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No Way to Treat A Lady: The Venice Saga of Myrna Loy

Image by SM Berry
Editor's note: Back in the ancient days of print, 2003, we ran this great column about the status of Venice High School's Myrna Loy stature by Melanie Berry. In honor of the recent re-installation of the statue, we're posting it.

text and images by SM Berry

Pay up or you will never see Venice High's Myrna Loy statue again.

Sound like a ransom note? In so many words, it is. The story of how it came to be is one movies are made of: a beautiful girl facing an ultimate demise and in need of rescue, the artist who loved her and the city that could save her. But like all stories, it began years ago. It started at her school…

Venice Union Polytechnic High opened in 1911, taking over the old Lagoon Bathhouse. But Venice was a burgeoning city and groundbreaking for construction of larger quarters took place in 1914. At the new campus, noted sculptor Harry F. Winebrenner headed up the art department. He had a dream of making Venice a national center of art and began sowing the seeds for his "garden of art Eden" with the students under his tutelage. Winebrenner’s goals with his students were to develop their aesthetic feeling for the beauty of art and to teach them skills which could earn them a living: illustration for publications, printing for interior design and sculpture for public buildings and landscaping. Statues created in class were set in the campus landscape and Venice Union Polytechnic High became prized as the most beautiful campus in Los Angeles.

In the early 1920’s, the school’s most famous statues were erected as part of a fountain in front of the school. The three life-size concrete statues were modeled from school students. The central standing female figure perched as a Venus-on-a-Half shell, was the soon-to-be-Hollywood-star, 16-year-old Myrna Loy. Loy would become one of the few movie stars to make the transition from silent films to talkies. She was named the Queen of Hollywood, with Clark Gable as the King.

Over time, various names have been attributed to school’s threesome. Venice High official history refers to the group statue as the “Foundation of Education,” The Smithsonian Institute refers to it as “Inspiration,” but locals simply call the group of three “The Myrna Loy Statue.”

In 1933, the Long Beach Earthquake destroyed many of the high school’s Lobardist Italian style buildings as well as most of the statues but Myrna and her companions escaped destruction. However, in the last half of the twentieth century Myrna became a target of vendettas and vandalism. She was tarred and feathered, graffitied, and even dynamited—an attack which blew off her head and arms.

In 1979 William Van Orden, a local sculptor, found the statue broken and disfigured. He grabbed his tools and went to work. School officials stopped him because he didn’t have a contract with the school, and although he offered to fix her for free, it wasn’t until the next year that he was granted permission to work on Myrna and her accompanying statues. Van Orden made changes to the three figures to reflect the cultural times of the school. He re-modeled the kneeling male figure to have African American features and the sitting female to have Hispanic features. He wasn’t the first to modify the statues. Winebrenner, about a year after their completion, made his own changes to Myrna, adjusting her arms and “cutting” her hair.

At some point, the school removed the fountain that encircled Myrna and her companions, and her original Venus-on-a-Half shell styled pose was lost. Myrna would be placed on a box.

Van Orden spent thousands of his own hours over the next decade maintaining the statues—after each repair, they would be attacked again. But the sculptor said he wanted to keep Myrna's beauty and charm alive and he did so until the end of his life in 1990 at age 67.

The story goes that with no one to take care of her, Myrna was taken from her home in front of Venice High and separated from her companions in an effort to preserve and protect her. Somehow I was able to find her and her current keeper allowed me to visit with her for a brief moment, but her companions’ status and whereabouts remain a mystery. Myrna’s own condition, gives me little hope for theirs.

To safeguard her from theft, Myrna is currently held in an outdoor cage, where the rain, cold, and heat work the cement and rebar that comprise her, causing Myrna to crack, crumble, and disintegrate; Myrna’s own protection is destroying her. She is tied up in canvas and rope, unable to see or breathe the school that is her home, held hostage, waiting for her ransom to be paid. We, as a people, have to cough up the dough, send in our Special Art Forces to rescue her, or she will perish.

Please contact Principal Janice Davis at 310.306.7981 to contribute to the restoration of Myrna and her companions.

Contributor SM Berry is a long-time Venice loyalist with a deep and eclectic knowledge of the area’s culture and history.
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