Sculptor William Van Orden’s most memorable work may never be finished. For years, he has tried to save Venice High School’s statue of actress Myrna Loy from unending assault by vandals--a job some have compared to tilting at windmills.
During the last decade the sculptor has restored the statue 12 times, scraping away old paint, replacing heads and arms that were battered and once even destroyed by dynamite.
Last month, vandals scaled the well-lit protective fence surrounding the statue and struck again. They destroyed the head of the Loy statue and vandalized two others.
This time, said Van Orden, 66, he may not be able to restore them. He said he suffers from cancer and his doctors give him two months to live.
“Myrna may be destined to be an unfinished work of art,” Van Orden said recently. “It is a terrible tragedy.”
Van Orden said he has spent thousands of hours repairing the statue; he has received only $2,100 in donations for his trouble.
“They even call me the Don Quixote of Venice,” he said. “They don’t realize that I take that as a compliment. Myrna is my windmill.”
The 7-foot-tall statue depicting the goddess Venus rising from the sea was originally sculpted in the 1920s by Harry Winebrenner, a nationally known sculptor who also taught art at Venice High School. He chose as his model a 16-year-old art student named Myrna Williams, who later became famous as film actress Myrna Loy. Two other statues Winebrenner sculpted at the site were also modeled by students.
Over the years the glamorous statue with the delicate face and wind-swept appearance became a symbol for the school. It also became a target for pranks and vandals.
“Students would put everything on Myrna. They would dress her up with (everything from) hats to brassieres,” Van Orden said. “Once they stole a plastic (Bob’s) Big Boy figure from one of the restaurants and put it on top of Myrna. It was silly, but it didn’t damage her.”
The statue first came to Van Orden’s attention after vandals used dynamite to blow off the statue’s head and arm in 1978. A year later, Van Orden drove by and saw the damaged statue and, grabbing a tool box, instinctively began making repairs.
“I took out my chisel and mallet and started hammering on it when the principal came out and asked me, ‘What are you doing?’ ” he recalled. “I said, ‘I’m here to fix the statue.’ ”
Van Orden was told that it was not that easy. He was asked to submit samples of his work and give an estimate of what he would charge. “I told him I would do it for nothing,” the artist said. After receiving an estimate of $17,000 from another artist, the school gave Van Orden the job.
Students joined in the reconstruction effort, which included rebuilding the Loy statue and the two others at the main school entrance. Over the years, the statues were defaced by student pranksters, school rivals and other vandals. Layer upon layer of paint, tar and even feathers were removed from the figures and new heads and extremities were fashioned. The stone figures were given a new bronze finish.
The school paid Van Orden $2,000. He also received a $100 check from actor Burt Reynolds, who is a Myrna Loy fan. Van Orden was awarded a proclamation from the Los Angeles City Council.
However, a week after ceremonies unveiling the restoration in 1981, Van Orden said he received a call from the principal saying the vandals had struck again. There have been numerous other acts since then.
Van Orden said he was forced to make a “defensive sculpture,” changing the design to add protection against vandals. The arms were strengthened and drawn closer to the body, the hands were buried in the hair and a mold was made of the heads of all three statues to make them easier to replace.
The school also built a tall fence around the statues with bars bending outward to make it more difficult to climb.
The statues remained untouched for more than a year--until last month. And to make matters worse, school officials misplaced the head molds.
“It is really frustrating for everyone who cares about Venice High School,” said Bobby Swerdlow, 18, student body president. “The statue is the first thing you see when you come to Venice High School. It is hard to take pride in a school when you look at it and it is missing a key part, when you look at it and it is mangled.”
Andrea L. Natker, Venice High’s principal, said the school intends to ask another artist to restore the statues under Van Orden’s direction and to make new molds.
The latest vandalism has renewed calls for the statues to be declared historic landmarks. Natker said that a designation would help the school raise funds to protect and maintain them.
City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, whose district includes Venice, said her office would help in the restoration. “It is unfortunate that the infantile impulses of a few vandals has damaged this statue, it hurts everyone,” she said. “Mr. Van Orden has adopted this statue and cared for it like it was a member of his own family. The fact that the statue is still standing is as much a tribute to him as anyone.”
Loy, who was born in 1905, played opposite William Powell in the light-hearted film adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s mystery novel “The Thin Man.” In a 1936 poll by Ed Sullivan--then a syndicated columnist--she was voted “queen of the movies” and Clark Gable was voted king.
“I idolized her,” Van Orden said of Loy. “She was so beautiful and classy. And she made a lot of people happy back during the Depression when there was not a lot to be happy about. She helped us through it. I always admired her. She was an elegant lady.”
Van Orden said that he has never had any contact with Loy, who is 83 and lives in New York.
“Someone said that they saw her cruising around the high school in a limousine in recent years to see the statue, but I have never heard from her. She has never contacted me or sent me a little card to say thanks,” he said.
Loy could not be reached for comment.
Van Orden has supported his art work over the years by taking on odd jobs and painting houses. Since his cancer was diagnosed three years ago, his only income has been $600 a month in Social Security payments. He lives in a small one-bedroom house in Venice with his 18-year-old son, Rodan.
Three weeks ago, after his most recent surgery, he was told he does not have long to live.
“One doctor was quite honest, he told me that on the outside I had a chance of living about two months,” he said. “I said that is quite all right. That’s a lot of time. It gives me a chance to help complete my boy’s transition from child to man.” Van Orden has raised Rodan alone since his wife left him when his son was 4.
“He accepts this. Death is not an evil thing,” he said. “We have discussed the seasons of life--spring, summer, fall and winter. I’m in the winter of my life. I’m like a tree in winter and my leaves are falling. Everybody experiences death. It is the natural order of things.”
Rodan Van Orden, who graduated from Venice High School last year, has joined the effort to have the statue declared a city landmark.
“It deserves to be a landmark,” he said. “It is symbolic of Myrna Loy and one man’s commitment to his community. The statue is his reflection on the world around him. They are all bits of his insides and his feelings. Part of everything he has ever experienced. There is much more of him in that statue than there is in any other piece of art that he has done. And that means a lot to me.”