First and Only Weekly Online Fanzine Devoted to the Life and Works of Edgar Rice Burroughs
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Volume 5399

How I Met Johnny Weissmuller
By Robert Owen

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 the cover.

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 side.

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 with “Tarzan”!

Editor's Note:
A few years back we did an ERBzine feature
on the event that Bob Owen referred to in the above story:
Militants Oust 'Tarzan' At Yale Film Festival

Read more about the Black Militant protest

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