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Travel around our Wonderful World with the Pageant of the Masters

By MARRIE STONE

One hundred and fifty years ago, French novelist Jules Verne imagined a journey “Around the World in Eighty Days.” This year, the Pageant of the Masters transports guests to 17 countries in less than two hours – all without the jetlag. 

As the sky darkens over the Irvine Bowl each evening, the audience settles into their first-class seats onboard a flight bound for France. On the screen, our in-flight movie reminds us that back in the 1950s, elaborate airline meals were served on china plates with proper cutlery. Stewardesses prepared icy cocktails while passengers relaxed with a cigarette. In the mid-20th century, friendly skies meant sophisticated attire, ample leg room and impeccable service. 

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The Irvine Bowl stage. Director Diane Challis Davy takes advantage of the expansive façade above the stage to use audio-visual effects and videos to enhance the performance. Videographer Paul Renner’s designs added a layer of depth and texture to this year’s show.

Inspired by “The Voice of the Globe” James A. FitzPatrick, who hosted technicolor Traveltalks from 1930 through 1954, Wonderful World invites its audience on an international adventure while introducing them to 36 works of art across a variety of nations. FitzPatrick’s nostalgic 10-minute travelogues (commissioned by MGM to be shown before feature film presentations) took Americans to locations they could only dream of visiting. Those vintage films set the tone for this year’s Pageant theme. 

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Recreations of vintage lithograph posters from the French Riviera open this year’s “Wonderful World”

“Going to the cinema in the 1930s and 1940s to watch strangers in strange places was only one remove from actually traveling to strange places,” wrote Darragh O’Donoghue in a review of FitzPatrick’s Traveltalks for Cineaste Magazine. And so it is with Wonderful World, which explores both art and its history across cultures, continents and time periods, guiding spectators through five different centuries of art. 

Traveltalks provided a sentimental conceit for Pageant Director Diane (Dee) Challis Davy and scriptwriter Dan Duling, who were already planning their own travel-themed show. “Dee had a great fondness for those documentaries,” said Duling, “and realized they were for people who didn’t have the luxury of travel or didn’t even consider travel as an option. That, of course, has changed dramatically. But we’ve also passed through that golden age of travel when it was still a luxury for people rich enough to afford first class travel. Today, the state of travel is compromised both by the specter of COVID uncertainty and the fact that most airlines have made the experience of traveling by plane as unpleasant as possible. This is where we quickly moved from the reality of travel into the romance and philosophical inspiration of travel.”

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Another recreation of a vintage lithograph poster from the French Riviera that opens this year’s “Wonderful World”

Unlike today’s stressful airport sagas, traveling with the Pageant is both an entertaining and educational experience, touching down on nearly every continent all while being treated to both a visual and musical feast. 

“It’s always a good idea to go in the opposite direction from the previous year,” said Challis Davy. “And, in a way, Wonderful World is a companion piece to last year’s Made in America. Knowing that so many people have been prevented from traveling and visiting the places they love, I thought this was a good theme.” 

Act One opens with a vintage poster montage of various 20th century lithographs from beaches around France, Australia, England, Florida and – finally – Laguna Beach. Challis Davy commissioned Festival of Arts artist Mike Tauber to design the acrylic 40 x 60-inch Laguna Beach travel poster. 

“I’ve always enjoyed working with Dee and the team at the Pageant,” Tauber said. “When she asked me to create a travel poster, of course I said ‘yes.’”

Challis Davy recommended Tauber use the view from the Heisler Park gazebo and provided him with the model, complete with pedal pushers and a ponytail. “I replicated the title font from an actual mid-20th century postcard and added the rooftop marquee sign on Hotel Laguna for authenticity,” Tauber said. “Sizing the figure was a challenge, but it worked out.” 

Tauber relies on alphabetic letters to form all his compositions. “I created an S-shaped composition to lead the viewer’s eye from the foreground aloe flowers to the figure, Main Beach, and the distant hills beyond,” he said. “Painter Brad Elsberry, the set builders, lighting designers, makeup team and model did a fantastic replication.” 

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Festival of Arts exhibitor Mike Tauber created this 40 x 60-inch acrylic vintage poster of Laguna Beach for this year’s “Wonderful World”

“We want to have a little fun at the beginning with those vintage travel posters,” said Duling. “But that’s just setting up the larger, relatively simple structure for the show, which provides a variety of experiences in the middle of Act One. I consider that the heart of the show.”

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The adventure officially begins with a tour across Europe, pausing on Paris’ Le Pont Neuf and dropping in on the gorgeous bronze fountain (Fontaine de L’Observatoire) in Luxembourg Gardens. There’s a stop to feed the pigeons in St. Mark’s Square before boarding a Venetian gondola. Here, using Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo’s 1760 oil painting Departure of the Gondola, the audience is treated to a peek inside the magic as narrator Richard Doyle talks through the meticulous process of creating each of these two-dimensional scenes using three-dimensional live actors. Then it’s off to Scandinavia to explore Denmark and Sweden. 

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Jean Beraud’s 1889 oil painting, “Outside the Theatre du Vaudeville” in Paris

“If you haven’t been won over before, you get to The Little Mermaid and the Larssons’ tribute in Sweden,” Duling said. “And if that doesn’t hook you, then we’ll try to get you with Nellie Bly.”

Before we get to the story of Nellie Bly, there’s a wonderful eight-part series traveling through various Worlds’ Fairs, including Donald De Lue’s Rocket Thrower in New York and a few wonderful Diego Rivera murals from Mexico. Act One concludes with the dance of a nearly 80-foot-long Chinese Dragon who moves through the loge section of the theater for a fully interactive experience.

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Diego Rivera’s 1947 mural, “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park” in Mexico City

“We wanted to put some positive energy out into the world – as we did with last year’s Made in America – about the importance of neighbors and community,” said Duling. “We did that intentionally with this show, as well, by suggesting that from our small communities to our larger communities, from our nations to our globe, we should think of ourselves as planetary neighbors and hopefully find reasons to get along.”

When Challis Davy decided to do a 10-minute sidebar storyline on American journalist Nellie Bly to open the second act, Duling’s imagination sparked. Writing about influential women in history and the arts appeals to his strong feminist streak. Bly, who redefined both investigative journalism and the role of women in the workforce in the late 19th century, completed her solo journey around the world in 72 days (successfully surpassing Jules Verne’s fictional record). 

“I’m so glad we could do a tribute to Nellie Bly this year when women’s rights are being attacked, undermined and horribly abused,” said Duling. “This is a story we wanted to tell even when we realized there is no great Nellie Bly art out there. We needed help to reinforce the story without having traditional artwork. We have the Around the World in Eighty Days book cover, we have a postcard, we have a board game box cover, and we have a graphic from a newspaper from 1890. I think it’s stunning on stage, but it’s not traditional artwork. It’s ephemera. Still, I hope the audience might get a sense of appreciation for Nellie Bly and not forget the importance and value of half the world’s population who are now under siege in this nation.”

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A reproduction of an 1890 board game box cover illustration from “Round the World with Nellie Bly”

In addition to offering the audience a two-hour flight of fancy, there are some profound themes embedded in the show. Inherently woven into its title, Wonderful World celebrates diversity and multiculturalism, expressing an appreciation for other nations and their traditions. But it also takes an important detour to recognize the powerful role women have played throughout our history. Late 19th century Swedish painter Carl Larsson gained notoriety in the Arts and Crafts movement for his oil and watercolor paintings. But his wife, Karin, was an artist and designer in her own right, often collaborating with her husband and acting as his model. 

“I had so many wonderful women to write about last year,” said Duling. “This year, the emphasis isn’t on the artists as much as it’s on the cultures they represent. So I love giving Karin Larsson as much equal billing with Carl Larsson as I can. And, of course, Nellie Bly.” 

Before the plane touches back down in Santa Ana, the audience takes a final trip through Africa and Asia with pieces set in Egypt, China and Japan. The final three 19th century woodblock prints are some of Challis Davy’s favorite pieces throughout the years. “We used the same soundtrack and the same concept with the woodblock prints that we’ve used in the past,” Challis Davy said. “But we changed out some of the prints. Two of the three are new pieces. We also have some taiko performers that are new to that sequence.”

As for ending the journey in the place it began, Challis Davy wanted to evoke the nostalgia of returning home to Laguna Beach. “Our video includes that beautiful twilight photograph of Laguna’s coastline by Festival of Arts exhibitor Mitch Ridder. We also include the 1938 Pageant photo of the cast in The Last Supper. It puts into context that we’re proud of our cultural tradition in Laguna. We want to keep it alive and keep that tradition going in a time when the world is changing so rapidly.”

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Toyohara Chikanobu’s 1891 “Snow Scene on the Banks of Sumida River” woodblock print

The 18-piece live orchestra complements every culture and work of art. Clair de Lune accompanies Edvard Eriksen’s The Little Mermaid in Copenhagen. Other musical compositions are tailored to China, Egypt and Japan, culminating in Meditation from the opera “Thais” to highlight Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper. 

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David Roberts 1846-49 “The Ghawazees, or Dancing Girls of Cairo” lithograph is accompanied by music composed and arranged by Sujin Nam 

Curious about the Pageant’s biggest challenges, given the complexity of this production, I asked Challis Davy what tested her skills this year. “One of them was the recreation of the Durga Puja Pandal from Calcutta,” she said. “It’s got a lot of detail work in it. There’s a lot of décor in the headpieces and costumes. I’ve been getting comments that the costumes are especially spectacular this year.”

The Xi’an Warriors also presented an interesting challenge. “Creating that sculptural dimensional background, and everything that went into it, wasn’t easy,” said Challis Davy. “We used some of our greatest hits from prior years – like the Chinese Dragon (which had been in storage for 15 years), the Japanese teahouse and the caryatids – but we also built a lot of new sets. We had to completely recreate the Japanese teahouse. It’s always a challenge to build up on that hillside.”

Casting the roles posed unique difficulties this year. An ethnically diverse cast was particularly important for this show and the casting call was already down due to people’s eagerness to travel after the pandemic. 

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Terracotta Xi’an Warriors (circa 221 B.C.) presented unique challenges for size and scale 

Challenges aside, Challis Davy and Duling both intend Wonderful World to be a fun and lighthearted escape from all the heavy topics pressing on us. “We aim to please and entertain,” Challis Davy said. “This is not the most serious show we’ve ever done. With the world in such a state, I thought people might find this theme enjoyable.”

In addition to the Pageant’s traditional “living pictures,” spectators will enjoy professional dancing, live music, carefully curated videography and several other surprises embedded in the show. They also might come away with a deeper appreciation for travel, and the ways we choose to spend – or waste – our time. One Japanese vignette reminds us that lost gold can always be found, but lost time is lost forever.

“I’m pleased with the few quotes that are included in the show and some of the ones included in the souvenir program, which I also write,” said Duling. “It gave us plenty of food for thought.”

A quote by Henry Miller, included in this year’s program, serves as a kind of metaphysical underpinning of this year’s show: “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” That’s one of the Pageant’s enduring goals – to lend a new perspective, not only for works of art, but for our own place in history and within our communities. In this wonderful world, perspective is everything. 

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19th century porcelain pieces entitled “Eight Immortals” 

For more backstage images, see the slideshow below. Costume, makeup and headpiece photographs were taken by Christopher Allwine. Other images were provided courtesy of the Pageant of the Masters.

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