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Tarzan Swings Without Tarzana

Communities: The neighborhood never really embraced its famous namesake. Now that some there want to, Disney controls the rights.

June 14, 1999|JEFFREY GETTLEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TARZANA — This suburb of strip malls and hillside homes has never been exactly chummy with its ape-man namesake.

In the 1930s, Tarzana's public library banned Tarzan books. It seems Tarzan and Jane had shared a few steamy nights in the jungle before they were married.

In the 1960s, community leaders put the kibosh on an idea for a Tarzan museum, saying nobody would visit.

And today, local businesses have largely turned a deaf ear to the Tarzana Chamber of Commerce's plea to promote the community's connection to Edgar Rice Burroughs, author of the Tarzan books and founder of Tarzana.

There is talk of festooning lampposts with wrought-iron chimps. But save a lonely glass case in the post office and a poster or two in a bank lobby, there's little evidence of Tarzana's link to one of the best-known characters in literature.

There is no statue, no summer Tarzan festival, no loincloth look-alike contests. There's not even a little plaque to mark the headquarters of Burroughs' Tarzan empire--an adobe office still up and running on Ventura Boulevard.

Except for the name, there's not much Tarzan in Tarzana.

Despite the fact that the Walt Disney Co. is releasing a $100-million animated Tarzan feature film this week--the 48th incarnation of the story--Tarzana still seems ambivalent about its native son.

"People in Tarzana may be embarrassed by the monosyllabic idiot they've seen in the movies, which was very different from the gentleman Burroughs depicted in his books," said Bob Zeuschner, a Pasadena City College philosophy professor who helped organize a Burroughs convention this month in nearby Woodland Hills. "The problem is, visitors come to Tarzana looking for Tarzan stuff and there's just nothing making that connection."

The absence of Tarzan is all the more surprising because the story of the nobleman raised by apes is still very much alive in the offices of Danton Burroughs, grandson of the author.

From the hand-carved desk that looks out at the mulberry tree under which his grandfather's ashes are buried, 54-year-old Danton Burroughs shrewdly milks the family cash cow. As director of Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc., Danton Burroughs has sold Tarzan rights for everything from comic books and feature films to jackknives and multi-vitamins. There were even Tarzan chest-hair wigs.

He's just as careful in guarding the family fortune, suing anyone who uses the Tarzan name or likeness without a license. All things Tarzan are licensed, even the signature jungle yell (U.S. trademark 2.210.506).

But the one thing Burroughs hasn't been able to do for Tarzan is generate much community interest. Over the years, ideas have been floated for a museum, a towering Tarzan statue on Ventura Boulevard and a park named after the author.

"There's no limit to what we could do," Burroughs said. "But it always comes down to logistics, and we never seem to get the ideas off the ground. Maybe one day we'll see something."

Tarzan fans hope the Disney movie will reinvigorate interest in Tarzan's connection to Tarzana, an upper-middle class community of 70,000 in the western San Fernando Valley. But there are challenges. Tarzan will be the exclusive property of Disney during the movie release, which begins Friday, and for an undisclosed period afterward.

Locals say that means they're essentially cut out of the action because they can't even print bumper stickers boasting "Tarzana, Home of Tarzan" without running the risk of getting sued.

"We'd love to use more of Tarzan, especially now, but our hands are tied," said Sue Broadwater, corporate secretary of the Tarzana Chamber of Commerce. "I guess we'll just keep selling T-shirts," she added, referring to the one piece of Tarzan kitsch the chamber can sell, thanks to an agreement struck with Burroughs in the 1930s.

The Tarzan trademark is a sticky issue. Edgar Rice Burroughs wasn't just an imaginative author who wrote about talking apes and martian wars. He was also a visionary businessman. He did not merely copyright his first Tarzan story in 1912, he trademarked the character. And trademarks, unlike patents and copyrights, never expire.

The early profits from the Tarzan enterprise enabled Burroughs to move in 1919 from Chicago to a 540-acre estate in the San Fernando Valley, which he renamed Tarzana Ranch. That estate became the foundation of Tarzana.

While it might seem natural for local businesses to cash in on Tarzan, the licenses are expensive. The Tarzana Chamber of Commerce says most of the 150 businesses in town are small, with five to 10 employees, and don't have the resources to market Tarzan products.

The one community organization that did attempt to capitalize on the momentum of the Disney film said it was rebuffed. The Tarzana Improvement Assn. had hoped to work with the Disney marketing team to help promote the movie and its link to Tarzana, said Greg Nelson, president of the association.

"But whenever we tried to connect with Disney executives, they never called us back," Nelson said.

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