Our Laguna: Pageant's script writer speaks at 'Friends' event

Dan Duling has been the script writer for the Pageant of the Masters since 1981, but even the author, actor-playwright, and critic, who has a doctorate, is daunted when trying to explain the magic of the show to someone who has never seen it.

Fortunately, he didn't have to at the Oct. 11 Friends of the Library dinner at which Duling was the guest speaker.

"Thank God," he said when no one raised their hand after he asked if there was anyone at the dinner who had not seen the show. "I have learned you cannot explain it.

"Back up to 1981 — I got a call from [then-pageant director] Glenn Eytchison who was looking for a new script writer. He is describing the pageant and I am laughing because he sounded so ridiculous."

Eytchison convinced Duling to attend a rehearsal.

"I walked into the [Irvine] Bowl and I just knew it was a magical place, and I don't use that word often," Duling said.

Duling worked with Eytchison for the next 15 years — since then for Diane "DeeDee" Challis Davy.

"I've done it for half my life and I can't imagine not doing it," Duling said.

Duling researches and writes the narration for the pageant, among other duties.

Three narrators have voiced Duling's words, tailored to their individual talents.

"Thurl Ravenscroft has a basso voice [his was the voice of Tony the Tiger in commercials] who will never be forgotten," Duling said.

Ravenscroft was the narrator from 1974 to 1993.

"In 1994, Skip Connover replaced Thurl," Duling said. "He was a musician. In 2011, Richard Doyle came from South Coast Rep and that was a new challenge for me.

"But Dee is the real genius behind the show. She has brought back the notion of themes to the show. It creates context for the narration that hopefully unites with the music and the visual."

This is Duling's favorite time of the year.

"We are shaping what will be on the stage next year," he said. "The theme is 'The Big Picture.'"

It will be the 80th anniversary pageant.

The show has evolved from a rag-tag presentation in broad daylight in 1933, the second year of the Festival of Arts, which was held on city streets.

J. Howard Sheridan, assisted by Marie Ropp put on what was called the "Spirit of the Masters Pageant."

By 1935, Marie and Roy Ropp had taken charge.

"He said if we are going to do living pictures, we need to do it better — they are an embarrassment," Duling said. "He built and painted the backdrops. He cast his neighbors and wrote the music.

"It was the basic template for what we do now."

The Ropps introduced "The Last Supper" as the finale in 1936.

"There was silence after the final curtain," Duling said. "People were sitting there in awe. It is that connection with the audience that transcends the gimmickry."

The city purchased the Irvine Bowl Park, more commonly known as the Festival of Arts Grounds, in 1941.

"I can't state how important that was," Duling said.

Utah did a "living pictures" show for 20 years, hoping for a permanent home that never happened and the show went under, Duling said.

"That is a cautionary tale," Duling said. "The home is the key to how we are still going strong."

The pageant went dark during the World War II years, reopening in 1946.

Ropp returned in 1950, the only year canned music was used at the Festival.

"Ropp knew it was wrong, but wasn't given a choice," Duling said. "He never came back."

The late Don Williamson directed the show from 1964 to 1978.

"He really transformed the show," Duling said. "It was more theatrical, more polished."

Eytchison, who followed Williamson as director, was more of an impresario, combining adventure with tradition and laid the groundwork for Challis Davy, Duling said.

"It has been very different for the last 17 years — more theatrical but always aware that this is a living show," Duling said.

Nudes have been part of the pageant since early days, but the first one was almost a no-show, Duling said.

The curtain opened and youngsters were seated virtually at the nude's feet, looking up and giggling, according to Duling. She threatened not to come back, but she did.

Pageant history has had its ups and downs — one of the "downers" was in 2000, when the board of directors tried to move the show to San Clemente — not without precedent, Duling said.

The Greek Theater wanted to put the pageant in the Hollywood Bowl in the 1930s.

Minutes of the 1953 meeting stated that the festival and the pageant would always stay in Laguna, but the statement never was put in the bylaws.

"If it was in the bylaws, 2000 would have been moot," Duling said.

And another downer: Bette Davis never appeared in the pageant, according to Duling. She hurt her foot and canceled the performance.

Duling said there are two sacred places in his life: the theater and a library.

"This is where we collected the history of what it is to be human," he said.

The Laguna Beach Library is supported by its "Friends," which raises funds through the sale of new and used donated books, staffed by volunteers.

Among the volunteers at the dinner: Dinah Shields, Juliet Brebner, Skip Roman, Barbara Holty, Edith Ericson, Magda Herlicsha, Marcy Horstein, Michael Sladon, Margot Rosenberg, Nancy Pearlman, Barbara Ring and Cynny Thakara.

The dinner also included the election of the board of directors: President Martha Lydick, Vice President Sandy Hovanesian, Secretary Angela Irish, Treasurer Howard Pink and members-at-large Diane Connell, Karl and Dee Koski, Karyn Philippsen, Randy Ray, Nancy Pink and Herlicsha.

Next year's speaker: Arnold Hano, whose book "Three Steps to Hell," Duling touted.

"If I'm around," said the nonagenarian, who also wrote the baseball classic "A Day in the Bleachers."

OUR LAGUNA is a regular feature of the Laguna Beach Coastline Pilot. Contributions are welcomed. Call (714) 966-4618 or email coastlinepilot@latimes.com with Attn. Barbara Diamond in the subject line.

Copyright © 2019, Daily Pilot
EDITION: California | U.S. & World