The Duke may high-tail it to O.C.

Times Staff Writer

He’s saddled up with his feet in the stirrups and his hands on the reins.

After 24 years, is it time for John Wayne to ride out of Beverly Hills and into the sunset in Newport Beach?

That question was weighing heavily -- about 6 tons in all -- at Wilshire Boulevard and Hamilton Drive on Thursday as word came that a landmark statue of the Duke might be uprooted and moved to Orange County.

Leaders of the beach city are exploring the possibility of acquiring the 21-foot bronze sculpture as a way of honoring the famous actor, who was a longtime Newport Beach resident when he died in 1979.


Best known for his roles in westerns, Wayne was the long-running, cowboy hat-wearing spokesman for Great Western Savings and Loan. Officials of the bank commissioned the sculpture in 1984 for a plaza outside a branch office then located at 8484 Wilshire Blvd.

Great Western was later absorbed by Washington Mutual, which in 1994 sold the 10-story office building designed by William Pereira Associates to Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt. WaMu retained ownership of the statue.

These days, however, many younger people who pass by neither recognize nor remember John Wayne. And some older people feel the sculpture smacks more of commerce than of culture.

From his publishing headquarters above the statue, Flynt said he wouldn’t miss the Duke and his horse if they headed south.

He said the entryway to the Flynt Building would be better served with something different, suggesting art more fitting for his adult entertainment empire: a 50-foot statue celebrating the male anatomy.

Beverly Hills officials could not be reached for comment on Flynt’s idea, which would likely provoke considerable public debate.


If Wayne’s statue were removed, no replacement artwork would be mandated, city officials said.

“The city’s Fine Arts Commission was made aware” of Newport Beach’s interest “and declined to make an offer for the statue,” said Cheryl Friedling, deputy city manager.

When the John Wayne figure was being built, officials reined in both the art and the artist.

Wyoming-based sculptor Harry Jackson recalled being forced to disconnect a motor in the statue’s base that was designed to rotate Wayne and the horse. City officials said a moving statue would distract motorists on busy Wilshire Boulevard.

At the time, Jackson labeled members of the city Architectural Commission “twerps” for also ordering the marble base lowered by 19 inches. “I don’t have bad enough words for such purposeless meddling,” he complained.

And there was the issue of the statue’s color.

“I multi-colored the sculpture in Italy, where I cast it,” Jackson said Thursday. “They made me take the paint off. It was painted over with gray-black paint.”


Jackson said the figure doesn’t belong at a building owned by Flynt.

“It’s out of place in front of Hustler. John Wayne stood for all-American values. I would like to see it moved” either to Newport Beach or to USC’s cinema school, said Jackson, now 83.

Washington Mutual officials -- who have donated smaller Jackson sculptures commissioned by Great Western to Cal State Northridge, where the collection is displayed in a gallery -- said the statue’s future is up in the air.

“We have been contacted by the city of Newport Beach and the John Wayne Foundation,” said bank spokesman Gary Kisner. “Nothing has been decided.”

Newport Beach City Manager Homer Bludau declined to elaborate on how the city hoped to land the statue.

“There’s a possibility that it might not happen. The more publicity that’s generated about it, that increases the odds of it not happening,” Bludau said.

Flynt office building engineer Ron Donahue said the sculpture could be moved with relative ease. The Duke and his horse can be separated from the bronze base, which is hollow and can be accessed through a passageway beneath the plaza, he said.


Previous rumors suggested that the statue might be relocated to the Autry Museum in Los Angeles or to John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana, said Donahue, who has worked at the building for 35 years and was present for the statue’s dedication.

It was clear Thursday that the artwork remains popular with tourists and office workers alike. Those studying it closely notice that it contains an image of a cowboy being trampled by stampeding cattle on one side of the base and a depiction of other cowhands burying the unfortunate colleague on the other.

At noontime a double-decker sightseeing bus stopped in Wilshire Boulevard traffic lanes to allow passengers to snap photos of Wayne and his horse. Workers heading out for lunch praised the bronze.

“I like it here. It’s pretty,” said Krystal Prieto, an 18-year-old legal assistant who works in the distinctive, elliptical-shaped Flynt Building. She acknowledged that she is not a John Wayne fan -- she’s only seen one of his movies and could not recall its title. But she appreciates art, Prieto said.

“I’d hope they’d replace it with something nice, probably not a celebrity. The world is so bombarded with celebrity drama as it is,” she said.

But Brad Van Malsen, a 48-year-old Yorba Linda landscaper who was visiting the Brazilian Consulate in the Flynt Building with his son Jon, 17, wondered about the appropriateness of its current site.


“I’m not sure how significant the statue is for this location,” Van Malsen said. “John Wayne lived in Orange County. He kept his boat there.”

Tourist Ekkehart Herforth, 69, of Hamburg, Germany, trained his video camera on Wayne’s bronze face.

“I came to see Hollywood,” Herforth said, stepping back to admire the Duke. “He is a symbol of Hollywood and a symbol of America.”


Times staff writer Rong-Gong Lin II contributed to this report.