A pageant sculptor helps volunteer cast members into their poses at a rehearsal
A pageant sculptor helps volunteer cast members into their poses at a rehearsal

Pageant of the Masters in Laguna: These Paintings Are Not What They Seem

One of the most exciting pieces of news for summer 2021 is that the Pageant of the Masters is back!

Every city has something uniquely its own, some quirky event or phenomenon that defies description yet defines by association. Houston has its rodeo; Boston has its tea party, and Laguna Beach has the Pageant of the Masters

If you've never experienced this curious gem, the private treasure of the people of Laguna, opportunity awaits you every night all summer long. But get ready to clean your glasses, because you won't always be sure what you're looking at. The extraordinary event is unlike anything else I've seen; it may not be everyone's cup of tea, but if you're raising a budding artist, if your family rocks art museums, or if you just love outdoor entertainment on a summer evening, you owe it to yourselves to check the Pageant of the Masters off this summer's bucket list.

The Pageant is the nightly climax of Laguna's Festival of Arts, one of three summer-long art festivals put on by the seaside town. The Festival of Arts is the top-of-the-line display, with museum-quality exhibitors sharing works few can afford to buy but all can appreciate. Other highlights of this festival are free mixed media and printing workshops that run all day (until shortly before the pageant's curtain each night), as well as timed workshops taught by professional artists for a modest fee, and ceramic activities available all day, also for a fee.

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Each evening around the dinner hour musicians play live music to picnic by; attendees can bring their own food to enjoy on the patio or buy a light bite from the on-site snack bar and enjoy dinner surrounded by music and art. For locals, admission to all of this pre-pageant entertainment is free; non-Lagunans pay $5-$15 to enjoy the artsy environment if they're not holding tickets to the evening show.

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The Irvine Bowl is a delightful evening setting. 

The main event begins at 8:30pm, when ticket holders file into the hillside Irvine Bowl to experience the extraordinary 80+ year-old series of tableaux set to live orchestra music that has come to define the town. Each season a different theme is chosen, and that becomes the path that the production carves through centuries of art on the amphitheater stage and surrounding hillside.

The theme for 2021 is Made in America: Trailblazing Artists & Their Stories, and I was delighted to hear so many little-known stories about American artists while watching art that was new to me come to life—alongside familiar masterpieces like the Lincoln Memorial. Performers, scenic artists, costume designers, masters of lighting, and make-up specialists work for months to create living versions of classic paintings, sculptures, and other works of art which are set to music by a live orchestra, with engaging narration that weaves the thread through the evening's selections. From statues to movie posters to classic paintings, anything aesthetically pleasing is on the table.


A young volunteer gets make-up in preparation for the transformation.

Calling these creations tableaux, however, doesn't do them justice. The artists behind the phenomenon create illusions that baffle the eye and delight the senses. One of the highlights of the evening is the opportunity to watch performers prepare for and walk in or out of one of the paintings before our very eyes. Most of the evening is presented as finished artwork, but there is always one chance to peek behind the scenes, and the transformation is utterly magical.

The 90-minute performance (with intermission) might feel a bit long for a highly active or small child, but my 12-year-old son and I were absolutely enthralled the first time we went. The amphitheater provides a beautiful nighttime setting, like a Hollywood Bowl with sea air and a delicious climate. One piece of trivia that astonishes me is that since 1935 the show has only been canceled for weather on three nights. Clearly, Laguna evenings are reliably pleasant. Pandemics notwithstanding, the Pageant of the Masters can be relied upon to thrill the senses every summer evening. Bring a blanket, maybe a pair of binoculars, and prepare to be amazed.

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A free printing project (Photo by the author)

Laguna days are not too shabby either, and a full day spent in the area allows for visiting one of the other two summer arts festivals as well, both located along the road leading to the Festival of Arts' grounds. The Art-a-Fair festival brings together artisans of a slightly more affordable nature (described to me by a participant as Macy's to the Festival of Art's Saks 5th Avenue) and also offers workshops for kids. Meanwhile the Sawdust Art Festival up the road is the craftiest, etsyest of the three, with plenty of affordable, homey creations. Here, too, kids can find opportunities to create alongside professional artists.

As all of these activities imply, Laguna is a pretty darn artsy area; in fact the entire town was settled as an artists' colony in the early 20th century. The Pageant began in the 1930s and has been a highlight of the Orange County arts scene ever since. But the summer staple is not just a bucket list item for OC families; it's a summertime must-see for anyone living in the greater LA area.

Tickets to Pageant of the Masters range from $25 to over $200 and include admission to the Festival of Arts grounds. Admission to the festival without Pageant of the Masters tickets costs $10-$15 ($5 for kids) for non-Laguna locals. Passports are available for those wanting to attend all three festivals. Pageant of the Masters performances run nightly every summer, from early July until Labor Day weekend.

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Think this is a painting? Take a second look!

This post was originally published in 2016 and has been updated since. All photos are courtesy of Laguna Festival of Arts unless otherwise noted.

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