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Going ape over Tarzan

DANA BARTHOLOMEW
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He turned 100 last week but the Tarzan magic continues unabated. DANA BARTHOLOMEW looks at how it happened.

Most famous of them all:Johnny Weismuller in Tarzan: The Ape Man.Photo: AP
Most famous of them all:Johnny Weismuller in Tarzan: The Ape Man.Photo: AP

It wasn’t the screech of chimpanzees that lured researcher Jane Goodall to dream of the wilds of Tanzania. It was Tarzan of the Apes, Lord of the Jungle. “The more I read, the more passionately I fell in love with Tarzan,” said Goodall, recalling her preteen crush. “I took whichever book I was reading at the time up to the top of my favourite tree in the garden; a beech tree. There, I imagined myself living in the forest, living with and helping Tarzan.”

A four-day junglethon at the Warner Center Marriott last week celebrated the life and work of Edgar Rice Burroughs, San Fernando Valley author-cum-marketing genius, father of Tarzana and a pioneer of serial fantasy and science fiction.

A jack-of-all-trades from Chicago, young Burroughs had become a self-described flop at nearly everything: cowboy, gold miner, shopkeeper, railroad cop, Sears & Roebuck manager. He’d even joined the U.S. Cavalry in Arizona to chase Apaches, “but fortunately for me,” he once said, “I never caught up with any of them.”

How it began

At 37 Burroughs was broke, with a wife and two children and a third on the way. So he took a job managing sales of pencil sharpeners. In desperation between slack sales, he tried his hand at pulp fiction, scribbling on office scraps. His first story, ‘Under the Moons of Mars’, sold in 1911 and was serialised till July 1912. But it was his second, Tarzan of the Apes: A Romance of the Jungle , published in the 15-cent The All-Story magazine of October 1912, that would launch the Burroughs’ Tarzan business empire.

A lurid cover depicted the ape-man about to plunge his dagger into a roaring lion. Its 131 pages told of an Africa still wild, undiscovered and mysterious. And of Tarzan, its true noble savage born of a marooned British lord and lady and raised by a new tribe of apes. The brawny ape king falls in love with a castaway, Jane. Over the next 26 Tarzan books, he leaps across the jungle canopy, and battles natives, jungle crocodiles and even centre-of-the-Earth dinosaurs.

All the while, Tarzan manages to perform his heroic exploits while managing to speak Mangali ape, grammatically perfect English and a host of other languages from French to Dutch, German, Swahili, Arabic, ancient Greek, ancient Latin, Mayan and more. The buff polymath returns to jolly England, becomes disenchanted with civilisation, then whisks Jane back to his beloved jungle. He would became protector — over the next 100 years — of everything that was good.

“We need heroes,” said Bill Hillman, founder of ERBzine.com, an unofficial fanzine with more than 10,000 Burroughs and Tarzan pages. Hillman fell in love with Tarzan as a farm kid on the prairie of Manitoba, Canada, where he became hooked on to Lex Barker’s screen ape-man. Then he discovered Tarzan comics and radio adventures. And became an expert on everything Tarzan. “He was one of the first greenies,” said Hillman, 69, a musician and retired professor. “The bad guys were mostly white guys trying to destroy the jungle. He was ahead of his time — with environmentalists, women’s rights and being a hero with high morals.”

Over the years

In 1918, Tarzan the Apes starring Elmo Lincoln became the first film to gross $1 million. Five years later, Burroughs became one of the first authors to incorporate and be a pioneer for marketing books, films, radio segments, comics and merchandise. Since then, 50 Tarzan movies have captivated the big screen, and 65 Tarzan episodes and 32 cartoons have regaled TV watchers. Tarzan has been featured in 450 comic books, with comics syndicated in 250 newspapers. Tarzan books have sold 100 million copies around the world reaching an estimated 1 billion fans.

A hundred years after his birth, the Tarzan brand is worth “millions”, according to his estate. Three Tarzan books are in the works, including a new as-told-by-Jane novel by Robin Maxwell. A Tarzan video slot machine released two years ago with $5 million payouts is one of the most popular in Las Vegas. A new 3-D Tarzan animation movie by the German Constantin Films is in the works for possible release next year.

“Tarzan lives,” said Jim Sullos, president of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc., now controlled by his heirs at his original 1927 office-studio in Tarzana. “Why? Because he represents someone who couldn’t be corrupted. He learned self-preservation as a baby. He learned not to be dependent on anyone except his ape family. All he needed was his knife.”

All Burroughs needed was his pen. In 1919, he bought the San Fernando Valley estate of Gen. Harrison Gray Otis and renamed it Tarzana Ranch. An advocate for wildlife, he became a game warden to ward off hunters. Then rode his horse down to his Ventura Boulevard office to spin tales of adventure. In 1927, his partially developed estate was renamed the community of Tarzana, where residents remained thrilled by the Tarzan centennial. “I think it’s really exciting,” said Jon Tsuchiyama, owner of West Valley Nursery in Tarzana.

During World War II, Burroughs witnessed the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and became the world’s oldest war correspondent. Later he moved to Encino, developed Parkinson’s disease and became a curmudgeon like Andy Rooney, according to his grandson John.

Shortly before his grandfather died on March 19, 1950, John remembers the writer lying in bed as rain pattered against the window. “He put his finger on a drop of rain, as it hit the mullion,” Burroughs recalled. “And he said, ‘I shall not pass this way again’.” His ashes now lie beneath a giant mulberry tree outside his former Ventura Boulevard office, family members say.

Tarzan will forever be the heartthrob who changed her life, said Goodall. “I was really jealous when he married that other Jane,” she said, saying she herself would have been a far better mate. “I would not have been afraid to go anywhere with Tarzan. I would have willingly risked my life to help him when he was in any kind of danger. The more I read, the more jealous I became.”

New York Times News Service 2012


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