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The Fine Art of Compromise

Pageant Needs to Evolve but Shouldn't Alienate Laguna

September 07, 2003

Laguna Beach cherishes its offbeat Pageant of the Masters, but it also must realize that it didn't invent the idea of people posing as pieces of art, nor does it own the concept.

Tableaux vivants were a fixture at religious processions during the Middle Ages, in pageants during the Renaissance and as parlor games during the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Laguna Beach show brought high-tech gloss and live orchestral music to the tradition. But it's easy enough to copy, and the Festival of the Arts board, which runs the pageant, shouldn't be vilified for considering licensing spinoff shows in far-flung locations.

Board members and the festival's executive director -- who recently announced his resignation over this and other controversial innovations -- say they had heard that organizations elsewhere were looking to set up similar shows and that licensing provided the best means of protecting the pageant and bringing in additional revenue.

City officials and residents have legitimate concerns, though, and the festival needs to work harder to address those before it enters into any talks.

Only a year ago, the festival signed a 40-year lease in which the city drastically reduced its fee for the festival grounds in exchange for a provision keeping the permanent pageant site in Laguna Beach.

The festival board must live up to the spirit as well as the letter of that agreement by not participating in other permanent pageant productions and ensuring that spinoff shows are too far away to compete with the original.

At its heart, the division is over whether the pageant should remain a quirky, homespun event, as city residents want, or become a glitzy, high-profile affair that the festival has been moving toward.

The festival board complains that it isn't taking in enough money to buy a $10-million cover for the Irvine Bowl. Residents wonder why it needs one when the pageant has operated for decades without.

The festival sought to bring in more customers for its art exhibits by inviting actress Jane Seymour to display her paintings, angering other artists who had to go through a jury process.

Even the food is under attack, with the festival opting this year for higher-priced, more sophisticated fare and locals longing for the days long gone when nonprofit organizations sold pretzels and hot dogs to raise funds.

The festival cannot afford to alienate its host city. The arts festival was, from its Depression-era start, a community effort, and it would be in much worse financial shape today without the hundreds of local volunteers who stand -- costumed, made-up and motionless -- onstage for 90 seconds each evening, or who help with the production.

As much as Laguna Beach would like time to stand as still as those volunteer models, it must allow for change.

If the pageant hadn't evolved from its 1932 roots, with costumed residents posing inside a makeshift frame, it never would have survived to be the subject of so much rancor today.

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