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Pageant Back in Its Old Frame of Mind

Officials say a spirit of optimism prevails -- in contrast to last year's disputes over leadership and licensing of its tableaux vivants.

June 05, 2004|Stanley Allison | Times Staff Writer

Organizers of Laguna Beach's Festival of Arts, bruised by last summer's infighting and rancor, are aiming for a back-to-the-basics summertime event expected to attract more than 250,000 visitors.

Last year, the festival, which began in 1932 and is an integral part of the city's economy and image, weathered a series of controversies.

They included a proposal to license its signature Pageant of the Masters for replication in other cities, a bitter board of directors election and a clash with an executive director who resigned and is now suing the festival.

"There was tremendous apprehension about the licensing issue" last year, said Anita Mangels, president of the board of directors. "The membership, the staff, the patrons, the volunteers were all extremely concerned. Now that we've put that behind us, there's a great spirit of optimism."

The festival, which is produced by more than 500 volunteers, opens July 5 and the pageant starts July 7. Both end Aug. 28.

The pageant, famous for using live models to replicate works of art, will feature 35 masterpieces this year, including "The Dance" by Matisse, "Les Demoiselles D' Avignon" by Picasso and a piece of the stage setting from Michel Fokine's ballet "Scheherazade." The re-creation pays homage to the 1910 Paris premiere which starred Vaslav Nijinsky.

"Every year we really work hard to make the show fantastic," said director Diane Challis Davy.

"But I have to say this is the most ambitious show we've ever attempted."

The festival board has also decided not to include a celebrity artist among the exhibitors this year, a move that last year stirred discontent among the 140 or so artists who must be approved by a jury to obtain a booth.

Another change is the food-court service, which this year will be provided by Gina's Pizza & Pastaria, of Laguna Beach. The owners have created a menu especially for the festival, Mangels said.

The festival grounds' Tivoli Terrace restaurant, operated by a local restaurant owner, will continue to offer formal dining in a garden setting.

A showcase improvement is the pageant's $1.8-million production facility, which was completed in April.

The hangar-like, 10,000-square-foot building, tucked mostly out of view, will be used to prepare sets and models for the re-creations.

"It was very distracting last year, but I think we're all even more resolved to keep the pageant here in Laguna. The volunteers and staff are like a family," Davy said.

"They do it because they love it. They don't do it for commercial reasons."

Board members and festival organizers said it is a relief to plan and conduct the arts festival and pageant without the gloom and tumult that colored last year's event.

Mangels said the festival and pageant are returning to a traditional formula while incorporating innovations and improvements.

"We have an asset in the Pageant of the Masters that is steeped in tradition and is cherished by many people," she said. "We need to guard that jealously ... while still moving forward in time."

She said that while the previous leadership may have been well-intentioned, "clearly, those intentions were not compatible with the mission of the festival."

That leadership included Bruce Rasner, a board member who was ousted last fall in an election reminiscent of the recall in 2000 of the board majority that attempted to relocate the festival and pageant to San Clemente.

Rasner was a staunch supporter of Steven Brezzo, who was hired in 2002 to devise new and creative ways of obtaining funds for the festival and pageant.

Brezzo alienated artists and festival members when he began discussions with an international talent agency about marketing the pageant's tableaux vivants -- recreations of art masterpieces -- to other groups that would take the show on the road.

His $175,000 salary irritated artists and longtime board members, who consider the homegrown festival and pageant an unpretentious event, albeit one that attracts a quarter of a million people.

Brezzo resigned in August with more than a year remaining on his contract, and sued board members, claiming they waged a campaign to undermine his authority and mission.

"They openly ridiculed [Brezzo's] programs at board of directors meetings and encouraged his subordinate employees to disobey his directives," the suit alleges.

Board members and festival employees declined to comment on the pending suit.

Brezzo was not available for comment, but his attorney, Dale Goldfarb, said his client is seeking his remaining salary and unspecified punitive damages.

"He would have liked to have been able to make an impact on the festival" Goldfarb said. "He's hurt he wasn't given a fair chance to do that."

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