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Pageant Takes a Mastery of Details

Remember the last time you got the kids together for a family picture? You pinned ‘em down, dressed ‘em up in their finest (and most uncomfortable) clothes and arranged them in an adorable pose you prayed they could hold for 1/250th of a second.

Then, just as the camera shutter clicked, bingo! Little Natalie Sue let loose with a sneeze that shattered windows in the next county.

Hopes are high that the same thing won’t happen Friday night when, after months of practicing poses that range from awkward to downright painful, the 1989 Pageant of the Masters “family” poses for its living pictures in Laguna’s Irvine Bowl.

The 56th annual tableaux vivant , to be presented nightly through Aug. 27, will feature 150 children and adults painted, coiffed and costumed to the nines and in elaborate settings arranged as re-creations of classic and contemporary paintings and sculptures. The pageant is presented in concert with the Festival of Arts, a juried show of work by 160 artists that includes everything from serigraphs to stained glass.

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From the time it began in 1935, the Pageant of the Masters has had its fans (more than 140,000 people now see it each year) and its foes (such as the friend of mine who calls it the visual equivalent of lip-syncing). Whatever one’s view, it’s hard not to admire the hardy souls who bring the whole thing together.

Consider the role of the pageant model. For most, it means wearing a cumbersome little number that has been colored and stiffened with quarts of textile paint and makeup heavy enough to make a prostitute blush.

Once on stage, the models are arranged by “posers” into positions that would give Cathy Rigby a charley horse. Once the curtain rises, the models must hold these poses for an interminable 90 seconds, ignoring the nose itches and other such nuisances that may be tormenting them.

To a trouper such as 7-year-old Danielle Rodriquez, though, it’s all in the name of show biz.

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“It’s hard to hold still,” agrees Danielle, who lives in Mission Viejo. Danielle will appear as a young sweetheart in “Victorian Valentine,” a display of three ornate 19th- Century Valentines, and also in one of the other scenes in this year’s pageant. “I just follow the rules,” Danielle says. “They say you can’t move but it’s OK to blink if you have to. And breathe.”

Actually, there are two alternating casts for the pageant. Each performance requires about 75 models and an equal number of make-up artists, costumers and stagehands, most of them volunteers from around Orange County.

Danielle, like many of the youngsters in the show, became involved with the pageant because “my mom wanted me to.”

She and her cast-mates have been preparing for this for months. Models were chosen according to stature after an open casting call in January that drew almost 700. Weekly rehearsals began in the middle of January, with volunteers working on three to five scenes each night. In the meantime, the volunteers for the stage crews were being schooled by the pageant’s staff.

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To transform a modern living, breathing, squirming 7-year-old like Danielle into a flat-looking representation of a cherubic Victorian schoolchild requires plenty of patience and dedication by those on both sides of the curtain. According to Ann Webster, who has been the pageant’s make-up supervisor for the past 13 years, “timing is everything.”

“Depending on the character,” she says, “a makeup application can take anywhere from five minutes to 25 minutes. So to get everyone in makeup and costume in time for the scene, every volunteer on stage and off has to stick to the schedule.” Should cast members lag behind, Webster says, a “runner” will appear to speed them along. She added that in a pinch, a backstage worker will be recruited to fill in for a cast member who becomes ill or does not show up.

Webster also is a member of the pageant’s research team, a group of about 20 volunteers who work under pageant director Glen Eytchison to select the works to be re-created. The researchers spent months combing art museums, galleries and books. They discussed their findings in early October and then made their suggestions to the pageant board of directors.

Of the choices, Webster says: “There are a lot of familiar pieces that people are always asking to see, but some artists are just undoable. We’re always looking for new things. . . , but we have to keep in mind the limitations of the stage and the size of the cast.”

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This year’s pageant will include re-creations of a wintry Currier & Ives print, an ancient Etruscan fresco, a 16th-Century Nepalese gift shrine and “The Tiffany Circus Collection"--a grouping of silver and enamel miniatures that includes a bareback rider, a juggling clown and a strongman balancing barbells. And, as always, the pageant will close with Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.”

As usual, Thurl Ravenscroft (known to sugary-cereal buffs as the voice of Frosted Flakes’ Tony the Tiger) will narrate it all.

Sharing equal billing with da Vinci and Currier & Ives will be a re-creation of a work by Laguna Beach artist Ken Auster, a regular Festival of Arts exhibitor. His “Pier Shot” will bring a taste of California summer to this year’s show. Auster’s beach-theme paintings and silk screens caught Eytchison’s eye, and “Pier Shot” was commissioned. The work, done in cool blues and aquas, shows two surfers about to “shoot” the pylons of Huntington Beach Pier.

The 56th Annual Pageant of the Masters begins Friday at 8:30 p.m. at the Irvine Bowl, 650 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach, and continues nightly through Aug. 27. Tickets: $9 to $35, including admission to the Laguna Beach Festival of the Arts, an outdoor exhibition of work by local artists and craftsmen that runs concurrently on the festival grounds daily from 10 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Admission to the festival only is $1 to $2. Information: (714) 494-1145.

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Parking is available in public lots along Laguna Canyon Road, with regular shuttle service to and from the bowl.


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