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LAGUNA'S SUMMER GALAS : With Festivals and Pageantry, the Artists' Haven Salutes Tradition and 'the Beyond'

July 02, 1988|CHRIS CHRISTENSEN | Christensen is a free-lance writer who lives in Long Beach

It's 8 a.m., and already Laguna Beach locals are dashing around the town's quaint business district to shop for groceries, gas up the car or stop by the dry cleaners. The scene is repeated every Saturday morning in July and August.

That's because residents of this scenic community know two things: It's festival time, and the tourists are coming.

That means that getting errands and chores done early is a matter of survival for Laguna's 24,500 residents.

"During the arts festivals," explained Police Chief Neil Purcell, "28,000 to 32,000 cars travel the coast highway daily through Laguna, and we can expect about 10,000 visitors a day."

Four Attractions This Summer

The attractions--four of them this summer--are the Festival of Arts & Pageant of the Masters, the Sawdust Festival, Art-A-Fair, and a newcomer, the Starfair Visionary Arts Expo, a New Age art event. All begin this weekend or next and continue through Aug. 28 on a stretch of Laguna Canyon Road.

The city's festival tradition began in 1932, a direct result of the Depression. With sales stagnating, a group of artists organized the first Festival of Arts to promote their work. The next year, a "side show" was added--a re-creation of the painting "Whistler's Mother" featuring a live model.

"They charged 10 cents to see it, and the pageant was born," said Sally Reeve, the show's public relations director for 21 years.

Today, the Pageant of the Masters is the granddaddy of the events, with its re-creations of great works of art in tableaux vivants (living pictures) using live models and technical lighting effects. For a half century, it has attracted millions of visitors from all over the world.

Laguna's reputation as an artists colony began at the turn of the century. Many artists sought inspiration in the bit of paradise nestled between the Pacific Ocean and the San Joaquin Mountains but were slow to settle in the area because of a lack of drinking water and accessible roads.

After a few homesteaders moved in, completion of Laguna Canyon Road in 1914 opened the door for others. Newcomers joined residents, like watercolorist Norman St. Clair, who by then had painted many of Laguna's beautiful vistas. By World War I, the city had become an artists' mecca.

A Citywide Project

Today, the Pageant of the Masters and its accompanying art festivals have evolved into a citywide project, with the pageant alone involving nearly 500 volunteers. For many of them, the events are more than tools for boosting art sales or funding scholarships and grants in the arts.

"To me," said Glen Eytchison, 33, pageant director for 10 years, "the pageant is a place where people reach deep inside to give a lot of themselves. I consider the pageant my home and those people my family."

Staged nightly beginning Friday at the Irvine Bowl, the Pageant of the Masters has captured worldwide attention for its technical accuracy.

Tableaux vivants were first presented in churches in medieval Europe to depict religious scenes. Later they were staged in the streets and public squares on special occasions, or to welcome and impress visiting royalty. Although the general practice was to freeze in position and remain silent, those posing sometimes spoke or sang.

"Before I became involved, a pageant director tried allowing more movement," Reeve said. "For instance, a woman posing as a harpist suddenly began to play the instrument, but it wasn't very popular. The audiences didn't like it."

Over the years, the event has grown around its audiences, and the directors have been more than willing to oblige them. Recently, however, some critics have taken a few jabs at the pageant's seriousness and what they perceive as an unwillingness to stretch its creative limits.

"Actually, they don't criticize the production itself, but mainly the concept and its tendency to be safe," Eytchison said. "One critic said we should do more challenging pieces and recommended a particular painting, which happened to be a distorted, abstract-like portrait."

Though he appreciates these suggestions, Eytchison said they are often made without an understanding of the technical aspects of the show.

"Not only would that portrait be difficult to reproduce using a live subject, but how would someone in the back row even see something that small?" he asked.

Even with a large body of work, such as Norman Rockwell's, there are only so many paintings that translate well onto the stage, Eytchison explained.

"In paintings where there is extreme perspective, with someone very far away and someone very close, or where people are half on and half off the canvas, we are limited."

In response to criticism that the pageant has always ended on a serious note with Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper," he said: "We do it because it reminds everyone in the pageant of the commitment to retain the traditions that were established by those who came before us."

Narration, Music

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