One summer day in 1946, at age six, some friends and I went
to the Circle Theater in Manchester Ct, where I was raised. The feature
was “Tarzan and the Leopard Woman”. The co-feature was a re-release
of Walt Disney’s “Bambi”. Standing in line, waiting to get
in, I was enthralled by the artwork on the movie posters, and three names
stirred my imagination; Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan, and Johnny Weissmuller.
From that Saturday afternoon, through my entire life, I have been a Tarzan
fan. For me, Johnny Weissmuller was, and is the image of Tarzan.
And my childhood idol.
Then, at about 10 years of age, I discovered Burroughs books through
a friend, who loaned me his 1950 Grosset & Dunlap edition of “Tarzan
and the Golden Lion” and found that Tarzan was a much more exciting
character than the movies depicted him. But in my mind, Johnny Weissmuller
remained indelibly, the personification of Tarzan.
Fast forward to 1970. I was 30 years old and by this time I had
become something of an ERB collector and still an avid Johnny Weissmuller
fan. When I saw the little two-paragraph article in the newspaper
on March 8th that said Johnny Weissmuller had accepted an invitation to
appear in person and speak at the Tarzan film festival to be screened at
the Yale Law School Auditorium on March 11, I knew that this was an event
I could not miss.
On the evening of March 11, I picked up my brother, Hank, and we took
the one-hour ride to New Haven. I had to be to work at midnight,
but I had made arrangements with the guy on the 2nd shift to cover for
me if I had to be late. Hank and I arrived nearly a half hour late
because we did not know our way around the city. At the door we were
handed the little formal invitation printed on card stock, and the then-current
issue of the Yale Record with Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan pictured on
When we entered the auditorium, the events which were to be described
in the March 13th newspaper article were already under way. The film
had been stopped, the lights were on and there was near chaos in the aisles.
People were running around yelling at each other. Some confrontations
were taking place followed by much pushing and shoving. But no serious
violence had broken out. Mounting tension filled the auditorium.
Hank and I were reluctant to get involved if a brawl erupted, but we were
ready to defend ourselves if it came to that.
I had been scanning the auditorium, looking for Johnny Weissmuller,
and there, through the pandemonium, across the auditorium, I saw him being
led up the far aisle toward the rear door by a half dozen students.
Hank and I headed them off in the lobby, where it was calm, and the next
thing I knew, I was face-to-face with my childhood idol. He was actually
an inch or two taller than me, he looked fit, and he appeared gigantic
with those wide shoulders. I was in awe of his presence. He
was visibly disturbed by what had transpired only moments ago. Yet
when I offered my hand, he shook it and smiled.
I was thrilled to meet Tarzan, but disappointed that the evening’s entertainment
was apparently over before it really started.
As we shook hands, I told him who I was, a lifelong fan, that my brother
and I had just arrived and I asked him what had happened. He told
me quickly, that members of the Black Student Alliance (Johnny called them
Black Panthers), became angry and belligerent over some scenes in the movie,
“Tarzan the Apeman”, so they stormed the projection room, stopped
the film, and began to riot. I asked him where he was going and one
of the students who was with him broke in and told me they were taking
Mr. Weissmuller to their private club down the street.
We were all apprehensive, knowing that the volatile situation in the
auditorium, only a few paces away, might erupt into violence at any moment.
He may have been Tarzan in the movies, but in reality, I knew he was a
65 or 66 year-old man. If those doors flew open, I was prepared to
defend my idol with everything I had and I knew Hank would stand by my
Thinking that this brief meeting was only going to be a fleeting moment
of glory for me, and it was about to end, I asked him for his autograph
on my program book. He happily obliged, then excused himself as his
little entourage of student friends hustled him out the door. As
he was leaving, I thanked him and told him that this had been a very special
moment in my life.
But that is not the end of the story.
As they were leaving, Hank tried to talk me into following them, with
the idea that perhaps we might get close enough to talk to him again.
I’m a shy person by nature, and not prone to bold behavior. I did
not want to become a nuisance or test Mr. Weissmuller’s patience with another
approach. I had my moment with Tarzan and I thought I should be satisfied
with that. After resisting Hank’s urging, I gave in with the intention
of going only as far as the front door of the club, hanging around 5 or
10 minutes, then leaving. After all, I had met Tarzan and got his
autograph. What more should I expect?
We followed the little group down the street and watched as they entered
the club. As we approached the door, Hank, without hesitation, walked
right up to the 2 doormen and said that he and I were with the Weissmuller
group. A moment later we were inside and seated at a small table
near the long table where Mr. Weissmuller and his group had just been seated.
We ordered beer and for several minutes I tried to ignore Hank, who
continued to urge me to approach him again.
Away from the chaos in the auditorium, he and his company of students
seemed relaxed and enjoying their conversation. He looked over at
Hank and I, recognized us, and waved. That was all I needed.
Carrying a large manila envelope containing a few of my treasured 8 X 10
glossies, I strode across the restaurant and asked him if he would
sign one that I had since I was about 12 years old. He not only autographed
it, he asked me to sit down at his table. Before I could respond,
the young man sitting at Mr. Weissmuller's left side stood up and offered
me his chair. Apparently they all sensed that I was a fan.
I sat down and nodded for Hank to come over. He took a chair across
the table from me and for the next couple hours I sat next to Tarzan and
we all drank champagne. Johnny Weissmuller was a friendly, sociable
guy. He regaled us with stories, reliving the old days at MGM studios
making those great, entertaining Tarzan movies.
One of his stories was about how he became close and friendly with a
full-grown male lion that he was scheduled to “fight” with on the set.
The lion’s trainer told Johnny to have lunch with the lion in his cage.
After several days of this, the lion would become accustomed to Johnny’s
sight sound and scent. He said he felt silly, a little scared and
very insignificant squatting there on his haunches eating a sandwich while
this 500 pound beast tore into a side of beef. I told him he looked
like he could handle any lion. He laughed, gently punched me on the
right shoulder and said, “Hell, I couldn’t whip Cheta!”
We didn’t know what was going on back in the auditorium, but who cared?
I was having the time of my life. He autographed another 8 X 10 photo
for me, then told us all that it was time for him to head back to his hotel.
I’m sorry that members of the Black Student Alliance took offense at
some of the scenes in “Tarzan the Apeman” and created such a demonstration,
but if that hadn’t happened, I very likely would not have had that happy
encounter with my childhood idol.
On the evening of March 11, 1970, I talked, laughed and drank champagne