Arts and Humanities
7:00 am
Fri November 2, 2012

100 Years of "Tarzan" Gives U of L Cause for Celebration

  • Rick Howlett covers U of L's "birthday" celebration of Tarzan.

In October of 1912, a pulp magazine called The All Story published a story called “Tarzan of the Apes, a Romance of the Jungle.”

The tale of an orphaned child of British aristocracy who was raised by apes in the African jungle was the first of many adventures of the hero created by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

A hundred years later, the University of Louisville has taken a prominent role in the centennial celebration and the preservation  of Tarzan's legacy.

Why? When he was five years old, George McWhorter’s mother decided that she would teach him how to read so he would be able to keep pace with other schoolchildren.

“She first stared with Charles Dickens, and I was totally disinterested and yawned in her face. But when she pulled out a Tarzan book, I was all eyes and all ears,” McWhorter said.

And thus began McWhorter’s lifelong Tarzan fascination. In 1936, he starting amassing a collection of first edition books and other memorabilia that has swelled to 200,000 items.

In 1976, McWhorter donated his collection, in his mother’s honor, to the University of Louisville, where he’s a longtime curator of rare books. U of L says it’s the largest institutional collection of Tarzan materials in the world.

Now 82, McWhorter hosted a Tarzan 100th anniversary party at U of L last month.

The guests included Edgar Rice Burroughs’ grandson, John, who also learned to read on the Tarzan books, spending many days at Tarzana, Burrough’s ranch in southern California.

And I asked him, I says, ‘Grandpa, how come you always leave the end of a book not completely finished?’ And he said ‘I always want the people that read my stuff and like it to want more.'”

Millions have also come to know Tarzan at the movies, most notably the films of the 1930’s and 40’s starring Johnny Weissmuller.

John Burroughs says his grandfather didn’t care for most of the Tarzan film adaptations, which took some liberties with the character and the love of his life, Jane.

“(Tarzan) was a literate, English lord. Tarzan never said, ‘me Tarzan, you Jane,’ that was a creation of MGM."

One thing did Burroughs did write about was the Tarzan yell, immortalized by Johnny Weissmuller.

“The yell was an animal, like the apes that had just made a kill or just finished a battle," Burroughs said. "They would pound their chest in exultation, like, ‘I’m the head of the pack, I’m the king.’”

Some two dozen actors have played Tarzan in films and television. Denny Miller was known as the first blond Tarzan and is the oldest of the surviving actors. He played the lord of the jungle in 1959’s "Tarzan, the Ape Man."

“They had the rights to do two more, and I never heard from them since," Miller said. "I only did one, and it sure was fun.”

While the film was not a big commercial success, Miller was able to parlay the experience into some similar work in TV and commercials, and these days he’s taking an active part in the Tarzan centennial. He calls Edgar Rice Burroughs one of the world’s great storytellers.

With his own version of the Tarzan yell, George McWhorter set the mood for a U of L panel discussion of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Tarzan, a franchise that continues to thrive in new ways.

There’s a novel by Robin Maxwell called "Jane: The Woman Who Loved Tarzan," the first version of the Tarzan story written by a woman.

Work is also underway on new animated and live action Tarzan films.

Burroughs says he’s glad to see Tarzan cast these days as an eco-warrior, defending the jungle from elephant poachers and protecting its trees, a trait his grandfather would embrace.

But to him there’s a simpler reason the character has endured for a century.

“He takes a person out of their humdrum normal life and brings them into a completely different, believable world, where good triumphs over evil, where the strong survive," Burroughs said.

"And if something terrible and awful happened to you, you don’t lie down and pray or feel sad for yourself, you try again, and make it work."

Some of the items from the University of Louisville's Tarzan collection are on display through Dec. 15 at U of L’s Rare Books Department in the east wing of the Ekstrom Library. Hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Friday. It’s free and open to the public.