Laguna Beach's Pageant of the Masters returns tonight to Irvine Bowl--a facility that pageant officials say is too outmoded for future shows.
The 33-year-old Irvine Bowl, they claim, needs a $3-million revamping if the pageant is to keep up with competing cultural and entertainment attractions in more modern facilities.
"It's really quite simple," said the pageant's board president, Jack Kemp, of the proposal. "If we can't renovate and expand, we can't expect to keep drawing audiences at this pace. If we can't upgrade, we might as well close shop, maybe 1990, when our (current city) lease is up."
This summer, pageant officials expect the outdoor spectacle--opening in tandem with the Festival of Arts exhibition--to be a sellout for the 20th straight year. (The show runs through Aug. 28).
Factors leading to the renovation that pageant officials seek afflict the entire entertainment field: soaring operation and maintenance costs, more prudent spending habits of patrons and the rise of home video and other competition.
"Our ticket selling has been hurting the past few years, even more so this year," said pageant consultant Paul Griem. "Once, virtually the whole bowl was sold out four months before opening. Now, we don't sell out until well into the (run's) first few weeks."
Pageant officials maintain the problem isn't with their unique product. This summer, they said, the production is expected to be seen by 136,000 patrons and gross more than $2 million at the 2,662-seat facility.
In poses struck nightly by some 130 volunteers, the pageant's familiar assortment of billboard-size paintings, sculptures, posters and other celebrated works will be on view. The program once again closes with the reverently mounted "The Last Supper." It is a format that has varied little since the first show was staged in 1933.
But officials contend the pageant's enviable ticket-sales record isn't what it used to be.
Keeping the competitive edge, Griem and other officials said, lies in modernizing Irvine Bowl, the pageant's home since 1953.
Officials said they won't have enough money to renovate the facility unless the City of Laguna Beach--owner of the pageant and festival's 6-acre site--drastically reduces the rent, which last year amounted to $388,000 (mostly from the city's 17.5% take of gate receipts).
Negotiations have been deadlocked for two years on the pageant's proposal to cut the city's take to 10%. In 1980, officials considered moving the pageant to an undeveloped area on the city's eastern border and building two 3,000-seat, back-to-back amphitheaters that could offer simultaneous performances. The proposed larger site would have offered extra parking space, alleviating traffic jams on the lower Laguna Canyon Road.
But neither the proposed two-theater concept nor suggestions to move the pageant to Irvine, Huntington Beach or Santa Ana got past exploratory talks.
Last year, the pageant board decided to stay at the present site. Now being considered is a plan to renovate Irvine Bowl's seats, staging area and technical shops that fiscal consultants estimated would cost $3 million. The board has shelved as too costly a proposal to expand the bowl by 600 seats and to build a parking structure next door. That plan--including the proposed renovations--would cost at least $5 million, consultants said.