Laguna Beach Arts Festival – Pageant of the Masters


Have you ever attended an event, or visited a special place, that was so unique, so different from anything you had ever experienced, that you realized right while you were there that you’d have no way to describe it to others back home later, that the only way to “get” this was to be right there in the middle of it?

Seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time was such an experience for me. Watching the Cirque du Soleil show Ka in Las Vegas was like that. Experiencing the show Sleep No More in Manhattan also qualified.

The Laguna Beach Pageant of the Masters is such an experience. I know of no other place in the world that puts on an event like it, and just as it is difficult to convey the experience to anyone, I find it very challenging to describe it here.

The Pageant of the Masters has been put on since 1932, and this year it’s the 80th anniversary. The venue is an outdoor amphitheater and it starts at 8:30 pm, just ask dusk turns to dark. I estimated that the theater holds more than 2,000 people, and they seem to fill it up every night from the end of June to the end of August. There is very little advertising, the event is not cheap – it’s like going to a concert and it lasts for about two hours.

While the day in Laguna Beach was hot and sunny, the night turns chilly right away and savvy Pageant goers bring jackets, sometimes blankets and definitely binoculars. You can also rent blankets and binoculars.

There is a narrator that guides the audience, and a full orchestra plays specially composed music and sometimes sound-effects.

Essentially, the object of the Pageant is to recreate real paintings or other famous artworks using stagecraft and human actors. This does not sound very exciting when written, but imagine this:

The stage and theater are completely dark. Music plays, and the narrator talks about a period of ancient Rome and describes the history of a fountain. Suddenly the lights come on and on the dark stage there is that fountain, with all detail.


This picture shows the fountain. The five humans, various Roman gods, in the fountain are real actors. They do not move. They are as frozen as the marble of the real fountain in Rome would be. Not a finger, not a hair, not an eye moves. The scene is in front of the audience for maybe a minute or two, while the narrator describes the various features of the artwork, or its history, and makes it come to life. Then, as abruptly as it appeared, the lights go off, and it’s gone.

The narrator transitions to the next work of art, and then it appears. Most of the art are paintings, some of which we recognize, of course.

They always “build” one scene right in front of the audience. The stage hands push in the scaffoldings turned around with the lights on. The audience then sees the actors climb up into their positions, all while the narrator describes what is going on. The stage hands then turn the scaffolding around, the backdrop comes down, the actors move into their final positions, the curtain closes around the painting boundaries and then – presto – the lights come on and what was a scene of stage props and actors moving around turns into a frozen painting where nothing moves and you’d swear you’re looking at the original in a museum. When this happens, an audible gasp escapes from the several thousand people in the audience, expressing disbelief of what just happened in front of their eyes. A painting materialized.

Every year, the grand finale of the Pageant, is the same: The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci. It is an image so powerful, so real, so authentic, it gave me shivers.

I was literally experiencing art.

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