festival,” Ferrell told me in '68. She ran her picture in the paper with the announcement of another summer exhibition, a call-to-arms to other rejects. This article was read by Edmund Van Deusen, a most successful business man, both chubby and steely, who wore his curly hair too long for the Rotary Club and too short for a hippie. Van Deusen was a restless seeker of challenges and expanding his horizons toward becoming a Renaissance man. His interest in an alternative art festival was aroused, as he was a newly hatched sculptor looking for a forum. (He also became interested in Ferrell herself at this time.) Van Deusen had made his fortune manufacturing two-part epoxy resins, brand-new at the time, and was intent on using the stuff as a sculpture medium for the creation of large naked girls wearing boots.

When Van Deusen met Ferrell, he had just succeeded in effecting the construction of the Laguna Moulton Playhouse. Now he was ready for a new project. He had helped to convince the city to appropriate the land, arguing it was the only possible centrally located lot available—even though the Festival of Arts had earmarked the same land for its own development.

Two years later, Van Deusen infuriated the Festival of Arts by requesting licensing of the new Sawdust Festival, arguing that the Festival of Arts had no room to expand. The name of the Sawdust Festival originates with the Festival of Arts, which until about 1963 had sawdust covering the grounds and wooden booths. Then they put down the concrete and installed cement and terrazzo pillars to be hubs for booth panels. The new festival's name was a nostalgic nod to less corporate times.

Early in 1968, Van Deusen, Tauriello, Zapp and Ferrell agreed with my idea of bringing to Laguna a light show, there being in America just then an explosion of development in experimental projection devices. Such a show was also immediately identifiable as “hippie psychedelic.” I had access to a variety of light machines and their creators, which was one of the reasons Van Deusen and company decided to approach me—not to mention they were suddenly in need of more artist bodies to fill the large property. I called on every experimental artist I could think of, all of whom signed up. The momentum was building for a snail-shaped performing-arts pavilion designed by J. Lamont Langworthy, with a light show to be presented therein.


It was arranged that a preview of our show would be offered to the City Council. The burden of this event was to be carried by John Forkner's holographic light organ (later featured in the American Pavilion at the Tokyo World's Fair), Richard Aldcroft's projection kaleidoscope (later bought by the Revell Plastics Co.) and a bank of Carousel slide projectors with a multiported dissolve/resolve unit. The Carousel trays were to be packed with slides that would come up in an unorganized order.

Only part the council deigned to arrive; they were treated to a parade of huge images on the concrete block wall that included close-ups of natural childbirth. Somehow, that tray of slides had been mistakenly inserted into the program. The council members fled in indignation, muttering, “I told you so!”

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In the early '70s, the Sawdust Festival was becoming adolescent. It had a founding philosophy of free expression, and it had responsible leadership within as little structure as possible. In the beginning, there were only two rules, which are still the bedrock of the Sawdust Festival's constitution: (1) You had to live in Laguna Beach, and (2) whatever under the sun you presented to the public, you had to make it yourself. Because of such an open-door format, it was assumed the most banal and uninformed objects were as valid as a painting by a genius. Whatever the Sawdust Festival was becoming, it was very seductive to the public, and the crowds kept growing. People came for an adventure among the artists, and they got one.

Van Deusen became president of a languishing enterprise known as the Winter Festival around the time it was renamed the Laguna Beach Craft Guild. He moved it from the Festival of Arts to the old Main Beach boardwalk, where it finally had a great year. But the merchants there protested to the city that the Craft Guild was hurting their business. Mayor Richard Goldberg wondered why the show was not done on Forest Avenue, where the shops were mostly closed on Sunday. Van Deusen pounced on this remark and reported it to the press, thereby forcing its implementation.

Van Deusen was tired of micromanaging chief executives, so he decided to install an old-fashioned political boss who would be steady, unimaginative, reliable and malleable. He picked for the job the mechanic husband of a Guild member, Tom Leslie, who looked like an Irish bartender, with a bully-boy physique, Wyatt Earp eyes and a mustache you could use to sweep a gymnasium. Van Deusen told Leslie he should learn some kind of craft, so he could step into the Craft Guild presidency with his strong personality. Thus Leslie began making brass jewelry. When Van Deusen put the membership of the Craft Guild into the Sawdust Festival, Leslie then became available for Van Deusen to establish as a resident ward-heeler president of that show also. Leslie steadily began to groom yes-men for the board, establishing a political machine that lasted for a decade.

Was it necessary to the survival of the Sawdust Festival to put a non-creative junta in power? In retrospect, we can see that control fell into the hands of a few people. It was unfortunate that those people were the worst artists in the show. There was a lack of artistic leadership, as well as a tendency to justify amateurism on the basis of the non-juried system. Some of the board members thought it okay to do bad work because they couldn't tell the difference. The good news is the Sawdust Festival survived. The bad news is that it followed weak aesthetic standards.

Leslie was a benevolent despot, a tough opportunist and an accessible godfather. All those characterizations make a point. He changed over time, as did perceptions of him. In the beginning, he was less looming than he became later. His mustache told whether remarks were acceptable or not. If angry, Leslie's mustache would elevate into attack position. He puffed and clenched his jowls. His veins popped out. He once told young potter Jorg Dubin, “You'll never get in any show in Laguna Beach that I have anything to do with.” Twelve years later, Dubin had Leslie's job.

By 1975, Tauriello and Zapp had left the Sawdust Festival and were trying to start a new show in Dana Point. They sent out an overripe promo, stating, “We will move into the future under the divine guidance of our spiritual leader, Marilyn Zapp.” Nothing happened. Meanwhile, Van Deusen was advancing his career as a sculptor, working in colored polyester resins. He was pressing the envelope of free expression to the utmost limits. There seemed to be far less outrage than one might have expected, perhaps to Van Deusen's chagrin as a would-be agent provocateur.


But Van Deusen was getting bored. His intellect ate up experience like a Harvester. After a years-long affair with Ferrell faltered, he decided to hire a wife rather than marry one. Following some initial auditioning, he decided on Janice Costello, who looked remarkably like a female version of himself. They commenced their unusual arrangement, which worked so well they wrote a book about it called Contract Cohabitation. They made enough money on that endeavor that Costello used her share to buy an island off the coast of Honduras, where she may be still.

Van Deusen eventually died of a withering disease that had him wheelchair-bound for the last decade of his life. It was a physical ailment that did not affect his mind, which Van Deusen used sharply against a world that never lived up to his expectations.

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The Sawdust Festival's perimeter fence is the face with which it greets the public every year. But from 1968 to 1971, there was no such barrier. Between 1971 and 1972, several changes occurred. A building contractor, Bob Rider, known to some as “Builder Bob,” was hired in 1971 to install a fence around the chemical toilets. Rider was a compact, tan man with shiny, straight black hair, merry eyes, and smile wrinkles. At that time, Leslie was in his first year on the board. With overhead increasing, it was decided to charge a 25-cent admission to the 1972 show. In order to get the two bits, another fence needed to be built. Rider was hired to build that structure, which he made from redwood.

Rider came into the show using his phenomenal problem-solving skills to advise exhibitors on their building problems. The festival wasn't established enough then to get a loan from a bank, as Sawdust never had any money in those days, so Rider became its financial underwriter and construction expert. He and his crew, led by Roy Cameron (“The Fastest Hammer in the West”), built the show on the cuff for years, waiting weeks for receipts to be paid. Rider became an exhibitor himself, his best booth being a miniaturized solar house.

Rider was still in the show in 1977, but as a troubleshooter. He had evolved into the problem-solver with regard to special problems and construction knots among the exhibitors. Rider continued to give encyclopedic building expertise as graciously as an old uncle. In 1977, the Sawdust Festival leased the property next-door, now home to Seven Degrees, for the summer. In the leased area, Leslie asked Rider, “Why don't you build a platform over against the wall for performers?”

Whatever Leslie may have anticipated, what he got, almost instantly, was a full-blown stage, complete with wings and a proscenium arch. The stage proved to be a hit with performers, a convenience for board meetings, and a good place to hold Sunday fashion shows. The public loved the stage, but Leslie was frightened that something so big would violate the permit with the city by defining the Sawdust Festival as an entertainment venue. He also feared having to listen to moaning from exhibitors, which is exactly what happened. Those near the stage complained that it interfered with their business, and elsewhere, fears were expressed that the stage would open the door once again to the dreaded light show.

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By 1983, Laguna Beach was feeling the influence of the Women's Liberation Movement. This was reflected by a majority of ladies who won seats on the Sawdust Festival board. Their main qualification as board members seemed to be that they were not men.

In the wake of the coup, consternation reigned among the irresponsible, the uninformed, and the members who were frightened and confused by the sudden disappearance of what they had come to regard as normal. A reactionary faction started up. People who had been content to be ripped off so long as the boat did not rock, now wanted revenge for having been cast rudely into the choppy waters of having to think for themselves.

This is when Dubin, then 26 years old, in the flux of chaotic domestic arrangements and publicly conducting an affair on the Sawdust grounds, took the helm. He was not only an artistic genius, but he was also socially irascible. His attitudes were complicated by his youth and his testosterone overload. He was determined to be the “Chief of the Show” in every way, which led to various pointless power plays. The older guys shook their heads and humored him. One day, fellow founding members “Rodeo” Bob Foster and I sat in as Rider asked Dubin what he thought about building a major entertainment deck in front of the waterfall.


Dubin immediately gave Rider the go-ahead. A day or so later, Foster and I witnessed Dubin endorsing building the new concession structures up to code so they could later accommodate a second story. Rider's crew accomplished both of these projects efficiently and in time for the opening of the show, but it wasn't cheap. This construction soon returned, in the hands of his female enemies, as a weapon to hurt Rider.

Construction on Sawdust '83 moved ahead, this time with Rider and his crew building a tall, wooden quasi-Transamerica-style tower that rose high over the gate. Rider had to contend constantly with the attitudes of Dubin, who apparently wanted all spotlights to shine on him alone. He was forever coming on like a rival bull.

An excuse developed to move decisively against Rider. The emotional climate in the show was ripe for a scapegoat; after having been convinced of how they had been bilked, the reactionary element of the exhibitor members rushed to the opposite extreme, and they were ready to see malefactors in every plastic trash can. The bills kept on coming, and Rider continued forwarding them to the board.

When he'd submitted the same bill twice, his enemies pounced on it and began accusing Rider of double-billing. They did not say how they had generated the second bill themselves by failing to pay the first one.

The board called on Rider to refute the accusations against him, foremost of which was that he constructed the deck and concession buildings without its approval. When he asserted that the president had okayed the work, Dubin claimed he hadn't. Witness testimony to the contrary carried no weight because they were seen as being Rider's friends and therefore lacked credibility. The outstanding balance owed Rider was never paid.

Rider bore the weight of that libelous shadow. More than 20 years later, with the Sawdust Festival under saner and more sober administration, and with Rider suffering severely from the onset of Parkinson's Disease, the show called on him again—and he answered the call. The Sawdust Festival had installed a permanent structure for use by glass-blowers, but in the 11th hour, it was discovered that the gas feeds didn't function. The festival needed help—and fast. Who had always saved them over the years? Yup, Rider. He saw the problem and supervised the efficient fix.

Then he hung around a little, looking over the developments of two decades, which were piecemeal. The “temporary” façade that had replaced the once-annually renewed one reflected the idea of a theme park, a cartoonesque superstructure that has remained in place for almost 30 years, despite its having been presented as a five-year solution. Management now turns aside requests for an aesthetic update of the show's look by claiming lack of funds. (Such a thing never kept anyone from being creative in the old days.)

Rider took it all in and conceived a master plan for the development of the show. Nobody has ever shown any interest in looking at that plan. In 2003, Rider died, unredeemed but mourned by all who knew him—except the mean-spirited and ignorant.

The chaos that destroyed Rider was the watershed moment in the Sawdust Festival's history. The volunteer board hired a manager, commencing its long slide into restless bureaucracy. The practical began to dominate the visionary. The art venue shifted toward an entertainment venue. The novelty of artistic experiences, while remaining as a rationale for the show, receded in favor of bands and beer.

The Sawdust Festival has turned the corner of waning receipts and diminishing attendance in recent years. The artists still determine the nature of the show, within the California Corporate Code. Thanks to Van Deusen's foresight, the show owns the property upon which it sits. Van Deusen had made a sweet deal to buy the place, paying more than it was worth. “Why not?” he had asked. “After all, it's found money.”

The Sawdust artists also continue to have free expression. The balance between the commercial and the creative continues to shift, and it's up to the public to do the endorsement. The greatest social value of the Sawdust Festival is its nature as a recurring village, where members of the show continue their two-month-long summer relationships over five decades.

While everything else might change in life, for the exhibitors, the Sawdust Festival represents continuity. Growing up has proved to be an evolution from anarchy to corporation. The onetime semi-criminal lunatic fringe has become part of the establishment, and the future will reveal how much real art may still be in it. Still, 50 years after its founding, the festival remains a gift to artists, one of a kind in its potential for expressive freedom, and everybody knows it's fun.


Artist and sculptor Dion Wright is a founding member of the Sawdust Festival, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. At the city's March 5 Patriot's Day parade, he was celebrated as Laguna Beach's Artist of the Year. He is also the author of five books, most recently including his memoir, Tempus Fugitive: Art, Beatniks, Sex, Hippies, Art Festivals, Mind Expansion, Mortality, available via

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