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Exclusive | Going My Way: Postcard from a Pageant Queen

Exclusive | Going My Way: Postcard from a Pageant Queen

Our regular columnist Dennis Hensley celebrates the art of the living picture at the 75th annual Pageant of the Masters in Laguna Beach, Calif.

Given that I'm a junkie for any kind of pageant -- 'pageant' is actually one of my Tivo key words -- I'm a bit ashamed that it's taken me 20 years of living in Los Angeles to make it to Laguna Beach's Pageant of the Masters, a tableau vivant festival that started way back in 1933. Tableau vivant is French for "living pictures." It's basically real people frozen in poses -- usually from famous works of art -- for your viewing pleasure. It's kind of like the beginning of the musical Sunday in the Park with George, without the Mandy Patinkin hissy fits.

My friend Guy and I arrived at the Irvine Bowl amphitheater well before the 8:30 curtain so we had time to peruse the local art on display at the annual Festival of the Arts. When the realization that I would probably never be able to afford so much as a designer mouse pad became too much to bear, we walked down to the beach and grabbed some pizza at the Bistro Medici. The counter girl promised we'd be blown away by the Pageant, recalling that the last time she went there were a lot of sexy, nude Greek statues. "Full-frontal?" I asked her. She couldn't remember. Ugh, straight people.

Soon after the show began, I learned that all the nudes featured in the Pageant sport something called a "privacy patch." This is probably for the best because there's plenty of visual stimulation going on already. Besides, I didn't bring binoculars. At first, I couldn't quite believe my eyes. The ghost-white Wedgewood figurines of Apollo and the Nine Muses, for example, didn't look like people at all; they looked like knickknacks that my mom would have on her dressing table. Another surprise: many of the adults depicted in the tableaus are actually played by children and teens for the sake of scale. In that case, I'm hoping to see Little Miss Sunshine's Abigail Breslin as the Mona Lisa next year. I think she's got the chops to pull it off.

Each tableau appears for approximately 90 seconds, which doesn't seem like that long to hold completely still but I would imagine if you're up there, it probably feels like an eternity especially if you're hanging upside down from a trapeze, like the three leotard-clad performers who recreated John Steuart Curry's 1945 oil painting The Passing Leap.

The creators of the Pageant go to great lengths to convince us that what we're seeing is an actual work of art and not living, breathing human beings. Still, my favorite moments were when that illusion was deliberately shattered. During the section called "The Builder," the narrator explained exactly how the tableaus were put together. We got to see the actors walk out on stage and get into their positions. It was so pedestrian, yet I was riveted. I half-expected one of them to accidentally wander out with a Big Gulp. Then, once the actors were placed, the painted background moved in behind them and the sides of a picture frame closed around them. Suddenly the lights changed and bam! We were no longer looking at actors on a stage, we were seeing Charles Green's charming 1868 oil painting Her First Bouquet. Breathtaking.

Still, as fun as the Pageant is to watch, what really captures my imagination is the behind-the-scenes social culture of it. All of the 300 or so performers are volunteers from the community divided into two casts -- the Green and the Blue -- and they appear one-week on, one-week off over most of July and August. I like to imagine all kinds of dramatic summer show-mances happening, perhaps between the hunky Apollo and the leggy French can-can girl from the vintage Moulin Rouge poster. Or maybe between the Blue cast hunky Apollo and the Green cast hunky Apollo.

The traditional finale of every Pageant is Leonardo Da Vinci's The Last Supper and according to the program, the apostles have been posing together for years and are close friends off stage. I wonder if they were cast to type, like is Judas the biggest jerk of the bunch? Does Jesus have the nicest jaw line? He must because you can't have a chinless Jesus. Everyone knows that. It's the finale, for crying out loud.

Now that I've finally experienced the Pageant of the Masters, I can hardly wait to go back next year. It's truly a one-of-a-kind experience. So if you ever find yourself in the OC in July or August, do yourself a favor and check it out. Who knows? Maybe one of the Apostles will wink at you.

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