Artist Sandow Birk, left, and David Cooke, talk in Cooke's exhibit at the Pageant of the Masters opening night Thursday. (Don Leach, Coastline Pilot / July 7, 2011)

With fire-breathing dragons, fair maidens, heroic males and a sparkling script dramatized by a new voice, "Only Make Believe" enchanted the audience invited to the Wednesday night preview of the 2011 Pageant of the Masters.

"We are telling stories about ancient and modern superheroes and strange, mythical creatures," said Dan Duling, pageant script writer for 31 years. "You don't have to believe in fairies, dragons or beasts like centaurs or griffins to be drawn into the artistic fantasies that help them stay alive in our dreams."

Wednesday night was a dream come true for Duling as he had the chance to meet artist Sandow Birk, whose works open the second act.

"In my 31 years with the pageant, I have only been really excited to meet two people who have come to the show: Steve Martin, who truly understands and appreciates art, and Sandow Birk," Duling said.

Birk's attendance was also a treat for scene painter and long-time fan David Cooke, who enlarged four of the artist's works to the stage scale.

"I am waiting to be amazed," said Birk, who had never seen the pageant, let alone the sets that were replicated from his "In Smog and Thunder" collection.

The paintings were just a taste of the 120 pieces in the "collection," which was exhibited in 2001 at the Laguna Art Museum, documenting an imaginary war between San Francisco and Los Angeles — identified as Fog Town and Smog Town in the delightful narration of the pieces.

As adapted by Duling from a script by Birk's team:

"In our information-overloaded world where it's difficult to recall what happened last week, much less last year, who among us has not forgotten, ever so briefly, 'The Great War of the Californias'?

"Thankfully, a lone artist, Southern California's Sandow Birk, took it upon himself to put down his surfboard, pick up his pencils and brushes and venture into the fray, as hostilities between Los Angeles and San Francisco spun out of control."

Birk's works are said to be the only reliable record of the conflict.

"The resulting corporate-sponsored conflagration, fought on land and sea, in museums, Bay Area poetry bars and Angeleno theme parks, pitted northern bohemian elitists against their ethnically diverse neighbors to the south.

"Here in Orange County, which struggled to maintain its neutrality, we owe it to ourselves to never, ever forget."

Birk is a Southern Californian; his wife, Elyse, also an artist, is from San Francisco. They met at Otis Art Institute, from which Birk finally graduated after a checkered college experience.

He was a late bloomer.

"I didn't start painting until I was in college," Birk said. "Then I dropped out three or four times. I traveled and surfed and studied in Paris and England before I finally got my degree in fine arts."

Richard Doyle debuted as the show's narrator, amazingly only the third since 1975. Pageant Director Diane Challis-Davy picked Doyle for the next voice of the pageant, fondly recalling seeing him perform in the 1970s at South Coast Repertory's original theater on Newport Boulevard.

"For me, Richard was the obvious choice," Challis Davy said. "I never had a second thought. The question was, would he accept the role, knowing his busy schedule."

Doyle said for a voice-over performer, the pageant narration is a prestigious job.

"It is a known art event in a very unique theatrical venue," Doyle said.