It was near showtime at the Pageant of the Masters' preview night Monday, and Buster Keaton had a few minutes to pocket his smile.
Or, rather, Joe Ramondetta had a few minutes to get into character. Backstage before a mirror, he fitted a wig above his black-and-white painted face — he was playing a silent movie character, after all — and talked cheerfully about his pending debut with Laguna Beach's summer tradition.
The Irvine resident had attended the pageant for years with family, and with this year's show centered on cinema, the organizers deemed him a suitable match for the stoic comic. At the pageant's annual media preview, his tableau from Keaton's 1926 classic "The General" would be among those shown, which meant any giddiness would have to disappear before he mounted the front of a train with a massive wood plank in his hands.
"The hardest part is trying not to blink for two minutes," Ramondetta said.
Minutes later, with several dozen invited guests in the Irvine Bowl audience, the lights went up on "The General" scene — and Ramondetta, at least from a few rows back, didn't appear to blink at all. When the backdrop rotated to reveal another actor posing as Harold Lloyd, the crowd applauded and gasped to see the scenes momentarily in 3D. The Keaton recreation, from the front, could have passed for a photograph.
Such is the goal every year with the pageant, which features people posed and lighted to look as pictorial as possible for a few minutes onstage. The event, first held in 1933, runs from July 7 to Aug. 31 at the Festival of Arts grounds, 650 Laguna Canyon Road.
This year's theme is The Big Picture, and featured will be more than three dozen scenes from film history or works somehow connected to it. Only a few of the images are actually of movie stills, with others tied thematically: movie-related works by Norman Rockwell and Edward Hopper, a Jean-Leon Gerome painting that inspired a scene in "Gladiator" and more.
In short, the intent of this year's program is to show the big picture beyond "The Big Picture" — the ways filmmakers feed off of, and sometimes inspire, the art world around them.
"When they do research, they go to fine art for inspiration and to make sure their movies are historically accurate," said pageant director Diane Challis Davy.
Likewise, Davy's staff this year took pains to ensure that the images were faithful to art. In addition to the half-dozen tableaux presented to the audience, the media preview featured the unveiling of three large-scale photos of pageant cast members posing as early Hollywood stars: Laurel and Hardy, Jean Harlow and Tom Mix. The portraits, created by artist Rob Gage, will be displayed outside the pageant entrance for the duration of this year's festival.
Sarah Schmidt, a longtime cast member, cut and dyed her brownish-blond hair to play the platinum-blond Harlow — a task that, she said, gave her no pause whatsoever.
"It wasn't even a second thought," Schmidt said. "Of course, I was going to do it. I've had short hair before, so I knew that I could be OK with it."
Gage was also among the artists previewing work for the Festival of Arts, which runs June 30 through Aug. 31. The festival, which turns 81 this year, showcases work by 140 Orange County artists.
David Milton, a festival exhibitor for more than two decades, displayed a group of paintings of signs of diners and other businesses around the Western United States — a theme he defined as "classic and vanishing Americana."
Nearby, Susan Jarecky's booth featured paintings of a ranch in South Dakota, which the artist discovered through a mutual acquaintance. Like Milton, Jarecky sought to capture a slice of culture that may soon disappear. The rancher, she said, had lived on the property since 1943 and begun to lease out parts of the land.
"The ranch is melting, so I'm documenting it before it's gone," she said.