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Venice High holds onto yesterday's values and today's dreams

Alumni return to campus to welcome the new statue of Myrna Loy, an alum who made good.

April 12, 2010|Sandy Banks

It was a quintessential Venice scene on the high school campus on Saturday: shaggy-haired teenagers sporting nose rings; middle-aged moms in tie-dye and tattoos; and dapper septuagenarians doing a two-step version of the Venice Crawl to conga-accented funk music by the baby boomer Westside Crew.

The party honored Myrna Loy, the movie star and Venice alum who was the model for a campus statue that stood for four generations as a school mascot until it fell apart 10 years ago. Venice High alums raised $200,000 and unveiled a new version in its place on Saturday.

But the celebration was about more than an old movie star. It was a tribute to the spirit of one of Los Angeles' oldest schools and most iconic neighborhoods.

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Virginia Estrada, class of '57, came back from Texas for the unveiling "because Myrna was such a big part of our identity."

For years, the statue was the target of pranks. Rivals from nearby Hamilton High doused it with paint, covered it with toilet-paper streamers, blew off Myrna's body parts. Estrada paid them back by showing up at Hamilton's Back to School Night and signing up parents for the PTA. "They thought they were joining for their school, but I signed them up for our PTA instead."

She and her sister Joyce, class of '54, still laugh about that. Joyce was there with her husband Danny Gurrola, class of '53, whose '44 Ford was a "lady killer" at the Friday night dances back then.

Everybody I talked to had a story to tell.

Like Cindy Fierro, class of '75, who remembers shimmying up the statue of Myrna Loy to get out of the way of "race riots" when black and Latino students squared off with trash cans and umbrellas. She perched on the statue's shoulders and watched the SWAT team storm the lawn.

Within days, she said, things were back to normal.

Acrimony never seemed to last long among the students -- then, as now, a mix of races and cultures, of struggling immigrants and well-heeled natives.

"We had everybody, and we reflected whatever was going on in this country," recalled Joel Fishman, class of '65. "It was a tough school in a certain way, but the dynamics worked," he said.

Despite racial tensions and occasional fights, "everybody was doing the same dances on Friday nights."

I snagged Fishman as he left the dance floor Saturday, where he was the lone white man boogeying to an R&B classic in a Soul Train line of hip-shaking Latinas.

Gondolier spirit, he said, has always been an equalizing force, and Myrna -- the statue, not the star -- was a symbol of that.

"Very few people back then knew who she was or what the history was," he said. "We just knew she was somebody who went here and had done well out in the universe."

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The Venice campus has changed a lot since bobby-soxers did the Crawl and Roberts' hamburger joint was the pickup spot on Friday nights. And Saturday was more than just a time to look back.

Annie Kwan, class of 2011, enjoyed the old folks' stories but also needed their money. So she and classmate Luke Fiederer passed the hat.

"Fundraising is really hard right now," she said. Two years ago, the school had to cancel its winter formal; only 33 tickets were sold in a class of 2,500.

She surveyed the energetic alums and noted the difference between then and now.

"We don't have the kind of spirit they had," she said. "We're under a lot of pressure, with all the AP classes and worries about college."

Students "would rather do homework than show up for [fundraisers like] movie night."

Annie was pleasantly surprised, she said, when she solicited the alumni on the lawn. "I got about $60. People were dropping in $5 bills."

She and Luke didn't know quite what to make of the oldsters' enthusiasm for Myrna.

"It means they still care about the school, I guess," Luke said. "It means we ought to do better."

If the statue represented a link for alums, it was a peek at the future for Luke and Annie. "I'm glad to have the statue here," said Luke, "and I'm glad there's a barrier around it."

The barrier is a giant clump of thorny white roses -- small protection from damage on a campus with no gate, no fence to separate it from the sidewalk.

Unfenced, untarnished. It's a leap of faith. "And I hope," Luke said, "we can keep it this way."

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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