Times Staff Writer

Once considered the boisterous rebel among Laguna Beach’s three summer art festivals, the Sawdust Festival has finally won respectability.

Now in its 19th year, the Sawdust lives in a state of official togetherness with its archrivals along Laguna Canyon Road--the Festival of Arts and the Art-A-Fair Festival. The Sawdust board has even won the ultimate acceptance: Its members have been asked to meet regularly with the other festival boards to deal with such problems as the massive traffic jams on the canyon road.

But things weren’t always this cozy.

In the mid-'60s, a group of local artists who were discontented with the workings of the Festival of the Arts decided to form their own festival. (The dissident group claimed that the Festival of the Arts, housed for decades in the Irvine Bowl complex along with the Pageant of the Masters, was a juried show that was subject to rampant favoritism.)


The first Sawdust Festival was held in 1967, and was set up haphazardly in a vacant lot along the Coast Highway several blocks away from the Festival of the Arts. The Sawdust was unjuried and, ironically, its makeshift arrangement was reminiscent of the Festival of Arts’ own first show in 1932, when artists hung works on a fence of an empty beachside lot.

The Sawdust moved to its present 2 1/2-acre Laguna Canyon Road site in 1968. With its wooden, fortlike front, a jumble of bizarrely built booths and wide-open carnival air, it was a far cry from the more sedate Festival of Arts across the street.

This rebellion came at a time when Laguna Beach was already embroiled in a larger battle between the establishment and the “New Society” fringe groups. In the late 1960s, the city’s old political and business factions, taken aback by a massive influx of hippie followers, began the first of numerous anti-hippie campaigns.

There wasn’t much business at the first Sawdusts. “We (artists) just sat around, sipped wine and talked. It was all so much more communal then,” recalled jewelry-maker Earl Reid, a Sawdust regular since the 1968 show.


The booths were much like those today: wildly conceived, mostly wood-built quasi-dwellings, heavy on the rustic theme and no two alike. “Some went up to four levels, and people could sleep upstairs,” said Reid’s wife, Sandi Reid. “But the city didn’t like that at all. We had to stop doing that, and cut down the height.”

The crowds finally began to come in the early 1970s, when attendance reached a peak of 350,000 a season. However, attendance has since slipped, dropping to the 250,000 level in recent years.

At the same time, there has been a gradual shift toward respectability. For one thing, officials like to point out, the Sawdust crowds are now more clean-cut and upscale. Gone, they said, are the rowdier elements of the 1970s, when the festival was also a popular spot for streakers and religious fanatics.

Security problems, too, are far fewer, added officials, who have guards keeping 24-hour surveillance. Added one veteran artist, “We used to have some real rip-offs in the earlier days. Now it’s nickel-and-dime stuff; people with big bags stealing the little counter items. Nothing unusual.”

The show is still unjuried--artists are picked by seniority or by lottery--but that hasn’t stopped the trend toward big business.

Promoting itself as never before, the Sawdust this year shelled out $100,000--out of an overall $400,000 operating budget--for advertising, chiefly aimed at the tourist trade. It spent another $60,000 for its most elaborate front-entrance facade yet, a mock-up of the Hotel Laguna and three other historic local structures. This year, board President Bill Darnall said, the festival even hopes to make a modest profit for the first time.

To veteran Sawdust exhibitors, the trend has its ironies.

“We broke away (from the Festival of Arts) because of all the politicking and business orientation there. I mean, that’s why we started our own,” said jewelry-maker Ron Stevens, who has had a booth at the Sawdust since the 1960s. “Now we’ve gotten so large and so much more serious. Now we’re big commerce.”


Sales by individual artists vary vastly--some make as much as $50,000 in one season, according to festival officials.

Most of the paintings, sculptures, graphics and other art in this year’s 200-artist show are relatively tame. They are similar to the well-crafted, tourist-oriented works typically found in both the Festival of Arts and Art-A-Fair.

However, in addition to the usual quota of breaking waves, sea creatures and idyllic forests, the Sawdust offers a greater diversity, everything from glass works and furniture to hobby horses and painted T-shirts. There is even a chance to buy Old Testament proverbs in Hebrew and carved in stone.

But the real show at this festival remains the carefully devised setting--a disarming maze of sawdust-covered lanes, eucalyptus groves, bubbling brooks and gurgling fountains, meandering entertainers and the inescapable aroma of freshly made popcorn.

Best of all are the artists’ tiny booths, with designs that soar and swirl and satirize, most of them made entirely of wood slats.

“No, there’s never any real pattern to how we build them. It can take days or weeks to put up. Believe me, it’s strictly free-form,” said watercolorist Alida Van Gores.

This year, there are creations resembling tree houses, fairy-tale huts, windmills and mine shafts. One is topped by a Manhattanlike slat skyline. Another has a small fighter plane crashing into the roof. (As is the case every summer, the booths are all dismantled at the end of the festival and the site left vacant the rest of the year.)

Then there’s this year’s prize-winning booth design by jewelry-maker Alex Evans. His most dramatic for-sale creations--a King Arthur’s chess set and a man-size “Creature from the Black Lagoon"--front his booth.


The booth itself is a creative fixer-upper, splashed with pink and green, including a chorus line of flamingos along the roof edge with a four-foot-high Statue of Liberty crowning the roof. He wanted to rim the booth with neon, but he had neither the time nor money to do it.

“Next year, I’m going to do the neon bit, but only for starters,” said Evans, himself a dramatic sight with his black beard, blue hair-band and gladiator-type attire. “I’d like to put a real ’57 Cadillac up there with the Lady,” he said, pointing to his torch-bearer on the roof.

And what would be below, on the counter? Without a blink, Evans said, “A sushi bar, of course.”

The Sawdust Festival continues at 935 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach, through Sept. 1. Hours are 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday through Thursday; 10 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday. Admission is $2.