For several weeks during the summer, Brian Stowe goes back in time as he steps into the classic 1800s painting “The Kiss on the Hand.” He’s part of the annual Pageant of the Masters, a show that brings art to life through tableaux vivants, or “living pictures,” putting real people into the human roles in paintings.
“It actually started out as a street art form in France,” said David Cooke, a scenic artist at the pageant in Laguna Beach. “And they would do this on the street and act out paintings. And so that’s where it started from. This town actually had a nucleus of really academic people that were here painting in the days that it [the show] started in the 30s.”
Since 1933, volunteers have been putting on the pageant production, except for four dark years during World War II.
They showcase paintings, statues and even human-based jewelry on a stage tucked into a tree-shrouded canyon.
For 90 seconds at a time, art is brought to life with such 3-D realism that you have to use binoculars to tell that the people are real.
“You know, it’s funny. It’s one of those things really, you can explain and I have explained it and people have come and seen it even, going, ‘Well, are those- but those aren’t real people, right?’ And I go, ‘No. See these are real people,'” said David Rymar, who has been painting sets here since 1980.
He said people are often in disbelief even when he points out humans on stage and tells them they are real people.
Backstage before and during a show, costume assistants help actors get into stiff costumes and slather on layers of pancake makeup that make the people blend into the painted backgrounds. Backstage is where the Pageant of the Masters community thrives, with friendship at its heart.
That is where volunteer Brian Stowe sits in a makeup chair, wearing a skull cap and pointing out where he’ll stand in a painting of a suitor kissing the hand of a young woman in front of a coach and horses.
“I’m forever known as Kiss Number One. And this is Kiss Number Two and Three and Four,” said Stowe, pointing out his character and others in a photo of the painting.
“This is the fun part: the makeup and sitting around is the best part,” Stowe said. “You get a lot of close friends during the course of the season.”
Stowe gets into his costume and his hat and heads to the stage with the three other people in his painting. They are introduced. They get into their places. The lights go up. The painting “The Kiss on the Hand” comes to life. And for 90 seconds, they freeze. The audience cannot even see them breathe.
Paul Goldie is a “poser,”helping the on-stage actors into their poses backstage, carefully noting positioning with a photo of the painting.
Goldie, who also appears in a few tableaux this year, has been part of the show on stage and off for more than 20 years, drawn in by the sense of family and another kind of sense: a sense of humor.
He recalled the time he was in the on-stage cast, in a piece called “Preservation Hall.”
“I was holding a trumpet. Everybody next to me was sitting down, including the guy on my right with his back to the audience, who would tell me dirty jokes while I’m trying to hold my pose and I’m telling him shut the heck up! Or other words!” Goldie said.
But Goldie says the ultimate jokesters are Jesus and the 12 Apostles, better known as “The Last Supper.” The iconic DaVinci piece has closed the show every year since 1936. The actors in it are often the old-timers of the pageant and seasoned pranksters.
“At the end of the Last Supper, quite often they’ll do pranks that you don’t see,” Goldie said, laughing. “Like one year, I came out and after the curtain closed, they dropped their tops and they all had pink tube tops on.”
The pageant is so ingrained in Orange County’s culture that families make up the volunteer tapestry year after year.
Volunteer makeup artist Shari Vanzant said her kids basically grew up on the pageant patio.
“When they were little, they’d carry it home and in their play. They’d use their Barbies and make the pageant scenes, which I think is not an unusual thing for pageant children to do. I’ve heard other families that do that also,” Vanzant said.
Some of the pageant sets even end up in homes. Cooke said he has a horse from years past in his garden. Inevitably, the pageant wraps and the sets are dismantled.
But the friendships? Many forged here last for decades.