A Show of Affection : Artists create a tribute to Philip Orlando, a well-loved Sherman Oaks exhibitor who 'liked the wildest stuff.'

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Art gallery owner Philip Orlando, who died in July, never discovered an artist who went on to be a superstar.

His Sherman Oaks gallery never reached a position of national promi nence. He never had a show that had art patrons lined up down the street.

But if Orlando's contribution to the local art world is measured in die-hard commitment and in the respect and affection of local artists, then he was truly a success. "If you met him, you never forgot him," said Robert Gino, the co-founder of the gallery and Orlando's partner for almost four decades.

"I was the conservative one. He had so much spontaneity, he was so outgoing. He liked the wildest stuff, and the artists loved him for it."

More than 40 of those artists will be represented at a memorial show opening today at the Orlando Gallery. The works in the show either depict Orlando, who died at age 69 from cancer-related respiratory failure, or are in some way about him. All the works are being contributed by the artists to the gallery.

"None of the artists were asked, they volunteered," Gino said.

Figurative artist Don Lagerberg came up with the idea for the show. He first had his work shown by Orlando in 1963.

"He would develop a sense of loyalty, just out of who he was," said Lagerberg, who is now a professor of art at Cal State Fullerton. His paintings are still represented by Orlando Gallery. "Getting paintings sold there was a major part of my income when I was starting out.

"But Phil and Bob were more to me than just gallery owners. Sometimes I would be hurting, trying to work as an artist and keep a young family together. When I needed a few bucks, they came through. When I needed help, they would be the ones I turned to. They were major people in my life."

Gino met Orlando in 1953 at a time when dance was far more important to the two men than art. Gino had just arrived in Los Angeles from Chicago where he had worked as an interior designer. They met at an Arthur Murray Dance Studio class.

"I had also worked as a dancer in Chicago," Gino said, "and I thought I could do that again until I worked up a clientele for design. I saw a sign that said Arthur Murray needed dancing teachers." Orlando was the teacher of the teachers' training class.

Six months after meeting they started a dance studio of their own in Encino where they taught ballet, tap and ballroom styles. "Sally Field was a student when she was a little girl," Gino said. They also taught the spouses, children and grandchildren of several celebrities.

Gino and Orlando also teamed with dancer Mildred Law to form the group Millie and Her Guys, which performed in the mid-1950s at numerous nightclubs, including the famed Moulin Rouge in Hollywood.

It was about 1957, Gino believes, that artist friends asked to hang their paintings in the dance studio. "We had all this wall space and all we had on them were celebrity pictures," Gino said. "And the artists had storage problems."

Not long after the art was hung, several patrons of the dance studio asked if the works were for sale. "We contacted the artists and they said go ahead," Gino said. The paintings were sold on a commission basis.

Soon, one entire wall of the reception area, which could be seen from the street, was covered with paintings. One day a man from Texas drove by, saw the paintings and stopped in.

"The man asked Phil, 'Are those paintings for sale?' When Phil told them they were, the man said, 'I'll take the whole wall.'

"It started us thinking that maybe art was not just a sidelight."

Their entry into the art business conveniently came at a time when rock 'n' roll was on the way in and ballroom dancing was in decline. "The dance business was getting tight," Gino said. "The twist and the swim and all those other dances came in. People didn't have to know how to dance to do those."

By 1960, when they moved to a new location in Encino, the dance part of their business was relegated to one room and the rest was art. By 1962, the entire space was an art gallery. The early years of the transition were rough.

"There were days we went without lunch," Gino said. "And we sometimes walked back and forth from home to save on gas. But remember, we were dancers, we were disciplined. You had to be to survive."

Their reputation was spreading, especially among new artists.

"My brother-in-law at the time was a critic for Newsweek, and he told me this was a good gallery that would take on new people," said painter Susan Clover, who specializes in realistic scenes.

"I met with them and I've been there ever since."

The gallery also became known as one that would take women artists seriously. "When we started out it was not easy to sell art by a woman who was not well-known," Gino said. "Many of the women who came to us used just their initials or even a fake name to make it look like the artist was a man. We tried to get them to use their real names."

Business finally picked up in 1967, when they moved the gallery to its present location in Sherman Oaks.

"In Encino, people sent out decorators to buy their art to fit the look of the living room," Gino said. "Here, we had people who were writers, artists and musicians living in the hills. They would stop in."

Not that it was ever easy being a contemporary art gallery in the San Fernando Valley.

"If I had to survive on Valley business alone, I would be out of business," Gino said. Buyers came from all over the city to check out their new works and also their stock of African art, which was a special interest of Gino's and Orlando's.

Although both men were involved in the day-to-day operation of the gallery, Gino took on the business chores and the handling of customers. This left Orlando free to do more of his artwork. His pieces, in a variety of media, were often collages that included Catholic religious imagery.

Orlando was wary of showing his own work at the gallery and when he finally did, he at first used the pseudonym D. Coy. "No one ever got the joke," Gino said with a laugh.

As the gallery became more successful, many art patrons thought Gino and Orlando would eventually move their gallery to the more art-intensive Hollywood or Beverly Hills. "People were always asking us, 'What are you doing out here?'

"But we had no interest in moving. Art should be everywhere. Why does it have to be in certain areas to be considered good art?"

The name above the door was always Orlando's, a carry-over from when the dance studio was named for him, which was by Gino's choice. "He asked me if I didn't want my name included, too," Gino said. "I told him that I never minded, it didn't mean anything to me.

"We shared the name, in a way. It was almost like we were one person."

The memorial show does not in any way mark the end of the gallery, Gino said, but Orlando's absence will be felt.

"He had an edge, he was the one who wanted to take risks. He liked the wildest stuff."

Gino was smiling while talking about his partner, but his eyes were growing moist.

"After he died, a woman came to the house and said she had been his dance student when she was 7 or 8 years old," Gino said. "She had not seen him since then. But she just wanted to tell me how much he had meant to her. That's the kind of man he was.

"I miss him, he took a part of me with him. Now I have to be able to find that part of him that is no longer there."

Where and When

What: The Philip Orlando memorial exhibition.

Location: Orlando Gallery, 14553 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, today through Oct. 31.

Call: (818) 789-6012.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
69°