For pageant, people supply the bond

Frank Daniel is one of a lucky few who have never been struck by the urge to sneeze, twitch or swat an unassuming bug, at least while on stage.

This matters — why?

Daniel, 69, a Laguna Beach native, has, for the past quarter-century, donned the garb, makeup and hairpiece of Jesus Christ before freezing for 90 seconds amid apostles as depicted in Leonardo da Vinci's "Last Supper." This piece marks the yearly finale of the Pageant of the Masters, which honors iconic art in the form of living pictures, or tableaux vivantes.

Currently in its 80th year, the pageant will be hosted nightly July 7 through Aug. 31.

"Every once in a while, I feel like I'm going to sneeze before we're about to go up," Daniel said, laughing. "We're getting loaded and here, I'm thinking, 'Oh no.' I then make the mistake of trying to hold my breath, and you don't want to do that!"

Before watching the show firsthand, Daniel recalled wondering why anyone would want to "sit and watch pictures."

His initial reaction changed, however, when he was introduced to the production in 1969.

"I thought to myself, 'Wow, that's just something else,'" he said.

Since coming across a "Casting Call" sign in 1984, Daniel has been a familiar face at the Southern California tradition.

"We've had so many people in it for long periods of time — it's like an extended family," said Daniel, who, during the holidays visited a former 20-year volunteer who is in ill health. "This experience means a lot. It's where we establish friendships."

For 18-year artistic director Diane Challis Davy, the pageant is akin to "playtime."

Challis Davy, whose first memories of the pageant include volunteering as a high school student in the late 1970s, is presently in the throes of casting the upcoming season. Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon, the casting call unearthed hopefuls from Los Angeles, San Diego and all corners of Orange County; the final session was scheduled for Thursday evening.

Themed "The Big Picture," this year's pageant showcases 40 works, ranging from "To Rome with Love" and "The Agony and the Ecstasy" to "Snow White" and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," among others. Its two acts have also provided opportunities to celebrate cinematic powerhouses including Alfred Hitchcock, Charlie Chaplin, Busby Berkeley and Buster Keaton.

"We've never done a pageant before that featured art which has inspired movies, and we're not talking obscure movies, but those that a lot of people will remember," Challis Davy said. "Movies saturate popular culture. For those of us from California, [they're] a large part of our lives."

A part of the pageant's 80th anniversary commemoration is this acknowledgment of its ties with Hollywood, she said.

Last year's casting call attracted about 1,200 people, allowing Challis Davy, who works closely throughout the process with a scriptwriter, technical director and music composers, to tap 450 members from the casting pool. While Challis Davy calls out theatrical cues for 60 consecutive nights, the volunteers are divided into two groups — 150 per cast — while the remaining 150 comprise a cache of backstage assistants.

After filling out paperwork about body dimensions, each person is tape-measured and photographed. The creative team later returns to these three-by-five pictures and selects people for each painting — from Vermeer to Norman Rockwell, Gerome to Rodin — based on their height and resemblance to the subject at hand.

Weekly rehearsals for the approximately 90-minute show begin next week, as each set piece — the handiwork of 15 full-time employees — comes to life. To date, three sets have been fully constructed, and the rest will be rolled out once they've been fitted with metal armatures that help cast members hold their positions.

"It is challenging to come up with something different every year and to keep everybody happy," Challis Davy said. "But my biggest reward is the great feedback we get during the summer when our shows are well-received."

In 2012, "The Genius" was such a resounding success that the seaside pageant venue was packed nearly every night, with close to all 140,000 seats being sold out at season's end, she said.

A great view of the pageant, followed by a personal tour of the theater, sowed the seeds of interest in Fran Brant and her husband almost 13 years ago.

Keen to become a part of the show, the Whittier resident chased dead-ends on the phone for three and a half hours until she finally "unearthed a human being." When asked if she would be interested in doing makeup, she described her heart going "da-doom!"

"I enjoy the creativity and the satisfaction of a job done right," she said.

During the pageant, Brant and other volunteers follow detailed instructions and duplicate watercolor work already done on mannequin heads, recreating physical characters and shadows from each piece of art. Eventually, it is the lighting, she said, that eliminates the three-dimensional effect and makes it look "flat, like a painting."

"We're not trying to make people look pretty," said Brant, whose husband works all day in Torrance and spends his evenings volunteering at the pageant. "We're trying to make them look exactly like in a painting."

According to Brant, it is the behind-the-scenes camaraderie that encourages the couple to return year after year.

"I've seen little five-year-old kids become 15-year-olds and watched them start with the jewelry and makeup," she said. "It's great to be able to ask how their boyfriends are. There is a real family feeling about this place."

Twitter: @RMahbubani

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