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Volume 1103
JOAN 
BURROUGHS 
PIERCE
Part II
 
In the summer of 1926 Joan met her husband-to-be, Jim Pierce. He had been a star centre on the University of Indiana football team, who had moved west to the University of Arizona and California for coaching jobs. Students he had coached included John Wayne, Bob Steele and numerous other athletes who went on to become well-known actors. By 1926 he was also quite busy doing bit parts in films. He had just been offered a substantial role in Wings when fate intervened. He was invited to a fish fry and pool party at Tarzana Ranch -- by that time part of the El Caballero Country Club -- by his friend Tom Scully.  Scully was dating Marguerite Corwin, a school chum of Joan Burroughs. Jim Pierce arrived in his "Whoopie" Model T and was somewhat in awe of the other guests he found mingling on the estate grounds. The party goers included the sons and daughters from the top society of Los Angeles. He was perhaps most in awe of the host: Edgar Rice Burroughs, who was his favourite fiction writer. At one point Jim was thrown -- fully clothed -- into the pool. Burroughs who was chatting with friends in a row of lounge chairs by the pool observed Jim swimming laps in  and said, "That's my boy! That's Tarzan!"  Eventually Joan led Jim -- clad in swim trunks -- over to meet her father and her young brothers Hulbert and Jack. Ed seemed impressed with Jim's looks and physique.
Jim Pierce in his Tarzan trunks 1926 from the Laurence Dunn CollectionJim and EdJoan and Jim at Tarzana with Ed, Emma and Hully
 
The party lasted into the evening with food and dancing. Jim was quite taken with 18-year-old Joan and danced with her numerous times. Looking back on this first meeting, Joan once said, "To me, he looked like Tarzan, very trim and well-muscled and his face looked like Tarzan as my father imagined him to be -- grey eyes, something of a Roman nose, and a beautiful smile." When it was time to leave, his beat up Model T was brought around by a parking attendant and he was followed out of the lot and down to the valley by a luxurious Packard Twin-Six driven by a chauffeur.
Ford Model TPackard Twin-6 (later model)
 
Two weeks later a casting director from the Film Booking Office invited Jim, on the recommendation of ERB, to a screen test for the lead role in the next big-budget Tarzan picture: Tarzan and the Golden Lion based on ERB's book of the same name.  Jim, somewhat overwhelmed by the proposal, was reluctant to pursue an full-time acting career. His decision was made even more difficult because it would mean turning down the part Wings -- a part eventually played by Gary Cooper. At the insistence of Joan he agreed to make the test. Ed and Joan attended the test and were delighted with the results.
5245 (5046) Mecca Ave. - Cottage on Lot 76 of tract 5475 - Tarzana
5245 (5046) Mecca Ave. - Cottage on Lot 76 of tract 5475 - Tarzana
 
In July, the Burroughs family who had been living temporarily at 674 South New Hampshire in Los Angeles, moved back to Tarzana at 5245 (later changed to 5046) Mecca Avenue where Ed had built a cottage on Lot 76 of his tract 5475. He also moved his office to 5255 (later changed to 5135) Avenida Oriente in Tarzana.

Soon after, Joan invited the young Tarzan hopeful to the ranch for a horseback ride and dinner. The entire family was accustomed to early morning trail rides through the picturesque ruggedness of the ranch. Ex-cavalryman Ed had taught his family well -- they were all expert riders. Jim sensed he was about to go through another test - a test to see if he could handle a horse. Luckily he had ridden horses at an early age on the farm back in Indiana and recently he had been tutored by the head wrangler of a western movie in which he had a small role. His horsemanship impressed the Burroughs family and Joan informed him, "You're in! You'll never know how much of a step you just made with this family." From then on the friendship between Joan and Jim grew with Jim visiting the ranch as often as his shooting schedule on the film would permit. It was on his return from one of these visits that he was involved in a near-fatal car accident which forced a delay in the shooting of the Tarzan picture.

Things cooled off a little between the couple at this time and they agreed that perhaps they should wait for a few years before there be any thoughts of marriage.  This was probably at the urging of the Burroughs family who felt that Joan was too young for a serious relationship. Although they remained close friends, Jim started to see a lot of his co-star Edna Murphy who was nearer to his age. In December of 1926 Ed wrote Louis B. Mayer requesting that Joan be given a tryout for a part in "Old Heidelberg," but nothing seemed to come of this.

Edna Murphy
ERB's cast-autographed copy of Tarzan and the Golden Lion
ERB's cast-autographed copy of Tarzan and the Golden Lion


 
Tarzan and the Golden Lion  -- a silent film -- came out at a bad time -- it coincided with the birth of the talkies. Jim was typecast and his contract was not renewed.  The work he found from then on consisted mostly of bit parts in B pictures. During this time Joan was dating actor Rex Lease (1903-1966), who went on to make 200 films and she was also studying drama and singing in a Marta Oatman's Drama School. The romance between the two ended around the same time that Jim and Edna Murphy's relationship cooled off. One of Joan's diary entries reads:  "Rex called at 12.00 today. Said he would stop by, had something to tell me. Called a little later. I drove over and met him in front of the Hollywood Athletic Club. Told me that we couldn't see each other anymore. Said he couldn't give me all the things that I'd been used to and that he wasn't good enough for me, which is foolishness. He made me feel very miserable."

Ed, Joan, Jim  and director J. P. McGowan on the set of Tarzan and the Golden LionJoan and Jim on the Golden Lion set ~ December 1926Hollywood Athletic Club


 
"Friday, August 21. I feel worse than ever. Article came out in the Los Angeles Times and Examiner that Rex and (film actress) Charlotte Merriam are engaged to be married. . . . I called Rex and he said it wasn't true, but I don't know. Everybody's consoling me and telling me it is all for the best. Maybe so! But it hurts. My first disillusionment. I wonder how many more I'll have. He probably is glad to get rid of me. Oh, what a dirty trick ~ I hope he will be happier anyway. I'm going to miss him very much."

Despite the split, Rex Lease remained a family friend. A fond memory held by Jack's son, Danton, is of Rex coming over for breakfast in the late '40s and frying bacon for Ed and the kids. He regaled them with stories of his experiences while making over 200 westerns in Hollywood. Rex died on New Year's Eve, 1965, at the age of 62.

Rex Lease: In Old Cheyenne ~ 1931 with Dorothy GulliverRex Lease
             Rex Lease


 
Not long after this split Joan received a call from Jim and they were soon back together again. She carried on with her drama and voice lessons, joined the Actors' Equity and the Screen Actors' Guild and registered as a singer for film musicals. She picked up numerous professional roles on stage as well as singing roles in films. Her numerous lead roles in stock company productions garnered excellent notices -- especially in Glendale where she became a regular with the well-established Glendale Community Playhouse.  She moved into an apartment in Glendale where she worked as a professional actress. It was hard work as the stock company played one show each week while rehearsing for another. Jim became a regular stage-door Johnnie and attended every play at least once. He and the Burroughs family were worried about her being out alone late at night so as much as possible he would drive her back to her apartment for a late supper of chili and spaghetti. The company folded after director/actor William Gould was given a long-term studio contract and left to become one of Hollywood's leading character actors.

In 1927, Joan was offered a contract by a travelling stock company that were just opening in Utah. Despite the reservations expressed by family, Joan was excited by thoughts of the experience it would give her and she left for Utah. On February 20th she opened the Weber Little Theatre in Ogden in the play "The Whole Town's Talking." Emma accompanied her as chaperone and Ed flew in for opening night. Her father was really getting into the theatrical spirit by this time. On April 6 he started writing the play: "Mary Who?" aka "Why Razz the Kids" aka "Holy Bonds of Wedlock."  It was probably written with Joan in mind but was never published.

Mail Plane - two-seater, open-cockpit
Meanwhile, back on the road, Joan was playing the lead in Enter Madame and the pay looked promising, but the caliber of the production and venues was disappointing. Eventually, sensing a note of disappointment and frustration in his daughter's letters, Ed suspected that all was not well and decided to check out the situation. He made a highly publicized trip in a two-seater, open-cockpit mail plane flown by WWI ace pilot Maurey Graham. Graham navigated by following railroads and landmarks. The two communicated by hand signals and by passing notes back and forth. Sadly, a few months later Graham was killed on this route when his plane crashed in the mountains while flying through a snowstorm. Burroughs found Joan in a hopeless situation. The company was several weeks in arrears and she hadn't been paid. Ed blew the whistle on them and they were shut down by the Actors' Equity and Joan returned home broke -- sad but wiser.

On August 28, 1927, in commemoration of their 1916 cross-country trip, the family travelled to the Grand Canyon North Rim. Dad and Mom travelled in their six-year-old Packard Roadster, towing a heavily-loaded trailer, while Joan and Hulbert drove their Buick Roadster with Jack riding in the rumble seat. Ed noted that they had slept out in four states: California, Arizona, Utah and Nevada. It proved to be a miniature version of the infamous 1916 trip with most of the same misadventures squeezed into seven days. Both Ed and Emma lost seven pounds during the rugged trip. Memorably, her dad's 52nd birthday was spent in Arizona, as were his 21st and his 50th: "The Eleven Year Itch," a 6,000-word article was written to describe the event.


Ed Burroughs at Grand Canyon


 
The Tarzan Twins, that was published on October 10th, was dedicated to Joan and her brothers: "To Joan, Hulbert and Jack, who were brought up on Tarzan stories, this volume is affectionately dedicated by their father."

That fall  Joan joined the Menard Players at the Glendale Playhouse for $40 a week. On October 19th, Ed in support of Joan's acting career, gave her a rough draft of a play written with her in mind: "You Lucky Girl!" Unfortunately it was not performed until 1997 at the Palmdale Playhouse, California. It was also around this time that Ed wrote a home movie script, a silent slapstick melodrama, called "Tarzan Pictures Presents 'Them Thar Papers.'" The cast included all family members, as well as James Pierce, and Joan's actress friend Miss Florence Gilbert. It was filmed on 16mm at Tarzana Ranch with Ed operating the camera.

Burroughs family in 1928
Jim's dreams of Hollywood stardom were placed on hold and he took a more dependable job as a coach at the University of Arizona. Feeling a bit more secure financially he proposed to Joan on July 2, 1928. He popped the question while they were parked in the driveway of the Burroughs estate -- under a full moon -- in Jim's old Model T. They were given the blessing of the Burroughs family and set the wedding date for August 8, 1928 -- Jim's birthday.

Wedding invitation from the Danton Burroughs Archive Collection
The wedding became a top story throughout the world: "Edgar Rice Burroughs' daughter to marry a movie Tarzan." The huge wedding was on the scenic grounds of Tarzana Ranch on one of the hottest days of summer.  It was catered by the Elite Catering Service and the grounds were packed with limousines and Marmons, Packards, Auburns, Cords... and Jim's new Nash roadster -- a twin-ignition car, the first and last of its kind. The whole event was recorded on 16 mm film.

Waiting beside Ed's Packard


After the reception the newlyweds left for their  new two-bedroom house in Van Nuys on Dixie Canyon near Ventura Boulevard. The house cost $4,500 for which ERB made the down payment as a wedding present. An additional wedding present was a contract for Jim to make the next Tarzan picture (unfortunately Jim, who had put on a considerable amount of weight, was later forced out of the deal by some Hollywood legal wrangling). They furnished their home in a Spanish motif and household items not given as presents by Ed and Emma were purchased on the installment plan. A few days after the wedding they left on their honeymoon to Indiana.

The trip to Jim's hometown of Shelbyville, Indiana took about ten days as it was plagued by constant car problems. They eventually phoned Jim's dad from St. Louis saying that they would arrive in Shelbyville late at night. Jim's dad and mom were so anxious to see the newlyweds that they drove out to meet them before they arrived. That first night in Jim's family home was a memorable one as the old-fashioned four-poster bed collapsed, waking up the whole household -- a humorous event that entered the family lore of the Pierce family.

They stayed a week visiting family and old friends and haunts. They even visited the little town of Freedom where Jim was born and the rustic old grocery store where Jim had worked as a kid for a dime a day. Joan learned that in this little town where everyone had a nickname, Jim was called "Hikey Dike," a name he had earned at age four after being totally fascinated by a wild Borneo jungle-man character with that name who had appeared in a travelling wagon show.

Jim's grandfather, Perry Commodore McIntosh, was pleased to find that the newest member of the Pierce family was a rapt listener to his often-told tales of pioneer days and the Civil War. Joan in return let it be known that her grandfather, Major George Tyler Burroughs, had served as an officer in that war and that her grandmother, Mary Evaline, had disguised herself as a man and went to war alongside her husband. (Memoirs of a War Bride).

The next stops on the honeymoon trip were Chicago and Coldwater, Michigan, where Joan introduced her husband to her relatives. This proved to be a somewhat formidable task as many of the offspring of Ed's four brothers and Emma's four sisters were widely scattered around the area. They had a restful stay at Coldwater where Joan's grandmother lived on a farm with her daughter Jessie. After relaxing days of golf, fishing and swimming they started the return trip to California. The long honeymoon trip was a great opportunity for the newlyweds to gain insight into each other's dispositions and personalities and to plan for the great adventure that lay before them.

Following their return to California, Joan took on the role of housewife, while Jim made a decent living working in poverty row Westerns and serials and eventually worked his way into more prestigious films such as DeMille's Cleopatra, the Marx Brothers' Horse Feathers and a Buster Keaton comedy. On Christmas Eve, 1929, at Hollywood Hospital, Joan gave birth to a daughter -- blonde-haired, blue-eyed little Joan (later they changed the spelling to Joanne to avoid confusion). The proud grandfather dedicated his next book (Tanar of Pellucidar) to her: "To Joan Burroughs Pierce II."

Ed and little JoanJoan, Emma, Little Joan, Hulbert, Tarzan the sheepdog


 
Jim's sporadic work on film projects was a great come-down from his major starring role as Tarzan. Suffering from insecurities and a fading ego he joined the newly formed Christian Science Church in a search for direction. Joan did not join the church but was quite supportive.

The Pierce fortunes took a great upturn in 1932 when ERB and American gold Seal Productions sold the idea for a Tarzan radio serial to the Signal Oil Company. Under Ed's recommendation the roles of Tarzan and Jane went to Jim and Joan.  The premier of the show was a gala event at the Fox Pantages Theater. Jim ad-libbed a speech and Joan shared anecdotes about being daughter of ERB and growing up with that famous member of the Burroughs family, Tarzan. Johnny Weissmuller made an appearance on stage and then several episodes of the show were played over the theatre sound system. The Tarzan serial was one of the first radio adventures transcribed on 16" electrical transcription discs, quite a daring innovation at a time when all shows were done live.

Jim and Joan in a Tarzan Radio Show Promotional PhotoJim's inscription on the back of the photo
From the Laurence Dunn Collection                                                              Click to Enlarge


 
The recording innovation was a major success, however, and started a trend that most major shows eventually followed. The show launched the careers of many actors who would become major stars on the air and screen. Gale Gordon (Our Miss Brooks, Lucille Ball shows, etc.), Hanley Stafford (father to Fanny Brice's Baby Snooks), Cy Kendall (character actor in radio and film), and Jeanette Nolan and John McIntire (major roles in radio, film and TV).  The actors were paid five dollars per show while the Pierces worked for royalties.  The program was aired three times a week, ran 39 episodes per story, and went for a total of 354 episodes. Thanks to the new medium of E.T. discs the show was syndicated in almost every major English-speaking country in the world. Looking back on the show, years later, Joan reminisced: "It was a beautiful love story. It was a clean story. There was no obvious sex, just pure love."
Tarzan Radio Stars Gale Gordon and Joan Burroughs Pierce
Electrical Transcription ET Label
Tarzan of the Air Booklet from the Danton Burroughs Archive
 
Since the Pierces received a royalty every time the show was played they soon found themselves on easy street.  They moved to a larger house in Hollywood and hired a couple to do the cooking, housework, chauffeuring and to take care of baby Joanne. Jim splurged on a luxury 1933 Packard which cost $3,337 -- a monumental sum in those Depression years. The series sponsor, Signal Oil went all out with promotion -- claiming their gasoline had "the power of Tarzan." They also organized a Signal Tarzan Club and offered jigsaw puzzles and other premiums to kids who could talk their parents into filling up at the Signal service stations. By 1934 the demands of keeping the club going were so great -- they had already mailed out 415, 000 memberships  -- that they had to put an end to the promotion.
Signal Tarzan Club Button
 
During a break from recording the program the Pierces spent some holiday time in Canada. They sailed up the coast to Seattle via the Grace Line taking their car with them as cargo. The ship's purser was a devoted fan of their show and invited them to listen to the recorded broadcasts in his quarters, three out of the four nights that they were on board. They drove through the Rockies to Banff and on to the Calgary Stampede -- mobbed everywhere by autograph hounds and media.

Jim and Joan with Mary the Chimp

Signal Tarzan Club Band

Promotional Photo for Tarzan Radio Serial
Unfortunately this lifestyle was not to last as 1934 was to bring a series of upheavals to the Burroughs and Pierce families. . .


REFERENCE SITES
Burroughs Camp Names ~ 1916
Visitors to the Burroughs Camp 1916 - Page 1
Visitors to the Burroughs Camp 1916 - Page 2
The Danton Burroughs Family Archive
ERB Dedications to Joan Burroughs
Those Burroughs Kids
The Tarzan Radio Show Premier
Tarzan Radio Show
The Edgar Rice Burroughs Online Bio Timeline
A Meeting With Jim and Joan Burroughs Pierce in Tarzana 1971 ~ Part I
A Meeting With Jim and Joan Burroughs Pierce in Tarzana 1971 ~ Part II
The Pierce Grave site in Shelbyville, Indiana
The Battle of Hollywood by the Oldest Living Tarzan ~ James H. Pierce
A Visit to Old Los Angeles

THE JOAN BURROUGHS STORY

I: The Early Years
II: Marriage and Career Years
III: Years of War and Turmoil
IV: Family and Laurels


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