Finding the life in art, and the art of life, at Pageant of the Masters

July 7, 2023, 7:44 PM · The best theme park attractions blend the work of creators from a wide variety of art forms. Stagecraft, visual art, film, audio, musical performance, and acting come together with engineering to create unique experiences that have helped make theme parks one of the world's most popular - and commercially successful - art forms.

But theme parks were hardly the first venue to blend different art forms to craft something unique and compelling. In the middle ages, creators were bringing together visual and theatrical arts to stage "living pictures," as actors posed on stage to recreate well-known paintings and sculptures.

Often called by the French name "tableaux vivant," this art form endured into the 20th century, entertaining and engaging audiences from big cities to American frontier towns. Today, tableaux vivant continues, perhaps most notably just a few miles down the road from Disneyland, in the annual Pageant of the Masters in Laguna Beach.

Awarded the 2020 Thea Classic award from the Themed Entertainment Association - an honor won in other years by It's a Small World, the Main Street Electrical Parade, and Knott's Halloween Haunt - Pageant of the Masters kicks off its 2023 season tonight with the debut of its new production, "Art Colony: In the Company of Artists."

I was invited by the Pageant to preview this year's show last night. The production brings more than 40 artworks to life on and around the Irvine Bowl stage in Laguna Beach, accompanied by a narrator and a live orchestra in the theater's pit.

The show kicks off more in the style of musical theater than strictly tableaux vivant. An overture leads us into a small chorus singing about the works of French masters such as Renoir, Manet, and Monet, whose works we then see presented in tableaux vivant on the Bowl stage. The musical theater style returns later for a retrospective of the works of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, but most of the production is devoted to tableaux vivant with the live audio accompaniment.

Which, somewhat often, includes gasps of disbelief from the 2,600-person crowd. The Pageant rents binoculars, and experienced visitors know to bring their own. I sat in the sixth row from the stage, yet I often wanted a closer view, to confirm whether figures on the stage were people or just part of the background painting.

Pageant of the Masters recreation of The Oyster Gatherers by John Singer Sargent
Pageant of the Masters recreation of The Oyster Gatherers by John Singer Sargent

The art of blending foreground performers with background imagery continues in the theme park business today, of course, as anyone who has seen that impressive work in Universal Studios Florida's The Bourne Stuntacular can attest. But in the Pageant of the Masters, the actors (who are community volunteers) perform by remaining absolutely still. That's impressive stage work, especially when one sees the various nighttime bugs of Southern California fly toward the stage, drawn by its lights. There's no swatting those away when you're playing the part of a Cellini sculpture or John Singer Sargent painting.

It's not just the actors who make these living pictures, of course. Under the leadership of Director Diane "Dee" Challis Davy, makeup, costume and lighting design help sell the illusion of performers melting into visual art, with that illusion brought to the stage by the work of hundreds of make-up artists, background painters, prop makers, and stagehands, who orchestrate the movement of all the elements needed to bring a new work of art to the stage every couple of minutes.

Pageant of the Masters recreation of The Oyster Gatherers by John Singer Sargent
Photo by Ron Azevedo, courtesy Festival of Arts | Pageant of the Masters

So, yeah, let the audience gasp. Their astonishment is well earned.

Yet Pageant of the Masters has not endured for 90 years by providing only visual spectacle. Pageant organizers tell a story, too, and this year's highlights some of the communities that have helped nourish and sustain the creativity of great artists over the decades.

Laguna is itself a bit of an artists' colony, as illustrated by the works of local legend Roger Kuntz, which are featured late in this year's show. Pageant of the Masters this year also features the Academie Julian de Paris, New York City's Ashcan School, the artists colonies of New Mexico, the Harlem Renaissance, and the works of Chicano artists from East L.A., as displayed in the new Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art & Culture of the Riverside Art Museum.

Southern California does not lack for great art museums, with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Getty, the Broad, the Norton Simon Museum, and the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens - among others - offering world-class exhibitions. Nothing substitutes for the experience of standing in front of an artist's original work and making a personal connection with it. But what the Pageant of the Masters does brings a social element to art that can be profound for the viewer, as well.

No museum experience allows you to be part of a crowd of thousands that gasps when a work appears, like a concert audience when an unannounced special guest takes the stage. Those are electric moments, and art needs everyone of those that artists can help craft.

So whether you are a theme park attractions fan, a theater fan, a fan of visual arts, or just someone looking for a great entertainment experience with thousands of other Californians and tourists, the Pageant of the Masters deserves a spot on your lifetime "to-do" list.

If you go

Tickets for the Pageant of the Masters are available via the Pageant's website, with prices starting at $25 on select nights. Most tickets are in the $35-125 range.

Admission to Pageant of the Masters also includes admission for the entire season to the adjoining Festival of Arts Fine Art Show, where dozens of artists display works for sale.

There is no parking at the Festival of Arts and Pageant of the Masters facility at 650 Laguna Canyon Road in Laguna Beach. But parking is available in nearby lots and at street meters, with free shuttles taking visitors to and from the Pageant. I used, and recommend, Parking Lot 16, located one mile north of the Pageant on Laguna Canyon Road. Parking there is just $5 for the day on weekdays and $10 on weekends, with a shuttle stop in the lot. After the show, you will need to cross Laguna Canyon Road to board the shuttle to take you back to Lot 16 on the northbound side of the street.

It can get chilly in the evenings near the coast, so bring a sweater, light jacket, or blanket. No recording is allowed in the Bowl. If you would like to learn more about the production of the show, please see our story from the 2020 Thea Awards Case Studies: Thea Award winners bring art and history to life on grand scale.

And for more theme park and themed entertainment news, please sign up for Theme Park Insider's weekly newsletter.

Replies (1)

July 8, 2023 at 9:08 AM

This is fantastic! And what a colossal effort it must take to bring this to reality!

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