Don Williamson dies at 96; former director of Laguna Beach’s Pageant of the Masters

Don Williamson, an architect who helped build the stature of Laguna Beach’s annual mixture of theater and art, the Pageant of the Masters, has died. He was 96.

Williamson, who directed the pageant from 1964 to 1978, died of natural causes July 23 at his home in Laguna Beach, said his daughter, Jennie Riker.

The Pageant of the Masters presents life-size versions of paintings, sculptures and other artwork on stage each summer in Laguna Beach. People dress as the characters in the artwork, and the pieces are elaborately staged as part of the city’s annual Festival of the Arts.

Williamson had a long history with the pageant and designed many of the buildings on the festival grounds, said Diane Challis Davy, the current director.

“He’s responsible for so many of the innovations in the program and set design and virtually every aspect of what we do today,” she told The Times.

Donald McLean Williamson was born Oct. 23, 1913, in Mexico City to Marjorie and Richard Williamson. His father worked in Mexico for the YMCA, Riker said, and when Williamson was 10 days old, his parents took him to a local police station so he could be registered as an American citizen.

Williamson lived in Mexico until he started college. He studied architecture at the University of Wisconsin, Rice University and USC, where he graduated from the School of Architecture in 1936. The first home he designed was for his parents in Laguna Beach, Riker said.

Williamson’s mother was involved in the early years of the pageant as well as the Pasadena and Laguna playhouses. She was directing a play in Laguna Beach when she convinced him to meet an actress in the cast, Josephine Shanks. They were married in 1940.

At the pageant, Williamson started building sets in the 1930s, and by 1938 was an assistant director. He designed and helped build sets for decades and was chairman of the festival’s board in 1963, before becoming the pageant’s director.

One of Williamson’s innovations was to open the curtains for one piece and show audiences how the actors were placed in the artwork.

“Don picked up from a community show and he made it a much more professional and polished show in many ways,” Challis Davy said.

Williamson designed more than 30 homes in Laguna Beach, his daughter said, including his family’s residence, which was destroyed in a fire that swept through the city in 1993. He designed a new home that was built at another location in Laguna Beach.

Williamson resigned as director in 1978 after the pageant’s board of directors fired his son, Doug, who had been a designer, sculptor and set builder before becoming a pageant employee.

Over the years, Williamson provided encouragement to Challis Davy, who has directed the pageant since 1996. “I’ve tried in my private way to pay tribute to some of his pieces,” she said.

In addition to his daughter, Williamson is survived by four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. His wife died in 1997 and his son died in 2001.