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Venice grads want Myrna Loy, the statue, to take another bow

April 05, 2008|SANDY BANKS

Movie star Myrna Loy has passed from legend to relic status on the Venice High campus.

For 80 years, a statue she posed for as a Venice student was a landmark on the aging campus. But most Venice students have never seen it; it's been hidden in a storage shed since today's seniors were freshmen.

I wasn't surprised that none of the kids I talked to at the campus this week were familiar with their school's most famous graduate. The actress died before most of them were born. Her heyday was in the 1930s.

But that doesn't matter to the school alumni group trying to resurrect her legacy.

"We're trying to bring back the art and grace and focus of school spirit in this community," said Laura Ferre, Class of 1976. "It something that's near and dear to many families."

Ferre remembers when tour buses included the school on their movie star route. "The tourists would all get out and take pictures with Myrna Loy." Today, an online ad for a tour company warns visitors to "exercise reasonable caution" in Venice. "Be warned that the area has been the scene of recent gang activity."

But Venice is more than gang rivals and housing projects; more even than its world-famous boardwalk and iconic canals. It's a place with an enduring sense of community, and the high school is a focal point.

Ferre was the third generation of Venice High Gondoliers in her family. "My grandfather graduated from Venice. My mom and dad graduated from Venice." Her son and daughter followed her as Venice grads.

Her story is not unusual in Venice, where families settle and stay for years. "There's a lot of longevity in Venice," she said. "A lot of families who remember when Myrna" -- the statue -- "was there."

Myrna Williams was a shy 16-year-old dance student when her art teacher asked her to pose for one of three clay statues being created for the school's front lawn.

A few years later, she would begin her career as a dancer at Grauman's Chinese Theater, entertaining audiences between silent movie screenings. Her exotic looks led to roles as sirens and vamps, and in 1934 the "The Thin Man" series helped make her one of America's most popular stars.

But her star faded. Her statue crumbled. Body parts were stolen by pranksters and vandals ignited an explosion that blew off the head of the statue. A fence was erected to protect it, but lack of maintenance turned that into an eyesore. When the statue was finally taken down, it was rotting from the inside out, too damaged to restore.

A small group of heartbroken alumni began plotting its return in the late 1990s. It would cost more than $200,000 to re-create the famous statue, but after five years the group had raised less than $10,000.

Cue music. Enter alumni hero. Peter Schwab, Class of 1961.

"Venice High always had the aura of being a little funky, a little tough," said Schwab said. "But I loved it there. And the statue was a big part of who we were."

Rival schools would paint it with their school colors. People would dress it up in outlandish gear. Even to the world beyond Venice High, it was instantly recognizable from the opening scenes of the movie "Grease."

So when Schwab saw an announcement about fundraising efforts in the alumni newspaper last fall, he contributed $75,000 and pledged to match additional donations to help the group reach its fundraising goal, so the new statue can be unveiled next spring.

"I've been blessed to have a very, very good business career," Schwab, CEO of Foothill Capital. "I don't know what it means to kids at the school now. But there are certain things that were a tradition, and one of them was Myrna."

It's unlikely in the age of YouTube and "American Idol" that high school students will connect with a film legend whose career began before movies had sound.

I walked the grounds of Venice High asking students what they knew of Myrna Loy. Only a few had even heard the name, and none knew who she was.

Senior Ashley Packard thought for a moment, then guessed. "Wasn't she some kind of civil rights leader?"

A skateboarder who rolled off before I could get his name thought she was a former principal.

Senior Shirley Perez said she'd heard about efforts to restore the statue "but I have no idea who this person [Loy] is." She's not sure why the statue is so important, considering that the school needs money to fix its swimming pool and student groups have to sell pizza after school to pay for their extracurricular activities.

School spirit could certainly use a boost. This year's winter formal had to be canceled because only 33 tickets were sold on the 2,500-student campus.

But will a statue of Myrna Loy help bring the old Gondolier spirit back? Ashley shrugged. "I guess they want us to know about our past," she said, looking out over the lawn where Myrna will stand. "It'll be something special about our campus."

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sandy.banks@latimes.com

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