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A Chimp Off the Old Block in Many a Tarzan Movie

March 25, 1985|PAUL DEAN | Times Staff Writer

What can I tell ya, kid. Here today, Newbury Park tomorrow. From banana splits at the Brown Derby to week-old doughnuts out of a rusty bucket. They stop knowing who you are the moment they forget what you used to be. That, kid, is the Hollywood Rule.

Especially for animal actors.

Even Chetta. Aka Cheeta. Or Cheetah.

Whose movie career really has faded to Newbury Park and one beer (generic, from Ralphs) a day while approaching (or departing) his 50th birthday without even the hint of a guest spot on "Love Boat." All of which is a far cry, more of a jungle yell, actually, from those swinging '30s and '40s when This Chetta appeared alongside The Real Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller), The One and Only Jane (Maureen O'Sullivan) and The Original Boy (John Sheffield) and moviegoers whispered a common mystery:

In the absence of staples and starch, how come Tarzan's loincloth and modesty always remained on center? "I dunno. Chetta never had that problem." That's Tony Gentry talking. He's 78 and has trained more chimpanzees than Lassie had pups. On an industry level at least, Chetta has done more for Tony Gentry than Bonzo did for Ronald Reagan.

"How much money did he make for me? I dunno. A million? I dunno. Lots and lots, I guess. What do you say, Chetta? How much money have you made your dad?"

Chetta answers. Unblinking, 160 pounds of irritable bulk beneath sisal whiskers, he pinches Gentry's nose between two forefingers and ebony nails. He nibbles at a nostril. Very, very daintily. It's almost an adoring gentleness.

Gentry speaks his affection: "We traveled a lot of roads together and y'know, out of about 50 chimps I trained to perform in the movies, there have been only three, mebbe four that were really special."

He ticks them off. There was Jiggs, who became the first Chetta, serving several Tarzan masters (Herman Brix, Johnny Weissmuller and Buster Crabbe) and one mistress--Dorothy Lamour, l'amour of the forgettable "Jungle Princess" (1936) and "Her Jungle Love" (1938). Both roles had a profound effect on Jiggs-Chetta. He died and is buried in the Hollywood Pet Cemetery.

Records Skimpy

There was Jiggs II. More Tarzans, more movies. When Gentry went to World War II, Jiggs II went to the Baltimore Zoo. It was an unpublicized move, Gentry says. Jiggs could have died there or been resold. Records of the '30s are a little skimpy, said a zoo spokesman. No mention of a Jiggs. "But you're telling me that we actually had Chetta here?" asked Colleen Hughes. "Wow."

There was no time for favorites in the '50s when Gentry bought, sold and trained guinea chimps by the hundreds for NASA and experiments with expendable travelers before sending a human mammal to the moon. Gentry, however, remembers two talented, button-pushing pioneers among all those students . . . Ham and Enos, rocketed aloft in Mercury capsules and recovered from space in 1961.

And all this time--just before Jiggs I had shuffled off this mortal coil and long before Jiggs II had shuffled off to Baltimore--there was Chetta.

"That's what we called him, not Jiggs III," Gentry says. "Chetta, you see, is a trade name in the Tarzan pictures. We called him Chetta because we knew he would be in the Tarzan movies.

"I bought him from a dealer when they closed down the old Santa Monica Pier. Lemme see, when was that? Late '30s sometime. Mebbe 1938. Anyway, he was about 2 or 3 years old then . . . so this Chetta did one (movie) with Weissmuller and two with Lex Barker. Or was it two with Weissmuller and one with Barker? Which ones? I dunno . . . but it's been a long time."

Gentry knocks his head with his knuckles. It's his way of shaking the memories straight. He raps his head a lot. He has trouble, understandably, deciding which Chetta (among his and several others) appeared with what Lord of the Apes (more than 20) and in which movie (something like three dozen, plus four serials and Ron Ely's television series) in the 67-year history of Tarzan's Hollywood Adventures.

A Hope for Walk of Fame

That wobbling memory, Gentry admits, wasn't helped by two recent heart attacks. He's also in daily pain from arthritis, needs pills to sleep, but hurts much more from last year's loss of Margaret, his wife of 50 years.

Still, he's absolutely clear concerning the present.

Gentry wants something for Chetta and for himself.

He thinks they should share a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame. "We're both old and tired now," Gentry says. "We just want to be recognized and remembered."

The precedent for honoring animal actors certainly has been set. Cast in stone, as it were. Rin Tin Tin and Lassie have been awarded stars. If one chooses to stretch the issue, so has Mickey Mouse.

And Chetta and Gentry, as they say in the trade, certainly have the bios.

On the Tarzan 'A-Team'

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