Breathing Masterpieces: The Pageant of the Masters

Pageant of the Masters

Here’s what it’s like to take ‘The Grand Tour’ through the Festival of Arts’ Pageant of the Masters, where paintings come to life before your eyes.

For 85 years, the Festival of Arts (FOA) in Laguna Beach, California, has been captivating guests with its welcoming atmosphere, talented artists, and their unique creations. What started in 1932 as a way for artists to raise spirits during the Great Depression and hopefully sell a little art to those who came to see the Olympic Games in Los Angeles has become a much-anticipated summer tradition.

Pageant of the Masters

Irvine Bowl Minuet

Pageant of the Masters


Growing from an estimated 2,200 visitors the first year to approximately 250,000 guests annually, the FOA has shown that excellence in art and entertainment can bring a community together to be uplifted by the spirit of artistic expression.

In 1933 during the second annual FOA, some of the artists decided to stage a publicity stunt that would garner more attention for the festival. With the help of local volunteers costumed as characters from famous works of art, a parade of Whistler’s Mother, Mona Lisa, Atlas and others walked downtown along the Pacific Coast Highway to the FOA where they later appeared inside tiny booth-like sets, holding their poses as “living pictures.” Visitors would then take a brief break from viewing artists’ displays to catch a glimpse of these live masterpieces known as the Spirit of the Masters Pageant.

By 1935 businessman Roy Ropp and his wife Marie transformed this unique event into a one-of-a-kind, full-on production, complete with vibrant music, charming narration and skillfully painted backdrops. Now known as the Pageant of the Masters (POM), it quickly became a highlight of the festival. Fast-forward to today and the Pageant of the Masters itself draws an audience of over 150,000 and growing.

Pageant of the Masters

1935 Early Festival

This year the Pageant of the Masters takes guests on The Grand Tour. A young and adventurous Charles Blair sets off with the dedicated manservant Humphrey on a continental journey to experience the world’s great art firsthand, all the while corresponding with his father Lord Blair, who remains back at home.

It’s a funny, moving and poignant journey that showcases the incredible talent of everyone involved in creating this year’s Pageant of the Masters.

Pageant of the Masters


I had the chance to see The Grand Tour, and it feels a lot like watching some of the best magicians perform. Masterful misdirection during the evening show will have you captivated by extraordinary re-creations of timeless art while the next scene is being set up somewhere beyond your sight. Once the new scene is revealed, the effect is one of awe, and you’ll find yourself pondering how they’re able to transition to such incredibly detailed scenes so quickly.

As the story unfolds, each artistic re-creation leaves you wondering where the painting ends and the actors begin. Each scene is done so incredibly well that even when they give you a glimpse into how the illusion works, your brain still won’t be able to distinguish each model as a real-live actor. It’s an astounding experience that even had the guests behind us convinced not every scene is using models, though in fact they were.

The Portland Vase during the Pompeii journey was exceptionally mystifying. As the audience around me looked through their binoculars for a much closer detailed view, I sat openmouthed trying to comprehend the amount of work and talent it took to pull off such a beautiful depiction.

Pageant of the Masters

Portland Vase

Pageant of the Masters


Each time a sculpture was presented offstage, the collective oohs and ahhs grew more audible as the living art faded into darkness only to display a living painting onstage. Each unfolding scene was equally as impressive as those which came earlier.

Brilliantly, the Pageant of the Masters does not allow photographs to be taken during the show, leaving you to fully absorb the moment through your eyes instead of your phone. With the quiet darkness unbroken by digital light, each member of the audience is fully present, without a care if their photo is worthy of “likes” on their next Instagram post.

A live 29-piece orchestra led by Conductor Corey Hirsch enhances the journey with enchanting music that guides and transitions you from scene to scene. Narrator Richard Doyle adds just the right inflection of lighthearted adventure.

What seems to be a humorous start to The Grand Tour later transitions into heartfelt admiration and homage to the artists and their muses, particularly when presented with the tragic romance of Emma Hart (Lady Hamilton), who rightfully graces the cover of this year’s program as Circe by George Romnet.

Pageant of the Masters


There are many surprises to be had during The Grand Tour, many of which I’m choosing not to share so that you can be left wide-eyed and feeling the spirit of childlike wonder as you adventure along. One thing I can say is that this incredible experience is so much more than viewing static images while sitting in the dark. The entire outdoor theater is an artist’s playground that comes to life when you least expect it.

The Pageant of the Masters is an extraordinary show put on by a talented community of professionals, artists and volunteers who work so well together that the audience is not only transported back in time but deep into the canvas as well.

It’s no wonder the Festival of Arts and Pageant of the Masters draw hundreds of thousands of people to the beautiful coast of Laguna Beach each year. If you’re looking to truly journey to other lands while relaxing comfortably under the stars, then be sure to see The Grand Tour. You’ll leave with a full heart, and you’ll never look at a painting the same way again.

The Festival of Arts and Pageant of the Masters run now through August 31, 2017. For tickets and more information, visit their siteend

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