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, or if you love hitting museums en famille, 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. Each evening around the dinner hour musicians play live music (mostly jazz) to picnic by; attendees can bring their own food or buy a light bite from the on-site snack bar to enjoy on the patio, surrounded by music and art. For locals, admission to all of this pre-pageant entertainment is free; non-Lagunans pay $5-$12 to enjoy the artsy environment if they're not buying tickets to the evening show.
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A free printing project (Photo by the author)
The main event begins at 8pm, when ticket holders file into the hillside amphitheater 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. 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 narration that weaves the thread through the evening's selections. From Greek statues to movie posters, from Art Deco perfume bottles to Andrew Hopper paintings, anything aesthetically pleasing is on the table.
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 for us 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 magical.
The performance 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 two nights. Clearly, Laguna evenings are reliably pleasant.
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The highlight of our evening was seeing this work come together before our eyes.
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 for anyone living in the greater LA area.
Tickets to Pageant of the Masters range from $15 to over $200 and include admission to the Festival of Arts grounds. Admission to the festival without Pageant of the Masters tickets costs $8-$12 (free for kids) for visitors and is free for 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 through August 31.
Painting or performers? You decide.
All photos courtesy of Festival of Arts unless otherwise noted