Laguna's Pageant of the Masters is 90 Years Old

On a summer evening after attending an exhibition at the Laguna Art Museum, my artist daughter and I walked the serene streets of Laguna Village. A grace to this town stood out from the atmosphere of other Southern California beach towns: art galleries on just about every block, a 1923 Craftsman home turned popular dining spot and down the street romantic Hotel Laguna on the bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. During its heyday, Hollywood stars escaped to this once-secluded arts colony.

Then we approached the Irvine Bowl amphitheater on Laguna Canyon Road. The woodsy open-air venue is home to world-famous Pageant of the Masters, the mesmerizing, internationally renowned performance and visual arts production of tableaux vivant (French for living pictures), the ancient art form of people imitating art.

In 1933 the pageant began as a tiny makeshift stage the size of two phone booths. It was the brainchild of the isolated town’s creative inhabitants to help draw visitors to Laguna’s second Festival of Arts that showcased the works of local artists but was off the beaten path.

That community effort put Laguna on the tourist map. Ninety seasons later the event has reigned as the heart of the eight-week-long arts festival held from July through August or early September each year. Only two events in history canceled the pageant: World War II and the COVID-19 pandemic.

After the sun goes down the stage comes to life, literally, under starry skies with replicas of classical masterpieces and contemporary works of art. Don’t blink. Look closely to spot which figures in a sculpture or painted into the canvas are masterful cast members—real people—holding still as can be.

Dan Duling, a Los Angeles resident and the pageant’s scriptwriter since 1981, is a testament to the majesty and magic that still holds him captive. He did not know about the event until pageant director Diane Challis asked him to work with her. He recalled the first time he stepped inside the 2,600-seat venue.

“Built into a small canyon just blocks from the beach, its intimate setting with greenery all around quickly became my favorite outdoor venue,” he said, making it worth his commute to Orange County.

Duling and Challis came from lives in the theater.

“With similar aesthetic sensibilities of what the show can be,” said Duling, “… we have been able to transform it into as much a theatrical show as possible without being disrespectful to the art or unfaithful to the traditions of tableaux vivant.”

Duling and Challis strive to make the show as inclusive as possible in order to reach a large and diverse audience.

“We believe that art has something for everyone at every age,” Duling said. “The show is a great date night, but it’s also a wonderful place for grandparents to bring their grandchildren.”

Guests are treated to an entertaining and educational evening of high art, and no two shows are the same. Last year’s theme, “Wonderful World,” was a reminder that “Art in every culture expresses our common humanity.” From France, the Netherlands, Greece and Copenhagen to Egypt, China, Thailand, Japan, Africa and more, adults and young guests in the audience took a journey around the globe by way of great masterpieces: “Le Pont-Neuf,” “Figure Drinking in a Courtyard,” “Porch of the Maidens,” “The Little Mermaid,” “Day of the Dead,” “Dancing Girls of Cairo,” “Xi’an Warriors,” “Guardians of the Temple,” “Cherry Blossom Viewing” and Makishi Dancers of Zimbabwe figurines.

While the pageant theme changes each season, one tableau ends the show every year: “The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci.

In our digital age of online entertainment, the appeal and success of this live event is extraordinary and could never be achieved without the dedication of hundreds of volunteers (including generations of families) who return year after year. They are the “lifeblood, heart and soul” of the pageant—from cast members to costume and headpiece designers to makeup artists, backstage assistants and restaurant services. No corners are cut, explained Duling. Narration of the program is live, not recorded. So is the original score performed by a 28-piece professional orchestra.

Before curtain call, the juried summer arts show, among the country’s oldest and most recognized fine-art events, takes place outside the amphitheater doors. Offerings range from paintings, sculpture and jewelry to glass, ceramics and furniture pieces along with live music, a wine bar, and plenty of tables for casual dining and relaxing. The Junior Art Exhibit, a program of the Festival of Arts, showcases the exceptional talent of local student artists.

At this time of year, out-of-towners and locals attending the pageant make a vacation or stay-cay out of their visit to Laguna, where rustic canyon meets the beach. While poking around the village’s boutique shops and art galleries, lunching at legendary Caller’s Corner on the beach with a view of Laguna’s historic lifeguard stand and grabbing a cappuccino at a neighborhood coffee shop it wasn’t unusual to hear someone say, “I’m here for the pageant.”

A popular spot in Laguna Beach, California, is the boardwalk and historic lifeguard stand at Main Beach.
A popular spot in Laguna Beach, California, is the boardwalk and historic lifeguard stand at Main Beach. (Photo courtesy of Athena Lucero)

The theme for this year’s pageant is “Art Colony: In the Company of Artists,” a celebration of artists embracing or creating communities inspired by Laguna’s pioneering artists who gave birth to the Pageant of the Masters—the only one in the world.

When You Go

The 90th Festival of Arts and Pageant of the Masters takes place July 7 to Sept. 1, 2023. To reserve tickets or for general information:

For information about visiting and lodging in Laguna:

By Athena Lucero

Athena Lucero is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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