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Now The Story Of 'Pageant Of The Masters': From Laguna Beach Sideshow To 'Arrested Development'

John Singer Sargent's The Garden Wall will be recreated as part of the Pageant of the Masters 2018 theme "Under the Sun," which is a tribute to plein air art. (Photo courtesy Festival of Arts of Laguna Beach)
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For more than 80 years, Laguna Beach's Pageant of the Masters has literally brought world-famous and local works of art to life using real people.

Volunteers in Orange County dress up and pose against elaborate sets to make themselves look like they're actually a sculpture, or in a painting (think 13 guys posing at a table to recreate Leonardo Da Vinci's The Last Supper).

About 140,000 art lovers are expected to see the annual show, which opens Friday and runs through Sept. 1 at the Irvine Bowl. The pageant is held every year during Laguna's Festival of Arts, which also features food, wine, music and local art exhibits.

There have only been a handful of years since its opening when the show did not go on. That was due to rain and World War II.

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Isabella Baratti, left, and Lauren King pose backstage in makeup and costume for the "Raising of the Flag on Iwo Jima" recreation scene at the Pageant of the Masters. (Photo by Annie Lesser for KPCC/LAist)

Diane Challis, the pageant's longtime director, said the idea for these "living pictures" started as far back as medieval times in Europe.

"In the 18th century it was a parlor game to pose as a famous character from mythology or a famous work of art or a sculpture," she said.

That parlor game became popular in the states, especially 1920s Laguna Beach. Challis said it was a lot like playing charades.

In 1932, Laguna started its Festival of Arts with exhibits to celebrate the city's local art scene. But they needed a way to get people in the door. That's when the idea started to recreate art as a festival sideshow. Back then it was called Spirit of the Masters.

A 1933 photo of a recreation of James McNeill Whistler's "Whister's Mother" -- one of the first "living art" scenes from Laguna Beach's Spirit of the Masters sideshow.

One of those early living pictures was Whistler's Mother, James McNeill Whistler's painting of -- you guessed it -- his mother wearing a bonnet and black dress, sitting profile in a chair.

A few years later, Laguna resident Roy Ropp started directing the show. He worked in real estate, and had a thing for painting landscapes and seascapes.

Ropp introduced music, narration, backdrops and sets. He also coined a new name for the show: Pageant of the Masters.

The pageant grew into such a hit over the years, even actress Betty Davis was scheduled to perform. Due to an injury, Davis's plans to be in the pageant were foiled.

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Fast forward to 2018, this year's theme is "Under the Sun," a tribute to plein air paintings, a style that means painting in the open air.

Dan Duling has written the pageant's narration for the past 38 years. And he could go on about Laguna's plein air painting culture.

"Here in Southern California where the light was so made Laguna a haven for artists who loved to get out and paint the seascapes, the canyons, the groves of eucalyptus," Duling said, adding that some described Laguna's art community as the 'Eucalyptus School of Plein Air Painters."

Pageant of the Masters volunteer cast member Bill Garrett gets help with his wig for a pageant rehearsal in Laguna Beach on Wednesday, June 21, 2018. (Photo by Annie Lesser for KPCC/LAist)

Every year, Duling writes a segway to the pageant's long-standing final scene -- Leonardo Da Vinci's The Last Supper. The one with Jesus and his 12 apostles sitting at that long table.

It's been the finale since 1936. And if you see past photos of the show, it looks exactly like an actual painting. Some audience members bring binoculars, trying to see if performers blink or twitch.

A 1958 photo of a Pageant of the Masters finale rehearsal, Leonardo Da Vinci's "The Last Supper." (Photo courtesy Festival of Arts of Laguna Beach)

Richard Cassiere knows the kind of pressure those performers are under. He's been a pageant volunteer for 36 years and plays St. Thomas in Da Vinci's painting. Backstage during a busy rehearsal, Cassiere, decked out in a long gray robe, wig, beard, and some black, thick-framed glasses -- not part of the costume -- said he's seen generations of volunteers come back year after year.

"I've seen girls that were in elementary school, now they're almost becoming grandmothers," he said. "This is like a special family -- a summer neighborhood that I love coming to."

Cast members depicting Leonardo Da Vinci's "The Last Supper" hang out at a Pageant of the Masters rehearsal in Laguna Beach on Wednesday, June 21, 2018. (Photo by Annie Lesser for KPCC/LAist)

The Last Supper is one of 38 pieces of art in the show this year. About 500 volunteers work on stage and behind the scenes. They've been rehearsing since February and can only practice about two scenes per rehearsal. It's so time consuming because they have to think about lighting, angles, makeup, headpieces -- everything has to be just right to look as close to the original artwork as possible.

Volunteer actors practice blocking for Leonardo Da Vinci's "The Last Supper" recreation at a Pageant of the Masters rehearsal in Laguna Beach on Wednesday, June 21, 2018. (Photo by Annie Lesser for KPCC/LAist)

The results have gotten a lot of attention. The late California's Gold host Huell Howser covered it in his signature style. Jimmy Kimmel sent his late-night TV sidekick, Guillermo Rodriguez, to volunteer.

And of course, there's the classic episode of Arrested Development.

That's the one were George Michael Bluth (the awkward teen, not the '80s pop star), played by Michael Cera, was pegged to be in Michelangelo's Creation of Adam fresco. Many will know it as that painting on the Sistine Chapel's ceiling.

But George Michael was a bit hesitant to wear Adam's anatomically correct costume for the pageant.

Adding to that, George Michael's grandfather, George Bluth, Sr. (played by Jeffrey Tambor) is allowed out of prison for a day to reprise his long-held role as God in the painting. But he uses the opportunity for an escape attempt, and hilarity ensues.

Frontispieces aside, director Diane Challis said she wants the pageant to keep doing what it did 85 years ago.

"I hope that through seeing our pageant that people will be more interested in art," she said. "And be more interested in the backstory of what sort of person the artist was."

Editor's note: A version of this story was also on the radio. Listen to it here on KPCC's Take Two.

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