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Laguna Beach

 Volume 11, Issue 67  | August 20, 2019

The beginnings of Laguna Beach’s biggest festival: Festival of Arts/Pageant of the Masters

Story and photos brought to you by Visit Laguna Beach

In the summer of 1932, Los Angeles was hosting the Olympic Games for the first time, also known as Games of the X Olympiad. By the time the Games were held, nations struggled to afford the cost of sending athletes to the seemingly far away state of California for the international event. Only 1,503 athletes from 37 nations showed up; so few that some events, like soccer, had to be canceled.

In an effort to offer athletes and Olympic Games attendees another entertaining opportunity in Southern California, Laguna Beach artist John H. Hinchman helped organize the first Festival of Arts. The first Festival was held on El Paseo near Hotel Laguna, although over the next seven years, the Festival would travel to various venues in Laguna Beach before finding its permanent home on Laguna Canyon Drive. 

That August, while around two-dozen artists hung their paintings on fences, trees, and buildings along Laguna’s main street, hoping to lure tourists to the first Festival of Arts; other artists opened their home-studios to the public. Music, colorful signs and banners, parades and entertainment added to the celebratory ambience of the event, which turned Laguna Beach into an enormous art gallery. Many artists happily arranged their easels and chairs and painted throughout the festival. And, some even sold their paintings. It was an inspiring start to the Laguna Beach Festival of Arts.

The beginnings 1935 gallery

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Festival of the Arts gallery, 1935

In an editorial in the South Coast News dated August 5, 1932, a week before the opening of the Festival, the impact of Hinchman’s efforts was already apparent: “America was discovered, they say, by Columbus. And the Festival of Arts was discovered by John Hinchman.”

In 1933, the Festival organizers presented a new addition to the second annual Festival of Arts called “living pictures” that combined the performative aspects of theatre with an art historical perspective, turning famed works of fine art into live tableaux style paintings. Originally designed to be a publicity stunt to draw attention to the exhibit, actors dressed as characters from artworks such as Whistler’s Mother, Mona Lisa, and Atlas, among others, marched downtown to the location to the Festival of Arts, where they appeared in their living pictures to hold their poses in their respective works of art. This magical combination of live performance and historical fine art was a huge hit and became a favorite summer entertainment activity all over the state. Over the next couple of years, the direction and production of the “living pictures” grew into a grand experience of historical paintings, allowing viewers to watch as the master artworks of our human history come to life. 

The beginnings John HInchman gallery

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John Hinchman was a key organizer of the first Festival

Local artist and builder Roy Ropp assumed the direction of the “living pictures” in 1935, and helped expand the production to include a larger stage and setting next to the Laguna Beach Art Association (now the Laguna Art Museum) and renamed the event the “Pageant of the Masters.” With gorgeously painted backdrops, custom stage builds, and more dramatic makeup for the figures in the works of art come-to-life, the Pageant of the Masters became a fascinating and revered art production known all over the country.

The Festival of Arts became a nonprofit corporation in 1934 with the goal to “encourage and promote all appropriate activities conducive to the artistic and cultural development of the community in and about the City of Laguna Beach, California.” 

“The first Festival of Arts was designed to lift depression,” Hinchman stated in the Festival program essay from 1934. “Two years ago, when things seemed at their worst, Laguna Beach decided that something had to be done about it. Therefore a few of us got together and started a Festival. As we saw it at that time, ‘if people took part in festivities, they could not very well be depressed.’”

Each year, the Festival of Arts and Pageant of the Masters employs a theme in their presentations and selected artworks. In 1938, it was dedicated to “the 20th anniversary of the Laguna Beach Art Association.” In 1998, its theme was “Metropolis;” in 2008, it was “All the World’s a Stage.” This year, in 2018, its theme is “Under the Sun.” 

The beginnings Last Supper

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The tradition of presenting the Last Supper “living picture” began early

In the early 1940s, artist Virginia Woolley initiated children’s art classes at the Festival grounds and the Anna Mary Beck Junior Art Exhibit was started a few years later at the Festival. Both programs are still enjoyed today. 

Thanks to a successful deal made with the Irvine Company in 1941, the Irvine Bowl Recreation Park was dedicated as the permanent home of the Festival of Arts and Pageant of the Masters, only one year before the only hiatus of the Festival and Pageant, from 1942-1945. Due to the international struggle of World War II, the Festival of Arts and Pageant of the Masters halted events for four years.

In 1953, a new stage was built for the Irvine Bowl and Pageant and in 1957, local architect and former Pageant Director Don Williamson designed and built the hyperbolic paraboloid Dining Pavilion (now known as Terra Laguna Beach). 

The beginnings restaurant 1957

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Hyperbolic paraboloid Dining Pavilion (1957) is now known as Terra Laguna Beach

The Festival of Arts has continued to aid in the growth of local arts endeavors. Throughout its history, funds generated by the Festival helped support the Community Players, Community Concert Association, Civic Ballet Company (later Ballet Pacifica), Chamber Music Society and Lyric Opera (later Opera Pacific), the School of Art & Design (now Laguna College of Art + Design), and the Festival Chorale. Festival resources also supported some exhibits and weekly art classes at the Art Association Gallery (now the Laguna Art Museum). According to the Festival of Arts Foundation, the Festival of Arts along with the Foundation cumulatively has awarded nearly $2.6 million in grants to the art community in Laguna Beach, including funding to the local high school, LOCA Arts Education, The Laguna Playhouse, Laguna Art Museum, Laguna College of Art + Design and many others.

In 2002, the Festival committed to an additional 40 years of creativity and enchantment with the Festival and Pageant when they signed a lease with City of Laguna, through 2041.

“The Festival of Arts is truly fortunate to count among its exhibitors some of the most talented artists in Orange County,” says current Festival of Arts president David Perry. “It’s not only our mission but our privilege to provide them with a forum in which to share their creativity with hundreds of thousands of visitors each summer. And since their works are available for purchase, patrons have the opportunity to bring home amazing, original pieces to be enjoyed for a lifetime.”

Festival of Arts founder John H Hinchman’s statement in the 1934 Festival program essay continues to ring true throughout the Festival and the Pageant, all these years later. “It is the people who buy the arts, go to the dances, applaud the actors, or take part in its pageantry that really make the Festival of Arts.”

Be sure to visit Festival of Arts and Pageant of the Masters this summer, running through September 1.  

Keep an eye out for our next article in Stu News Laguna on Laguna’s past as future.

Shaena Stabler is the Owner, Publisher & Editor.

Dianne Russell is our Associate Editor & Writer.

Michael Sterling is our Webmaster & Designer.

Alexis Amaradio, Barbara Diamond, Dennis McTighe, Diane Armitage, Lynette Brasfield, Marrie Stone, Maggi Henrikson, Samantha Washer, and Suzie Harrison are our writers and/or columnists.

Mary Hurlbut and Scott Brashier are our photographers.

Stacia Stabler is our Social Media Manager & Writer.

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