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Life on the Base: MCAS El Toro Exhibit Opens at Great Park 

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The photography exhibition Life on the Base: MCAS El Toro held its opening reception at Irvine Great Park on Feb. 19th from 1-3 p.m. The exhibition provided a glimpse into the lives of Marine Corps stationed at the El Toro base in Irvine, California during the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s.

Life on the Base is located at Great Park Gallery and will run through May 7, 2023. The exhibition is organized into four sections focusing on photographs of everyday life, interview records, maps, and a collection from the First American OC Photo Archive.

The first photography section is separated into three collections: Daily, Sport, and Social. All three collections are paired with quotes from an oral history project by the Lawrence De Graaf Center, where residents at the base were interviewed. 

The Daily section focuses on the day-to-day lives of soldiers. Activities pictured include eating with friends, off hours, and watching demonstrations. Despite the serious nature of World War II and the Korean War, the photographs on display reflect moments of humanity while living through hardship. The curator of the exhibit, Cynthia Castaneda, reflected on the relatability of young people on the base. 

“We have guys who were, yes, getting ready for very difficult times in their lives, but look: they’re goofing off,” Castaneda said.  

The Sports section features images of men and women, mostly in their early 20s, posing for team photos and solo pictures during friendly tournaments with other military bases. 

The Social section displays dances, photos of the El Toro orchestra, and famous visitors. Harpo Marx, known for his role in I Love Lucy, Bob Hope, and Ray Bolger, the scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz are pictured attending events at the base. Photographs were provided by The Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum and the MCAS Miramar Archives. 

The records section of the exhibit features over 500 printed books and interviews with servicemen and women stationed at El Toro from the Lawrence De Graaf Center’s oral history project. Many interviews were filmed or audio-recorded. 

Castaneda encourages visitors to first view the records section in order to understand the complexities of military life.

The exhibit’s third section includes maps of the base created by California artist, Kiel Johnson. A black-and-white 2D rendering of its layout and a 3D interpretive topographical map shows schools, barracks, office buildings, and a baseball field at El Toro.

The exhibit’s final section, a collection of photographs from the First American OC Photo Archive, documents the building of El Toro as captured by the first unit stationed on the base. 

Life on the Base’s February 19th opening reception drew in crowds of park-goers. Food trucks, live jazz, and swing music from Swingin’ in the Palm Court at the reception celebrated the new exhibition. 

“This is the kind of music that would be around during this time,” says Castaneda of the 40’s music playing in the background. 

Castaneda described the project as a “realization of a life dream,” one which she spent four years developing for the public as part of her Master’s thesis. The exhibit originally opened in 2020 for two weeks but was curtailed by the COVID lockdown. 

“Just seeing this, seeing people look at photographs I worked so hard to find, and that I hoped they would connect with,” she said. “It looks like it’s happening.”

Laura Kichler is a City News Intern for the winter 2023 quarter. She can be reached at