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Volume 5698

From our Lost Words of ERB Series
a Vanity Fair article about Burroughs-Tarzan Enterprises, Inc. etc.
January 1935
Tarzan—ape-man into industry
A look at Mr. Edgar Rice Burroughs, the man behind ape-man Tarzan.
by Darwin L. Teilhet

In purely material accomplishment, not even an Anthony Adverse or a Ben Hur can compare with Tarzan, acrobat of the jungle. Nor has any author more thoroughly exploited his literary produce than has Mr. Edgar Rice Burroughs of Tarzana, California. Some of his stories are pretty lousy, Mr. Burroughs admits, “but they sell,” he says simply. “That’s what’s important.”

They certainly sell. The Tarzan books have been translated into twenty-two languages; they are the standard items of Arabian publishers and well thought of among readers of Hindustani; they have been best sellers in England, Sweden, Austrialia, and Italy. They continue to be so in America. Every two years a new Tarzan volume is scheduled for publication; and before the new saga is bound in cloth covers at two dollars a copy, every yard has first been wholesaled as a serial.

Tarzan, however, is rather more than just a literary figure. He is also a radio act; a film hero; a familiar figure to readers of the comic strips; and one whose name has lent authority to such diverse commodities as gum, garters, and inflated rubber toys. He is, in fact, a property any author would be glad to own.

Mr Burroughs was not always an author; he became one at the age of thirty-three. He had already been a cavalryman, cowboy, railroad policeman, gold dredger, patent-medicine salesman and vendor of a drunkards; cure-all. He also did something not very profitable with a patent pencil sharpener. Eventually he owned half of the patent-medicine outfit; then he transferred his allegiance to a business counsel service in Chicago.

In 1910, while he was still with the business counsel service, a friend informed him that magazine writers received staggering sums of money. This was apparently the first time that Mr. Burroughs had a heard the news; he at once decided to get a piece of this money for himself. He constructed a romance entitled The Princess of Mars, which concerns a young man who arrives on the planet Mars and falls in love with a Princess. Although the Princess laid eggs (very well, you read it then), the serial, on its appearance in All Story Magazine, scarcely caused a flutter among that publication’s hardened readers.

But Mr. Burroughs was paid for it: $400. This miracle inflicted upon him his one and only spasm of creative vertigo. He spent six months boning up on English history in order to produce a masterpiece called The Outlaw of Torn; it was thick with knights, dukes, and Tudor atmosphere; but it was pretty much of a bust financially. This taught him his lesson. Henceforth, he was to waste no time on literary background.

In 1912, Mr. Burroughs sent the editors of the old All-Story Weekly the uncompleted manuscript of his third adventure tale, Tarzan of the Apes, having for his principal character a young man reared and cherished by the primordial apes of darkest Africa. The editors were so ravished by the original plot idea (Mr. Burrough swears he never though of Kipling’s Mowgli) that they purchased the story and impatiently waited delivery.

For the Tarzan saga the author relied on what he remembered of Stanley’s Darkest Africa, and when Darkest Africa failed him he fell back on a prodigious invention. That saved time. Mr. Burroughs hates to see time or energy to waste. An efficient and economical man, he was even able to salvage most of that six months’ historical research.

This was done by transferring Old England to darkest Africa in the third of his Tarzan series, which revolves around the simple theme of a Tudor colony—which had somehow or other been lost in the jungle four centuries ago, and survived unchanged into the present day. A man who can have his heroine lay eggs on the planet Mars isn’t one to be troubled by his readers’ feelings when they happen upon a description of sixteenth century knights wandering through Africa in modern times.

By 1913, with three serials marketed, he decided to devote himself entirely to fiction. So, he and his family trekked to California. A year later, a publisher was finally discovered who would risk committing Tarzan of the Apes to a book. Not that it was much of a risk—America seemed to be filled with nature lovers, who took the mighty Tarzan immediately to their bosoms. The book rocketed through one edition after another, into the astonishing sales figures of three million copies. With his royalties, in 1915, Mr. Burroughs purchased the old Otis estate fifteen miles outside of Los Angeles; gratefully renamed it “Tarzana Ranch”; and, for the next decade, slaved away at this task of author, turning out 24 book-length novels, including six more of the imperishable jungle series.

Meanwhile, Selig Pictures had purchased The Lad and the Lion in 1916; National Films, Tarzan of the Apes, in 1918, one of the first of the silent to gross over a million dollars; National Films, Romance of Tarzan, the same year; Universal, The Return of Tarzan, in 1919; Century, Adventures of Tarzan, in 1920; and West Brothers, Sons of Tarzan, in 1922.

Middlewesterners had already started moving west to their vision of Paradise. As they passed by his ranch, Mr. Burroughs began to feel the old urge to strike his pitch and begin selling things to the multitude. He subdivided Tarzana ranch into lots, and soon the pleasant township or Tarzana spread out beneath the sterile blue California sky. In 1923, deciding that book publisher’s practice of demanding 65 to 90% of the gross returns from authors’ brain-children was too much of a good thing, he organized the Edgar Rice Burroughs Corporation, elected himself president, and proceeded to publish and market his own literary wares and also to consolidate his real estate activities.

From 1923 to 1929 he sold Tarzan and the Golden Lion to F.B.O., Tarzan the Mighty and Tarzan and the Tiger to Universal; he also sold his Tarzana home to the Tarzana Golf Club, Inc.; obtained a Tarzana post office from the Government; assisted at the inauguration of the Tarzana Chamber of Commerce, which has regularly communed once a week ever since. He also limited himself to four hours a day before a Dictaphone, uttering twelve eighty thousand word novels. Not one of them received a rejection slip, either from the magazines or from Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc.

Tarzan the Tiger was released in 1930 during the mournful demise of the silent films. The talking-picture came as no surprise to a gentleman who had already blandly written of the scientific marvels of interplanetary communication and travel. He found a small motion picture company which, delighted with the idea of a Tarzan learning to speak, purchased the sound rights to Tarzan the Fearless.

The depression stopped these plans; Tarzan the Fearless remained unproduced. But Mr. Burroughs has never been easily discouraged. He went to M.G.M’s white-headed boy, Mr. Irving Thalberg, with Tarzan the Ape-man. When it appeared in 1932, starring Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan, out of the entire industry only the author and the psychic Mr. Thalberg were prepared for the extraordinary run which followed.

Immediately, Mr. Sol Lesser bought the rights to Tarzan the Fearless from the producers who had first obtained them from the trusting Mr. Burroughs. And, despite the acute embarrassment of the author, who had sold M.G.M. a sequel, Tarzan and His Mate, Mr. Lesser coldly turned his legal property into a rather muddy serial featuring Mr. Buster Crabbe. For the next half year, millions of nature lovers, to whom practically nothing comes amiss, were nevertheless faintly bewildered by the spectacle of two Tarzans bounding and screaming with equal verve among the branches of large studio trees.

But now all is well. Mr. Burroughs recently disposed of his thirteenth Tarzan scenario. It has been taken by M.G.M. for a third Johnny Weissmuller thriller. . .

Mr. Burroughs does not care to leave his offices in Tarzana. He is furiously occupied with his various projects. Three years ago, for instance, he placed his eldest son, Mr. Hulbert Burroughs, in charge of a newly formed radio division of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc.; contracted with an independent radio producer to make a group of Tarzan records based on the Tarzan stories; arranged for his daughter, Joan, to play “Jane Porter.” The delicious heroine of the “Tarzan Radio Act”, as it is named; had Mr. James H. Pierce, a former cinema Tarzan who eventually wedded Miss Burroughs, return to service as the radio Tarzan; and, in two years, through the independent radio producer, had sold the “Tarzan Radio Act” to stations in every state of the union.

This would have pleased a man of lesser clay; but Mr. Burroughs was not happy. He likes to keep Tarzan entirely in the family. Just as he did with his books, so he took over the entire radio business. Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc., announced to the trade: “The elimination of a middleman’s profit and overhead allows us to furnish this program at a very reasonable figure, while permitting an increase in the cost of production to insure the best act it is possible to offer.”

So far, forty-one sponsors, including such well-known firms as the Signal Oil & Gas Co., Reed Tobacco Co., Royal Baking Powder Co., and the venerable H.J. Heinz Co., have sold merchandise by means of Tarzan records broadcast throughout the United States, Canada, and Australia. In all his multitudinous activities Mr. Burroughs may be hell on the middleman, but his two organizations have excluded splendid dividends throughout the depression.

Two years ago Mr. Burroughs had another brilliant idea. He contracted with a national newspaper syndicate to sell Tarzan comic-strips. By August of this year, one hundred and sixty daily papers were using the daily strip, drawn by Mr. Rex Mason from material based on the Tarzan stories; ninety-three Sunday newspapers were publishing a full page in color of Tarzan adventures, drawn by Mr. Harold Foster from original material by a ghost writer, under Mr. Burroughs’ supervision.

Back in 1913, Mr. Burroughs had the foresight to register “Tarzan” as a trade mark. To date, he has licensed twenty-eight commodities to use the Tarzan name, the list including such items as Tarzan sweat shirts, Tarzan bread, Tarzan ice-cream cups, candy, masks, card games, rubber inflated toys, sponge balls, celluloid buttons, bats, bathing suits, gum, garters, and coffee. Tarzan bill-boards advertise to the devout public that a new commodity has “The Strength of Tarzan”. One company received permission to develop a Tarzan club: 125,000 members were enrolled. “Every member a potential salesman”, declares a Tarzan broadside; this same document states that any business may receive an “official instruction book for the formation of the Tarzan Clan among boys and girls”—a valuable service, which, of course, is not offered free by the Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc.

From his vast experience, Mr. Burroughs has returned to one of his earlier vocations and again provides merchandising counsel to businessmen. One of his brochures states: “We have an organization that is prepared to assist in working out merchandising campaigns for sponsors; and as owners of Tarzan copyright and a wide range of Tarzan trade marks, we are in a position to make use of the Tarzan name in many lines.”

He continues to write as diligently as when he started. His presses are already hard at work, turning out (1) his Tarzan saga, (2) a Martian epic, (3) a many-volumed account of adventures at the earth’s core, (4) a new saga of life on the planet Venus.

This incredible activity seems to have no effect on him. He rides horseback, plays tennis regularly, learned to fly a few months ago, and now his private plane. He is nearly sixty. He could pass for forty-five. He is brown and bald, stocky, has small, sharp eyes with a curiously genial squint, talks in short, quick sentences like a stock-broker with one eye always cocked at the tape, and allocates his time according to the second hand of a watch. He has sold his Tarzana home long ago. He works at his office in the pleasant Spanish-type building of the Edgar Rice Burroughs Corporation in Tarzana, but lives at Malibu near the motion-picture stars.

Finally, having exploited Tarzan as diligently as would the owner of a tooth-paste or washing-machine factory, he is making certain that his Tarzan saga will continue beyond the span of the founder. He is setting up a Tarzan dynasty.

Mr. Hulbert Burroughs, a young man of twenty-five or so, is already in active charge of Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc. He is being trained to step into his father’s position. Modestly, Hulbert Burroughs admits that he “will carry on with Tarzan.”

A few weeks ago, Mr. Burroughs organized a second corporation—Burroughs-Tarzan Enterprises, Inc.—and put Hulbert Rice Burroughs in charge of that, too. Burroughs-Tarzan Enterprises Inc., will film a new series of Tarzan epics with authentic scenic background. The first will be called Tarzan in Guatemala; it will follow M.G.N.’s still untitled Tarzan romance. Although the new Tarzan adventures ma eventually be produced in darkest Africa, Mr. Burroughs, Sr. doesn’t think he will go. He hasn’t ever been there.

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