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Volume 1059

An Evening With Danton Burroughs
Michael Sellers
Michael and Rena Sellers, with Danton Burroughs
It was mid-October, one of  those hot autumn days in LA  that are worse than the summer.  We drove north from Los Angeles on 101 in rush hour traffic on a Thursday evening as the sun set over the San Fernando Valley.  After an hour of  bumper to bumper madness, the traffic began to thin and we made a left on Reseda Avenue, where we were greeted everywhere with the word "Tarzan” … only, not quite, it was “Tarzana”, not “Tarzan”  – as in “Tarzana Dry Cleaners”, “Tarzana Auto Repair”, “Tarzana Stationers”.   The hand of the old master was seen everywhere.

A left on Ventura Boulevard, and we were immediately forced to slow down, looking for 18354, the address of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc.   This part of Ventura Boulevard is much like the rest of it (it runs 40 miles through San Fernando Valley, once a highway, now a commercial boulevard), a MacDonald’s here, Starbucks there, mid-rise office buildings, storefronts, a comfortable blend of city and suburb, metered parking spots on both sides of the street.

Tarzana ~ Looking east on Ventura Blvd.
Ooops.  We’d passed it.  There had been 18360 back there, and 188340 here (a fitness center).  We parked and walked back.  As we did so, we found ourselves walking past a small wrought iron gate, behind which, wedged in between two larger buildings and set back from the street behind a massive, out of place oak tree, was a small one story bungalow, stucco walls, vines growing on the front porch columns.  And of course, no street number on the building.   “This is it,” I said with absolute certainty.  Don’t ask me why, but I knew instantly that this amazing little island of 1920’s beauty had to be the headquarters of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc.   And I was right.
Entrance to the ERB, Inc. Offices on Ventura Blvd., Tarzana, CaliforniaEntrance to the ERB, Inc. Offices on Ventura Blvd., Tarzana, California
I opened the rusty gate and only then saw that down at about waist level,  almost hidden on the gate were, in fact, the numbers 18354.  We walked forward along a stone walkway past an oversized old fashioned mailbox toward the quaint little house.  The yard around us was filled with desert shrubs and a huge tree, and the entire  front of the house had a porch which was largely hidden behind columns that were covered with ivy and other vines.  We stepped up one small step to a large wooden door.  “Absolutely no solicitors”, an old plaque read – otherwise, the door was blank except for an American flag.  I looked for a doorbell, but could find none.  The house/office looked like it might be closed for the night, but we had an appointment, so I knocked.
Entrance to the ERB, Inc. Offices on Ventura Blvd., Tarzana, California
A few moments later the door opened and there stood a kindly man, late fifties,  his receding hairline and gentle features immediately identifying him as a descendant of the man himself.  In fact, if you were casting a movie and needed someone to play Edgar Rice Burroughs, this is the guy you would pick.  He was Danton Burroughs, the man who runs Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc., and he was alone in the little three room bungalow that serves as the office of the enterprise that oversees the most amazing realm of adventure ever created by the mind of man.  “You’re Michael Sellers”, Danton said with a warm smile, and invited me and my wife Rena inside.

The first step inside almost took my breath away and Danton saw why.  “These are all by a Czech artist who loved my grandfather’s works”, he said without hesitation when he saw my eyes dart to the walls of that first room – walls that were covered with exquisite black and white paintings of scenes from the Tarzan books.  “Oh, look,” Rena said beside me, and pointed to a picture where a massive ape held a tiny baby aloft.  “That’s Tarzan as a baby,” she said.  “And Kala,” I added, “when she first saved Tarzan from Kerchak.”

Zdenek BurianZdenek BurianZdenek BurianZdenek BurianZdenek Burian
Part of the Tarzan Art Collection on the ERB, Inc. Zdenek Burian Wall
Danton beamed with a pride that seemed to come from somewhere deep inside his kindly soul.  “So you’ve read my grandfather’s books, both of you,” he said.  “Take a look at these for a minute, I’ll be right back.”  And with that he disappeared into the back, leaving us alone with the paintings.  Only then did I look around the rest of the room and see what was there—a couple of cluttered desks stacked high with papers and memorabilia, a computer looking decidedly lonely and out of place.  I looked at more of the pictures.  There was Tarzan as a teenager in front of his nemesis Terkoz, and I realized this was the moment of his confrontation passage into manhood – the fight that would leave him wounded and bleeding and with the scar across his forehead that would “burn crimson” when he was angry or on the attack.  And here was his fight with Numa, the lion…..and here he is hiding in the trees above Mbonga’s Gomangani village --- there was even one of Tarzan in a sycamore tree with Jane, which is the only rendering I had ever seen of Tarzan in Baltimore at the end of the first book.   Then I realized Danton was looking at me.  “Come on, I’ll show you more.”  And with that he went into the second room of the bungalow.

It was thirty odd years earlier that a young boy, 11 years old, living on an army base in Stuttgart, Germany, found himself in the Robinson Barracks post library, a place he had been haunting with great regularity these past few months since his family had arrived in Europe.  After all, the only TV was local German television, and in those early months he didn’t have too many friends.  He’d been reading every sports book he could find – the exploits of Bronc Burnett in Sonora, New Mexico being one, and the stories of Clint Lane, West Point Cadet were another.  But he was tired  of those.  And so he decided that on this cold, rainy afternoon, he would start with the “A’s” and work his way methodically along the bookshelves until he found something interesting to read, something new and different.

The A’s passed without incident, and then most of the B’s. Near the end of the B’s a title caught his eye.  It was an older book, rebound with green tape on the spine so that it had been necessary for the librarian to handwrite the title in white ink:  “Llana of Gathol”, it read.  Hmm.  Double L at the beginning.  Is that a misprint?  Let’s look and see.

John Coleman Burroughs: Llana of GatholFrontispiece: The creature leaped for my throat. (Page 40)Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle cover painting by J. Allen St. John

I still remember as clearly as if it were yesterday the moment of discovery as I pulled the book from the shelf and opened it up to view one of the most unforgettable images I would ever see in my life, before or after – a glorious John Coleman Burroughs illustration showing a muscular man, clad in not much more than what Tarzan would wear, holding a torch in one hand and a sword in the other as a snarling eight legged beast bore down on him.  The caption read “As the banth bore down on me, I drew my sword and waited.”  Whoa……This was interesting.  Then I noticed next to this book was another one:  “Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle”.  I get it.  Same author.  I’m onto something here.

And thus began two years of intense, mind expanding imaginative exploration.  I would come to know just what a “banth” was, as well as a thoat, and more.  Barsoom, Amtor, Caspak, Pellucidar, Opar – all of these magical places would come alive in my imagination.  Jeds and Tanjongs, Numa and Histah, one man scout flyers and twin moons that hurtled through the sky above the dry ocher seabeds of a dying planet.

In the years before and after I would read much adventure literature, much science fiction literature.  Heinlein, Asimov,  Bradbury, Jules Verne, H. Rider Haggard – I would read it all.  But nothing, ever, would captivate my heart, soul, and mind like the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs – “ERB” as those in the know were wont to call him.  Burroughs, the creator of Tarzan – and of John Carter, and Dejah Thoris, and Carson Napier, and David Innes, and Kala and Kerchak – though he had died a decade before I was born, would become my idol, not just as an author, but as an almost godlike figure whose imagination transported me from the mundane world of 1960’s Earth, to places equally vivid but far more  exhilarating.

Our meeting with Danton was not supposed to be a fan pilgrimage.  There was business to be attended to.  I had just finished writing and directing my first feature film, I had produced a dozen or so other films; and I had a professional interest in acquiring the rights to one or more of ERB’s books.  I knew the Martian series was out of bounds, property of Disney (I thought), and Tarzan being the crown jewels was something I would defer until I had proved myself with these people.  My sights were instead set on some of the lesser known books.

But business hardly entered into it at all as Danton joyfully took us into the second room where he works at the same large oaken desk used by the creator of Tarzan almost a century earlier.  Here there were bookshelves filled with the ERB’s books.  One shelf, near the door, contained all the ACE and Ballantine Paperbacks which had been published in the 60’s and had been the editions that I read in those wonder years of first discovery.  But there were hardbacks too, and collections of illustrations from the books.  And family photos, stashed away here and there in envelopes which Danton would bring out and share with us.  I couldn’t help but be struck by the gentle kindliness of the man who is in essence the curator of ERBdom.  So much pride, such warmth.  He quickly established a paternal comradery with Rena, especially warming to her when he discovered that she had read the entire Martian series and confiding to her that, “You know, my mother was Dejah Thoris,” and then showing beautiful illustrations by John Coleman Burroughs, Danton’s father, in which the model for “the incomparable Dejah Thoris” was indeed John’s wife—Danton’s mother, Jane Ralston Burroughs.

Jane Ralston Burroughs ~ Portrait by John Coleman BurroughsJohn Carter of Mars Sunday Page Art by John Coleman Burroughs
An hour after arriving we had not even begun anything remotely resembling a business discussion, and it didn’t seem to matter at all.  Intead we were lost in a magical exploration of a treasure trove of memorabilia, seemingly stored in haphazard fashion yet Danton could always find exactly what he was looking for, usually without hesitation.  We did start talking about projects, but not in a coherent, focused way – there was far too much fun and excitement for that.   “We need an in-house Steven Spielberg,” Danton said at one point.  Then, speaking on the phone to a caller, he said:  “John, I’m here with some friends, Michael and Rena, why don’t you come over.”  And a few minutes later into the room walked white haired, white bearded, John Westerveldt, longtime friend of Danton, Tarzana neighbor and collector of classic automobiles – but more importantly, for the moment, a fine photographer.  John began clicking pictures as the three of us – Danton, Rena, and I – explored every nook and cranny of the  amazing room.
John Westerveldt

Our appointment had been scheduled for 6:30 in the office, with dinner to follow at 7:00 at Charlie G’s, a steakhouse down the street in Tarzana which is Danton’s favorite.  At 7:30 I called to explain we were running late, and the hostess told me that it might be a problem, the restaurant was quite busy tonight.  On impulse I mentioned that we were at the office of Danton Burroughs, and would be coming soon—and at the mention of  “Danton Burroughs”  the voice on the end of the line (which had been gracious enough up till then) suddenly changed, becoming even more gracious.   “Oh, and will you be sitting with Danton tonight?”  Oh yes, I said.  “Then no problem, then.”  It’s great to dine with royalty!

Prince of ERBdom or not, Danton Burroughs is a gentle, friendly man, who has the capacity to warm to a new friend without any of the reserve that might be expected of the grandson of Edgar Rice Burroughs.  His fascination and pride in his grandfather’s accomplishments is palpable – yet just as palpable is the pleasure he genuinely feels when he senses that he’s in the presence of someone who genuinely loves and respects his granddad’s works.  At one point in our dinner I found myself describing the absolute magic of my discovery of Edgar Rice Burroughs as an 11 year old, and Danton poked his friend John Westerveldt in the shoulder and said with absolute pride, “See. My grandfather changed his life!”  And he is absolutely right.

Perhaps  in honor of  Tarzan we all ordered steaks – in my case, rare, taking it a step further.  I still remember the vivid descriptions of Tarzan’s love for raw meat, and his disdain for the whole idea of ruining meat by cooking it, and in spite of the fct that my diet tends more toward fish and vegetables these days, I ordered a bloody steak and loved it.  Danton ordered a Mai-Tai and, thinking of Rokov in The Beasts of Tarzan,  I ordered a black Russian.

I think I mention all of this in part just to give a feel to those who have never met him that in spite of his illustrious heritage, Danton is a regular guy – someone you’d enjoy spending time with, not just to celebrate ERB, but to celebrate life.  He’s fun to hang out with.

During dinner Danton mentioned that there would be a 16mm screening of the 1932 Tarzan, The Ape Man on Sunday, and invited us to view it.  When I acknowledged, he also asked if I, being a film-maker, might be able to help him with the projector.  I said sure, thinking secretly what a delight that even now, here in the land of ERB, it was evidently the the Prince of ERB himself who was evidently responsible for threading the projector, and needed help.  I’d be happy to provide it.  Assuming, of course, I am able to figure it out.  (Haven’t seen a 16mm projector in more or less half a lifetime!)

During dinner we ran into some neighbors of Danton, Esther and JT and spirits got higher.  Next thing I knew we were all being invited over to Danton’s house to see his “hodge-podge”.  Not knowing quite what to expect, we piled into our cars and drove over.

On the way I was struck by the charm of Tarzana.  Although I’m very familiar with the San Fernando Valley suburbs of Los Angeles, it was only in Tarzana that I for the first time could actually feel the sense of being “away from it all” that the valley was supposed to convey in the old days, when “the valley” meant fruit orchards and asparagus fields instead of freeways and shopping malls.

Danton’s house is at the perimeter of the developed area, where the hills and forests begin.  We turned off a main road, traversed an unpaved section of a few hundred yards, then turned left into a narrow driveway with a white wooden fence on one side, and a stone wall on the other.  Winding around for a quarter of a mile, we pulled left into a dusty parking area next to a workshed and a yard that already captured some unexpected magic.  There, in the yard, were dozens, if not hundreds, of street lamps – some lighted, others piled in stacks.  There was a also a stone wall covered with a collection of signs, and other odds and ends piled about.

Danton took us into the workshop and showed us through a delightful clutter of shelves and workbenches.  Here  was a stack of original art, there a box with family heirlooms in it, all cast about in a manner that was at once haphazard and organized.  “I just found these,” he said, and opened some beautiful original sketches with “John Coleman Burroughs” penned in the lower right hand corner.

Portrait of Danton by his father, John Coleman BurroughsPhoto of a young Danton Burroughs
But the workshop was just an appetizer.  After a few minutes Danton excused himself and asked us to wait.  And we waited. And waited.  Ten minutes later he emerged from the main house – a beautiful and somewhat whimsical two story mini-castle –and beckoned us in.  And enter we did – into a kingdom as magical as anything anyone might possibly imagine.  For here, there was an entire downstairs floor which included not only every piece of Tarzan or Burroughs paraphernalia one might hope to see – but also a dozen or so meticulously maintained classical era juke boxes, each with a colorful set of lights casting a rapturous glow through the room.
But that wasn’t all.  There were pinball machines, a couple of skeletons hanging in a corner, Tarzan movie posters, more artwork, books, comic strips. Statues, an ape skull, a hundred or so pocket watches, a moosehead with a tiny Disney Tarzan party hat perched on its head, a statue of a saber-toothed tiger, family photos including  one of Danton’s mother, Janet Ralston Burroughs…the list goes on.  It was a treasure trove of not only ERB memorabilia – but more.  I think we all felt we’d entered a very special realm.
Glorious Barsoom illustrations by J. Allen St. JohnThuvia, Maid of Mars art by J. Allen St. John
We spent half an hour in the house.  I took pictures.  The magic continued. And then finally it was time to go home.  Handshakes and hugs, and sometime after midnight we were back on the freeway, smiles not only in our faces but in our hearts as well.
Michael and Rena Sellers, with Danton Burroughs

This has been longer than it should be – but I know what it’s like to have deep fascination and love for Edgar Rice Burroughs, and to sit there in some far corner of America or the world and wonder what a town named Tarzana could possibly be like, and what sort of a place the offices of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc., could possibly be.  It is absolutely an enchanting place.  If you ever get the chance to make the pilgrimage – do it!  It’s worth a cross country trip, and you won’t regret  it.



Born the son of a career Army officer in 1958, Michael Sellers attended thirteen schools in twelve years, graduating from Carlisle High School in Pennsylvania where he made a mark as an all-state football and basketball player.  College found him at the University of Delaware on an athletic scholarship, where he he pursued his football career with mediocre results but did somewhat better in academics, graduating Magna Cum Laude with a degree in English and Classics and earning national finalist status (i.e. final round loser)  in the Rhodes Scholarship and Danforth Fellowship competitions.   While in college, he learned that aside from athletics, he had two additional proclivities – music and writing – both of which he would pursue with fluctuating diligence in coming years.

Having not quite made it to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, Michael did manage to get accepted into the prestigious New York University graduate film-making program, where he spent several years learning the film-making craft while plying his trade by night as a troubadour in Greenwich Village pubs and coffeehouses, and further supplementing that income through writing and selling more than a dozen pulp romance novels for a major Canadian publisher under the pen name “Michelle Doyle”. 

As graduate school wound down, Hollywood beckoned, and Michael moved west with the intention of becoming the next Steven Spielberg,  but when six months of low-level production work left him feeling a bit cranky about the whole business,  he found his yearning for adventure tickled by an ad in the Los Angeles Times announcing that the CIA was looking for recruits who had strong academic credentials, had traveled abroad, could speak or learn a foreign language, and were willing to work “in vital public service abroad, at times under hardship conditions”.   Without thinking twice he fired off a resume and, after six months of tests, interviews, polygraphs, and background checks, found himself entering on duty with the Clandestine Service of the CIA in Langley, Virginia at the age of 23 in 1981.

After a year of training in the espionage arts in which he graduated first in his class at “the Farm”, Michael found himself dispatched first to Poland, then to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where he plied the trade of CIA officer and advanced well enough to earn a choice assignment in 1984 to Moscow, which at the height of the cold war was the epicenter of the CIA universe.  There, serving in the years 1984-1986, he managed to find himself at the center of the great espionage scandals of the Cold War – including the first ever defection of a CIA officer to the KGB (Ed Howard was his officemate and classmate); the first ever U.S. Marine to spy for the KGB (Clayton Lonetree was the guard on Michael’s Embassy basketball team), and the discovery of the mysterious and allegedly cancer-causing “spy dust” used by the KGB to track U.S. agents in Moscow. (it was a sample obtained by Michael from a Russian agent that started the entire investigation), 

Finally in March 1986, while meeting secretly with a KGB General in a dark courtyard between two Moscow apartment buildings, Michael was ambushed by the KGB, arrested and, after a brief stay in Lubyanka Prison, expelled from the country as a spy.  Years later, he would learn that he had the distinction of being the first victim of Aldrich Ames, the head of CIA counterintelligence who was later arrested and convicted of espionage, and who is now serving a life sentence in Virginia.

His cover blown, Sellers was offered a new assignment in the Philippines, where he would help the fledgling Corazon Aquino administration battle communist insurgents, which he did for four years, surviving (along with the Aquino administration) six coup attempts, including one in December 1989 in which he was directly involved in ‘saving the Queen’, and for which he received the Intelligence Commendation Medal, one of the CIA’s highest awards.

Throughout his time in the CIA Michael had continued to dabble in music and writing, completing and releasing an album of original music, (most of the copies of which can still be found in his mother’s garage), and producing several Filipino artists for the local market – efforts which bore somewhat greater commercial fruit, and which brought him in touch with the major film and record producers in the Philippines (yes, there are a few).  Emboldened by his venture into music producing and remembering that he had started out to be a creative professional in the first place, he resigned from CIA at the age of 35 and launched what he intended to be his grand creative career as a writer and film-maker.

Operating from his “production base” in the Philippines with frequent trips to and from Los Angeles,  Michael produced “Goodbye America” in 1998,  starring Michael York, James Brolin, and Alexis Arquette, and followed this with “Legacy” in 1999 starring David Hasselhoff and Rod Steiger, and “Doomsdayer” in 2000, starring Udo Kier, Brigitte Nielsen, and Joe Lara – all shot on location in the Philippines.   He also during this period launched and owned a successful restaurant in Subic Bay Freeport, added an in-flight catering company, and managed the Asian affairs of a public company, Kroll-O’Gara (Nasdaq symbol KROG).  And most importantly, it was during this period that he found the woman of his dreams – Lorena Llevado, a Filipina,  whom he married in 1999.

Still dreaming of greater things and tiring of the multi-tasking grind that his life had become,  Michael and Lorena moved to Los Angeles in 2000 and took over the reins of Quantum Entertainment – a global film distribution company which Michael and partner Pamm Vlastas had founded in 1996 and which had handled foreign distribution for the films Michael produced.  In  2000, Michael executive produced half a dozen movies (translation: put the deals together and secured the distribution rights) but by the end of 2001 felt that he was farther than ever from his original goal of being a creative professional. 

Figuring it was time to either get serious about being a writer and film-maker, or accept the role of film executive and stop complaining about it, he began writing again in December of 2001 and by May of  2002 had obtained funding for “Vlad”, a historical horror-adventure film to be shot on location in Romania and starring Billy Zane, Brad Dourif, and Francesco Quinn—a film which he would write and direct and which would occupy him for much of 2003. 

And thus, almost twenty years to the day after departing film school, Michael was able to say that had actually done what he set out to do – which was to write and direct a feature film, and make a serious and credible beginning on the path to creative success. 

Vlad was completed in October, 2003, and will be released in theaters in early 2004. 

Michael is also slated to direct “Spirit of Paradise” in March 2004, a film he also wrote.

He lives in North Hollywood with his princess, Lorena, and 12 year old daughter Michelle.

Michael Sellers' 
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