The Triumph of Roy & Marie Ropp
By Dan Duling, Ph.D.
On opening night of the second Pageant of the Masters, July 29, 1936 – 80 years ago this summer – an event occurred here in Laguna Beach that changed the course of history for the city, the Festival of Arts and for the fledgling Pageant of the Masters. Thanks to the extraordinary efforts and ambitions of a local couple, Roy and Marie Ropp, the Pageant’s celebration of art in “living pictures” – tableaux vivants – not only endures today but continues to thrive.
But, just two years earlier, the fate of the Festival’s “living pictures,” presented as “The Spirit of the Masters” in 1933 and ’34, seemed in doubt altogether.
MEET THE ROPPS
Roy M. Ropp and his wife, Marie, settled in Laguna Beach in 1921. They had two children, Nevalie Anne and Macauley. The entire family became very active in community affairs. Marie is credited with assisting with various “living pictures” projects for the first Festivals. But during the latter half of the 1930s, her role would become even more pivotal to the success of the first Pageants.
Roy was a successful builder, constructing studios for many artists including William Wendt and Karl Yens. Many of the houses he built are still standing in Laguna. Ropp’s skills as a builder and businessman led to his being invited to join the Festival of Arts board in 1934, shortly after its incorporation. And at a meeting that year, as plans for the following summer were being discussed, Ropp expressed a serious concern he and Marie shared. He suggested that if the “living pictures” weren’t going to improve, they might as well be thrown out. At one point, he even described the small booth-stage they were being shown in as resembling a “chick sale” (an outhouse).i “If the Old Masters could see the indifferent way in which they’ve been presented, I think they’d turn over in their grave,” he told the other board members.ii
The upshot of that critique was that Ropp was invited to take over the presentation of the “living pictures” in 1935. Initially panicked, in ten days, Roy and Marie conceived how the presentation could be transformed into a performance that could actually stand on its own.
To begin with, they’d need a real stage. Once the location for the 1935 Festival was determined, he felt certain he could build it. Roy and Marie began to select artworks. When the curtain opened, Roy wanted to see full-fledged scenes. He would build and paint the backdrops himself, on their back patio, for want of any other available place. Meanwhile, Marie would coordinate the costuming with trips to the Salvation Army in Los Angeles and help from some of their local friends in theater. She also began researching the artworks, composing narration scripts to be read aloud and selecting music to play with each piece.
With no permanent location, the 1935 Festival of Arts was held on Heisler Point next to the new Art Gallery (now Laguna Art Museum). The Ropps had chosen 22 artworks, and as Roy made plans for having his construction company build a stage, he was faced with the more pressing challenges of casting. To do this, he essentially considered every person in Laguna eligible, and stories began to spread about various citizens being accosted by Ropp on the street when he found just the “type” he was looking for.
Roy and Marie were driven by a seriousness of purpose that overcame their neighbors’ qualms. For his part, Roy displayed a selfless devotion to his task that inspired even those who may have been skeptical at first. Marie enlisted the Beaux Arts Trio, made up of local musicians; her narrator for the 1935 program was C.R. Pettit. Volunteers to assist with makeup and scene changes “came on board” as opening night neared, but the massive responsibility for all the construction and the painting of all the backdrops rested squarely on Roy.
There was one other key change instituted. For the first time, the production was to be called “The Pageant of the Masters.” The performance lasted a little less than an hour and the audience response was immediate. Extra performances had to be added to accommodate audience demand. Ropp later fondly recalled how one board member took him aside and said, “Roy, I have traveled much of the world over and have seen some of the best in theater productions, but I have never seen anything more beautiful than this program which you have created and presented. I feel that the board and I owe you an apology for the indifferent consideration we gave to your ideas…”iii
In addition to being extremely well-received by its audiences, the 1935 Pageant of the Masters generated an incredible amount of free press coverage, the kind of glowing publicity money can’t buy. The Festival board gave Ropp its blessing to begin making plans for another Pageant in 1936. The question must have crossed the novice director’s mind: how can one top this?
1936: A YEAR OF FIRSTS
In 1936, Marie Ropp found herself serving the first of five consecutive years on the Festival board. It would seem this arrangement worked to everyone’s advantage since Marie could keep her husband apprised of all board business, while the board could enjoy a direct link with their Pageant director. A blocked off section of El Paseo was chosen for that summer’s Festival, and Roy began in earnest to prepare a stage and audience seating area.
A moment must be taken here to acknowledge the contributions of Marie Ropp as the co-creator of the Pageant of the Masters. Even before her husband got involved with the presentation of “living pictures,” Marie had developed a working knowledge of tableaux vivants. For his part, her husband continually cited her accomplished efforts on so many fronts and praised her contributions: researching and writing the Pageant narrations, and supervising the musical selections, the costuming and other production details. Her quality control in these areas was every bit as responsible for the ultimate success of the Pageant as her husband’s determination. The Ropps were not the first to make their Festival involvement a family affair, but they set an imposing standard. Throughout her tenure at the Festival, Marie Ropp conducted herself with poise and professionalism.
The 1936 program featured three Pageant “firsts”: the initial re-creation of a painting by Norman Rockwell; the first “nude,” a sculpture of “Salome”; and the finale, which was to become nothing less than a quantum leap.
JULY 29, 1936: OPENING NIGHT
For their finale, the Ropps set out to present Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.” No one was more keenly aware of the need for reverence in the handling of this tableau than Roy. Thirteen figures all seated behind a table, all in forced perspective. Building and painting the set, once again in his back yard, took many careful calculations. Marie and her growing team of volunteers would handle the costuming and makeup, but when it came to the set, there could be no shortcuts. It would be more than twice the size of any of the other presentations, so the stage would have to be expanded accordingly.
But what Roy hadn’t planned on was the challenge of casting. Specifically, casting the figure of Jesus. With the opening only a week away, he still had not found anyone who fit his conception of Leonardo’s rendition. Then Festival board member Mrs. Harry Gordon Martin came to visit. As he told it later, “Mrs. Martin had been blessed with a strong, noble face, excellent forehead, nose and eyes. Like a flash I had seen the qualities I had been seeking.”iv
After pondering his dilemma a little longer, he asked her if she’d be willing to take the part. With a fair amount of justifiable uncertainty, she agreed, and continued to fill the part throughout Ropp’s tenure as Pageant director. They agreed her identity should be kept a secret from the viewing public, and in an article included in the local newspaper on July 28, the following note appeared: “A retired singer who has made his home in Laguna and whose name will be withheld from the public has been selected to portray the Christus in The Last Supper.”v
With his cast complete, he invited them all to his back yard to study the set and their poses, and to impart to them the gravity of their depiction. Once he had moved the set to the staging area, he added another element, theatrical gauze stretched across the frame “to soften the picture and give it a tonal quality.”vi
The audience attending opening night that summer were treated to a show that created the basic template for all future Pageants: live narration and musical accompaniment for a full evening’s presentation of “living pictures.” And, if all went according to plan, the Ropps hoped they’d saved the best for last.
Roy Ropp described the conclusion of that opening night: “A reverent silence spread over the audience. Stillness was complete. A brief narration, then the curtain slowly opened as the rich baritone voice of Mr. John Ferguson sang the beautiful ‘Lord’s Prayer’ by Albert Hay Malotte, gradually building up to the great climax. The curtain remained open for a time, that the picture might be seen in complete silence – then it slowly closed upon this great drama.”vii
The impact of that moment in Pageant history set another precedent: “The Last Supper” has been the Pageant’s traditional finale ever since, with the exception of three years when program themes necessitated substituting alternate artists’ renditions of the subject. The Ropps’ re-creation of “The Last Supper” changed everything: it gave its audiences their first real indication of the dramatic potential of this presentation. No longer a mere novelty, the Pageant of the Masters was, from that summer on, a theatrical phenomenon attracting audiences from around the world who flocked to Laguna Beach to see what Marie Ropp would later describe as “Art That Lives and Breathes.”