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Pageant of the Masters gets ready to pursue 'Happiness' with a new $3.5 million facade

Pageant of the Masters gets ready to pursue 'Happiness' with a new $3.5 million facade
Guests take pictures of King Kamehameha, or actor Dmitri Reavis, who sits patiently in character as he awaits his stage call during the 2015 Pageant of the Masters Press Night at the Irvine Bowl on Tuesday. (Don Leach, Coastline Pilot)

Happiness is on the minds of the Laguna Beach art crowd as summer quickly approaches.

"The Pursuit of Happiness" is the theme of this year's Pageant of the Masters. The famed live-art showcase is being presented by the 83-year-old Festival of Arts from July 8 to Aug. 31.

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And after a massive, arduous, $3.5-million construction project that's been obvious to anyone driving Laguna Canyon Road, the facade, or front entrance, of the festival is finally shaping up. It's expected to be completed by July 5, the opening day of the festival, which will undoubtedly turn looks of worry into smiles festival-wide.

"It's coming together in a way that's surprising," said Fred Sattler, president of the festival's board of directors. "It's magnificent. It's more than we ever expected."

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The facade — designed by Newport Beach-based Bauer Architects — features metalwork that mirrors the trunks and leaves of trees in the vicinity. The beige and brown colors along the stone entrance also echo Laguna Canyon, as do the "rammed earth" walls that stretch north along Laguna Canyon Road. These walls consist of wavy layers of colored soil and other materials poured by hand, and were created on site by Brad Mimlitz of Rammed Earth Builders of Park City, Utah.

Construction on the project began in mid-October. Over the past several months, many associated with the festival were concerned that the facade would not be done on time. A few rainy days and an unexpected delivery of 42 multi-ton boulders caused delays.

The boulders, shipped in from a quarry in Ojai, occupied the construction area in front of the facade and made it impossible to do any work for about two weeks in May.

But, one by one, the boulders started disappearing. Seven went to The Ranch at Laguna Beach. Twelve went to an undisclosed location in Riverside County, Sattler said. Twenty-three are left, scattered in front.

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Just over the past few weeks, the facade has taken on solid shape, scaffolding has come down, and fences have been opened for a soft opening in front of the media on June 9.

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'A pop-culture trend'

Every year, hundreds of volunteers and dozens of full- and part-time staffers work toward making one of Laguna Beach's most cherished traditions, the Pageant of the Masters, a reality.

This year, the pageant's 82nd, is no different. Diane Challis Davy, pageant director for 20 years, has worked closely with committees, theater crew and artists to produce the life-size display of tableaux vivants, or "living pictures."

In each production, dozens of volunteers don costumes and makeup and pose, holding still for 90 seconds as they create living versions of paintings, sculptures and other artworks. The lighting and hand-painted backdrops make a three-dimensional scene look two-dimensional, and original music and narration provide background history.

"There is the lure of show business," Davy said about the pageant's durability. "Volunteers love the fun of participating in a theatrical presentation. They do have lots of fun backstage. They meet new people. They make lasting friendships. It sounds like a cliché, but we are like a big family."

This year's theme has been percolating for a few years, and was shaped into reality with the help of pageant scriptwriter Dan Duling, who's been writing the pageant script since 1981.

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"We started to notice happiness as a pop-culture trend," Davy said. "It's a popular meme. So many books have been written on it lately. We started noticing all this talk about happiness. There are books and movies and little articles and research done on what is the secret to finding happiness, what sort of people are the happiest."

The show will start with distinctly American history and artworks. Volunteers will re-create pieces by Winslow Homer, Norman Rockwell, Cyrus Dallin, John Sloan and J.L.G. Ferris, who painted the well-recognized 1921 oil "Writing the Declaration of Independence, 1776."

Act I will conclude with people posing as statues in Washington, D.C.'s Capitol Statuary Hall. Historic figures important to American democracy include George Washington, Frederick Douglass and Esther Hobart Morris.

"It's a big honor to portray Frederick Douglass," said volunteer Carl Carter, 42, of Laguna Beach. "He was a great speaker, a political speaker. It's a big moment. He did great things."

Act II will trot the globe for more international images and themes. The second half will open with Japanese woodblock prints, dancers, haiku and even falling snow, which Davy says will be "poetic snow."

Other cultures to be represented include Kolkata (Calcutta) and Bengal, India; Cairo, Egypt; and Mali, in West Africa. As it has every year since 1936 (with three exceptions), Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper" (1495-98) will conclude the show, with volunteers posing as Jesus and his 12 disciples.

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Local artists' showcase

Not to be overlooked is the Festival of Arts, which will feature 140 of South Orange County's most accomplished artists. For eight weeks, they will display and sell original paintings, sculpture, photography, ceramics, jewelry, woodworking and more.

The Festival of Arts, a juried show, was recently voted one of the top five art festivals in the country by USA Today readers.

Special events will include art lectures on Thursdays from noon to 1 p.m.; art, jazz, wine and chocolate on Thursdays from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.; concerts on the green on select Saturday afternoons; a Family Art Day on July 18; a runway fashion show on Aug. 15; and a Sunday music series from 2 to 4 p.m. July 12 to Aug. 30.

The second phase of the renovation project is expected to begin Oct. 1, after the festival gets city approval. The next step? Redoing all of the festival grounds at a cost of $7.5 million.

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