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A star is reborn at Venice High

A group of alumni and students unveil a bronze, and vandalism-resistant, re-creation of the famed lawn sculpture of alumna Myrna Loy before she rose to fame as a leading actress of the 1930s and '40s.

April 11, 2010|By Tony Barboza
  • Before she changed her name and rose to fame as an actress in the 1930s and '40s, Myrna Williams was a shy dance student at Venice High School who posed for the art teacher's lawn sculpture.
Before she changed her name and rose to fame as an actress in the 1930s and… (Christina House / For The…)

Venice High School welcomed back some Old Hollywood royalty Saturday as hundreds gathered for the unveiling of a new statue of alumna and movie star Myrna Loy.

The bronze work is a re-creation of the beloved concrete sculpture of Loy that graced the front lawn of Venice High for more than seven decades but suffered years of corrosion and vandalism.

Students and alumni crowded around the veiled statue at noon Saturday as a contingent of the marching band and cheerleaders kicked off the celebration. Among the speakers was actor and Venice High graduate Beau Bridges, who as a boy appeared with Loy in the 1949 film "The Red Pony."

"Our journey begins with our history," Bridges said, calling the new statue an important nod to the school's storied past.

Then the veil dropped, applause erupted, confetti shot into the air and spectators with cameras mobbed the statue.

"She is absolutely gorgeous," said Renee Chorpash, a 1973 graduate. "I had tears in my eyes."

In 1922, art teacher Harry Winebrenner asked a shy dance student named Myrna Williams and several other students to pose for a school lawn sculpture. He named the work -- which featured the figure of a woman leaning forward, her back arched, head tilted skyward and left arm outstretched -- "Inspiration."

Williams changed her last name to Loy after she graduated and became an actress. She crossed over from silent films to become one of Hollywood's leading ladies in the 1930s and '40s. She was best known for her role in the "Thin Man" films, in which she played Nora Charles, the wisecracking wife of detective Nick Charles, who was played by William Powell.

The statue became a beloved feature of Venice High over the years, but also fell victim to the practical jokes of rival schools: She was painted in opposing campus colors or dressed in costumes. She even made a cameo in the movie "Grease," parts of which were filmed on the campus.

In the 1980s, artist William Van Orden restored the concrete and rebar statue twice, folding her arms inward to deter vandals. But the antics continued.

As the statue began to crumble, the pranks grew more violent. Her face was disfigured. Someone blew her head off with explosives.

In 1989, the sculpture was placed in protective custody, enclosed in a protective iron cage as part of a last-ditch effort to save her.

Eventually, she deteriorated beyond the point of restoration. A Boy Scout removed the statue in 2000 as his community service project.

"The statue became less and less of the majestic 'Inspiration' and sadly, as we all know, she disappeared," said 1961 graduate Peter Schwab, the main benefactor of the restoration project.

Not to be deterred, a group of nostalgic alumni started plotting Myrna's return in the late 1990s.

The effort gained steam in the last several years as hundreds of donors raised more than $140,000. They commissioned Cambria, Calif., sculptor Ernest Shelton, a former high-jumper for USC who has crafted lifelike statues of such figures as Amelia Earhart and Johnny Carson.

Loy died in 1993 at age 88.

But admirers hope that she will watch over the students of Venice High for decades more as a vandal- resistant bronze protected by thorny rosebushes.

"I've seen her go through a lot of difficulties and vandalism," Chorpash said. "She's going to last for another 100 years after this."

tony.barboza@latimes.com

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