The First and Only Weekly Online Fanzine Devoted to the Life and Works of Edgar Rice Burroughs
Issue 0617
An ERB of the Silver Screen Compendium

The Story of Johnny Weissmuller
The Tarzan of the Screen
By Eleanor Packer
Copyright 1934 ~ Whitman Publishing Company, Racine, Wisconsin

A small boy with eager blue eyes stood at the edge of a beach on the shore of Lake Michigan and watched the other children splashing in the cool water.

"Come on in, Johnny," one of the boys called, waving a bare arm and ducking a freckled face under the waves.

But Johnny didn't move. For a long time he stared at the noisy fun around him. Then, slowly, he wiggled one bare toe in the surf at his feet.

"It's shallow down there, Johnny," his younger brother, Pete, suggested pointing to the "Baby Beach," a sandy stretch set aside for youngsters, "Let's try it."

So ten-year-old Johnny and Pete walked down the beach and waded into the lake. Strong, husky Pete urged thin, long-legged Johnny farther and farther into the water.

"Don't be afraid, Weissmuller," another boy shouted, blinking water from his black eyes. "Just duck your head under and hold your breath. You'll like it. I was scared, too, at first. Go on, try it."

Johnny tried it. He waded out, waist-deep, and ducked his sandy head. He came up, gasping with the sting of the water in his nose and eyes. But it wasn't as frightening as he had thought. He tried it again. And this second time he liked it.

That was Johnny Weissmuller's first swim. Years later, when he had broken swimming records at the Olympic Games, when he had won almost all the world's swimming championships, he remembered that afternoon in Chicago when he first felt the swish of water over his head.

And one day, not long ago, when he was making "Tarzan the Ape Man" for motion pictures, he stood at the edge of a California lake, looking at the water and dipping one brown toe into the little bubbling waves.

"I have always hated to go into the cold water ever since I was a boy," he laughed, "We swam in Lake Michigan and I always had to take a deep breath and force myself to dive into that cold water. After I'm in, I don't mind the chilliness. It's just that first plunge."

He grinned, drew a deep breath and dived into the water. It was a cool day and Johnny was wearing only Tarzan's leopard skin, fastened around his waist. He swam across the lake with the long, clean-cut strokes which made Johnny Weissmuller famous and which carried Tarzan safely away from the crocodiles and hippopotami while the picture was being made.

Johnny was born in the little town of Windber, Pennsylvania. His father had been a captain in the Austrian army, but, after he married Johnny's mother, they came to the United States to live. When Johnny was two years old, he and his parents and his baby brother, Pete, went to Chicago to make their home with Johnny's grandfather.

Pete was a strong, husky kid. But Johnny was thin and weak. He ate all sorts of food to make him strong and healthy. He grew tall but his little body was so thin that the other children called him "Skinny." Often he fainted in school. He played games with the neighborhood boys but, if he ran too hard or wrestled too strenuously, he fell to the ground from sheer weakness and exhaustion.

His mother and father tried every possible way to make him stronger. His grandfather took him for long rides in the country in a carriage behind a prancing horse. That horse was the pride and joy of Johnny's life -- until he learned to swim. Then he carried only for the water.

Because he was not strong Johnny was sent to a private school near home. Pete went with him and the two brothers were always together. One day, when they were playing on the school grounds, an older boy knocked Pete down. Johnny ran at once to his brother's rescue.

"Oh, you can't fight, Weissmuller," the other boy laughed at him. "You're too skinny."

But Johnny clenched his fists and showed him that he could fight. Johnny was winning the battle when a teacher walked into the schoolyard. He whipped Johnny for fighting. That night Johnny and Pete told their mother and father all about it.

"That boy said Johnny couldn't fight," Pete said proudly. "Why, he would have given him the worst licking of his life, if the teacher hadn't stopped him. Then the teacher wouldn't let us explain how it happened. He blamed Johnny for the whole thing. But, gee, Dad, I'll bet none of the boys'll ever say that Johnny is weak or sickly again."

Brother Pete Weissmuller

The next day their father took the two boys away from the private school and enrolled them in public school where they met new playmates and were much happier. It was during his first year in the new school that Johnny heard the boys talking about swimming in Lake Michigan.

"How do you get there?" he asked.
"Walk. It isn't far. And most of the way is through the park. If we take our lunch, we can stay all day.

So, when the first warm Saturday arrived, Johnny, Pete, and a dozen other boys started for the lake, sandwiches tucked in their pockets, money to rent bathing suits clutched in their hands.

After that first day Johnny spent every Saturday at the beach. When vacation time came, he and Pete trudged through the park every day to splash in the waters of the "Baby Beach." They came home late in the afternoons, tired and hungry and ready for bed as soon as it was dark.

Gradually Johnny began to grow huskier. His skin turned from pasty white to a ruddy brown, almost the color of Tarzan's weather-stained body. His eyes were brighter and his thin little arms and legs were rounder. He only fainted two or three times during that entire summer.

Johnny was completely happy at the beach. When he grew tired of splashing in the shallow water, he lay on the sand and watched the lifeguards dive and swim. They were his heroes. One was a friendly young man, named Tom, who played with the smaller boys and showed them how to do stunts in the safety of their "Baby Beach." Johnny followed Tom wherever he went and watched every move of his muscular body.

One morning on his way to the beach Johnny stopped at his father's store.

"I want some candy and apples, Dad, please. A lot of them."

"What in the world do you want them for?"

"To give to the life guard at the beach. Gee, Dad, he's teaching me to swim. When I grow up I want to be just like Tom. I wish you could see him dive. And he can beat every other guard on the beach when they race."

His father, happy because Johnny was happy and because he was growing so strong and brown, gave the boy the candy and apples for Tom.

Every morning Johnny carried a present of some kind to his favorite lifeguard. In return, Tom allowed Johnny to sit in the lifeboat and taught him the Australian Crawl swimming stroke.

It was a long, happy summer. When cool weather came and the beach days were over, Johnny and Pete counted the months until they could go back to the water.

"I've decided what I'm going to be when I grow up, Pete," Johnny said one snowy day when the two brothers were walking home from school.


"A life guard. I'll stay up here in Chicago in the summers. Then, when winter comes, I'll go down south where it's warm and people can swim all the time."

"You can't be a life guard," Pete said, "You have to be a big husky guy like Tom to do that. You won't ever be big enough probably."

"Oh, yes, I will," Johnny promised himself and Pete, "You wait and see."

Johnny's words came true. Today he weighs one hundred and ninety pounds and is six feet, three inches tall in his bare feet. He is larger and heavier even than Pete, who was much huskier when they were boys.

The next summer Tom came back to the beach. Johnny brought him an armful of presents and settled down to another fun-filled vacation. This time, however, Johnny wasn't afraid of the water. He swam and floated and even dived a little now and then. Sometimes, when the Big Beach wasn't crowed, Tome allowed him to leave the shallow "Baby Beach" and swim in the deeper water.

"Let's see your muscle, Weissmuller," Tom said one day when he and Johnny were sitting in the lifeboat. The guard was munching one of the apples which Johnny had brought to him that morning.

Obediently the eleven-year-old flexed his strong, brown arm. He liked to have Tom call him "Weissmuller." It made him feel grown up.

"Getting pretty tough, aren't you?" Tom asked, looking at the boy with a twinkle in his eyes.

"Yep," Johnny answered proudly, "Dad says swimming has made a man of me. Say, Tom, how old are you?"

"Twenty-one. Why?" the young man smiled.

"Oh, I was just thinking. Do you suppose that when I'm as old as you, I can be a lifeguard? That is, if I keep up swimming all the time."

"Maybe. But you've go to learn to dive. And you can't smoke or drink coffee. You'll have to keep in training, you know. You ought to make a good swimmer, if you stick to it."

"Do you really think so, Tom? Pete says he doesn't think I'll ever be big enough to be a lifeguard. Or that I'll ever learn to swim well enough. But you do, don't you?"

"Sure." The guard grinned at the seriousness of the small boy.

When Johnny was Tom's age, twenty-one, he had won several worlds' swimming records at the Olympic Games and he held a dozen national championships. The little boy, sitting in the end of the life boat watching his hero, the young guard didn't dream that some day he would be the world's greatest swimmer. Or that some day he would be Tarzan, swinging through the forest trees and riding high in the air on the trunks of elephants.

The next year, when he was twelve, Johnny discovered a swimming pool in a park nearer home. It was a hot summer and the pool was crowded from early morning until night with boys and girls and grown-ups. Each child was allowed to swim for fifteen minutes, then sent out of the pool to make room for the next group of eager youngsters. But it was more fun than the "Baby Beach." The water was deep, the pool was long and Johnny could swim with the strokes which Tom had taught him.

He missed Tom but he soon made friends with the guards at the pool. Every day he brought them gifts from his father's store. In return they gave him the job of handing out bathing suits to the boys and he was allowed to swim as long as he wished without bothering about the fifteen-minute rule.

Johnny learned a great deal that summer. He watched the guards with eager eyes. Patiently he practiced their strokes and dives until he had mastered them. Johnny didn't splash around and swim "any old way" as the other boys did. He spent long, happy hours, trying the swimming tricks of the guards, the movements which looked so easy when you watched them but which proved to be much more difficult than they seemed.

One day, when Johnny had been swimming smoothly with a long, graceful overhand stroke, a group of boys asked him to teach them how to do it. Johnny almost burst with pride. At last, he had become such a good swimmer that others were watching him and trying to imitate him. That was an even greater thrill than winning a world's championship was years later.

And when Pete said, "Gosh, Johnny, you sure can swim like a fish," Johnny made up his mind that he would be a great swimmer as well as a lifeguard.

The next year he was selected as a member of the park's swimming team. He and a dozen other young swimmers raced against the best boys from other Chicago pools. For the first time in his life Johnny heard cheers as he plowed through the water, heard the thrilling sound of voices, calling, "Thata boy, Weissmuller. Go ahead. Beat 'em."

No one would have dreamed that the tall, tanned boy, with the muscular arms and legs which moved so gracefully through the water, was the pale little Johnny who often dropped to the ground in an exhausted faint when he ran too fast in a game of tag.

After that exciting summer, when his team won all its races, Johnny couldn't give up swimming. He couldn't wait for warm weather to come again. So he joined the Y.M.C.A. and swam every afternoon after school and as long as possible on Saturdays. It was a rule of the institution that the boys must work-out in the gymnasium before going into the pool. So Johnny practiced high-jumping. When, years later, he sprang lightly through the air in "Tarzan," he was remembering the high jumps which he had learned in the Y.M.C.A. gym.

Johnny became a member of the Y.M.C.A. swimming team. That was much more exciting than the park team had been. His teammates were older boys and good swimmers. It was a touch job to keep up with them and to forge ahead of them. That was real fun. When the instructors said, "Good work, Johnny," he felt the same thrill that he had known when Tom, the life guard at the "Baby Beach," had said, "You ought to make a good swimmer, Weissmuller."

Adam Weissmuller (US Wrestling Champ) and cousin Johnny
Lou Toliver (Wrestler), Adam Weissmuller (Wrestler/Promoter), Peter Weissmuller, Johnny


The next summer Johnny swam every day. He and Pete usually went to Lake Michigan. He had outgrown the baby beaches and could swim in the deep water. The fame of his skill spread along the beach and people stopped to watch him dive from the piers and swim gracefully, his narrow body scarcely making a ripple in the blue of the lake.

One day when he was lying on the beach, resting for a few minutes after a brisk race, a man sat down beside him.

"How old are you, Weissmuller?" he asked, after they had talked about swimming and swimmers.

"Fifteen. Almost sixteen," Johnny answered, stretching his body in the warmth of the sun.

"How long have you been swimming?" the man asked him then.

"Since I was ten. Why?"

"I've been watching you for a long time. You look like the best swimmer around here. Did you ever think of taking it up as a profession?"

"What do you mean?" Johnny was interested.

"Well, the Illinois Athletic Club is always looking for good swimmers for its team. It would be the best training in the world for you. William Baccarat, the coach, is one of the finest in the country. Why don't you go down now and talk to him?"

"What about school?" Johnny asked, sitting up straight because he was so excited.

"You can go to school just ht same and swim in the afternoons and on Saturdays. If you want to get dressed, I'll take you down to see Baccarat this afternoon."

Johnny raced to the dressing rooms, put on his clothes and went down to the Illinois Athletic Club. When he returned home that evening, excited and happy, he was a member of the club's swimming corps. But the coach would not let him swim with the team during the first year.

"How'd you like to be the world's champion some day, Johnny?" Coach Bachrach asked the boy one afternoon when they had been swimming in the club's pool.

Johnny swallowed a mouthful of water and choked. He had never dared to dream of such glory.

"Fine," he gulped when he was able to speak.

"Well, if you do as I say and really practice, I think you can be. But you'll have to start from the beginning. You must forget everything which you've learned so far and study the real art of swimming. If you're ready to do your share, I'll teach you all I know. How about it?"

"I'm ready," Johnny grinned. They shook hands to seal the agreement.

Then Johnny began real training. He ate only the foods which the coach ordered, nourishing, body-building steaks and roasts and vegetables. He drank milk instead of tea or coffee. Every morning his mother filled a cup with warm milk and added a few drops of forbidden coffee to color it. Then Johnny pretended that he was drinking the coffee which he liked so well. He slept ten hours every night and swam three hours every day after school. On Saturdays he stayed in the pool until the Coach ordered him out of it. He didn't smoke and he worked-out regularly in the gymnasium to keep his body and his muscles in perfect condition.

The Coach completely changed the strokes which Johnny had learned and practiced at the beach and the park pools. Johnny was taught to swim all over again, this time by a man who knew the value of every motion, who instructed the boy in the secrets of wasting neither breath nor energy. At the end of the year Johnny had broken five world's speed records, not publicly, but privately with only his Coach as a witness.

When he was seventeen, the Coach called him into his office one afternoon.

"Well, Johnny, I guess that we're ready to go out and beat the world. You've learned all that I can teach you. Now it's up to you."

So in 1921 Johnny and Coach Bachrach went with the Illinois Athletic Club team to Johnny's first real swimming meet in Duluth, Minnesota. Johnny broke the national one-hundred-yard record and won several other honors for his team. That meet established him as one of the finest young amateur swimmers in the country.

But the coach did not allow him to stop one minute of his training or his practice.

"Remember, Johnny," he said, "You're only beginning. You'll have to work harder than ever to keep what you've won and to earn new honors. It's a tough job to be a champion. But there's no use trying it, unless you're willing to do it right."

Johnny was willing to do it right. He ate, slept, talked, and dreamed nothing except swimming. He finished high school and entered the University of Chicago. During vacations and on week-ends he travelled with the Athletic Club team to various cities to bring back new shining, silver cups for the trophy room. Every day he swam in the pool under the eagle-eyed direction of Coach Bachrach.

His one dream was to go to the Olympic Games in Paris. He trained and practiced more strenuously than ever before. And, finally, one thrilling day, he learned that he had qualified as a member of the American swimming team.

But the University refused to permit him to leave school to go to the Games. Johnny decided that swimming was worth more to him than college, that the Olympic Games were more important than a diploma. So he withdrew from the University and spent all his time preparing for the big event.

His family, the Coach and all of his friends were at the railroad station to say good-by to Johnny and to wish him luck. Just before the train left, carrying him on the first lap of his long journey to Paris and fame. Pete, whispered to Johnny, "Do you remember the day I said you'd never be big enough or strong enough to be a swimmer or a life guard? I sure was wrong, wasn't I?"

Johnny smiled. And he smiled again a few years later, when he was made an honorary Life Guard at Santa Monica Beach in California. Pete was with him when he went through his first lifeguard drill in the waters of the Pacific Ocean.

"I wish Tom could see me now," Johnny grinned as he and Pete walked up the beach toward the bathhouse.

"I suppose the kids will be bringing you candy and apples, the way you used to carry them to Tom," Pete laughed.

But to the boys of Santa Monica, Johnny wasn't Weissmuller, the swimming champion or life guard. He was Tarzan, a living breathing Tarzan. They didn't bring him gifts. They simply stood and stared in open-mouthed admiration of their screen hero. Just as Johnny, himself, once stood and stared at his life guard heroes.

At the Olympic Games in Paris Johnny won two world-championships, in the one-hundred-meter and the four-hundred-meter swims. Then he came back to the Illinois Athletic Club and a round of swimming meets, in all of which he was the winner.

In 1926 Johnny was a real-life hero as well as a champion. One day he was swimming in Lake Michigan training for a marathon race. Pete, in a rowboat, was timing him. When they were a half-mile from shore, a sudden squall came up over the lake. They heard a terrific explosion, followed by terror-filled screams, and turned to see a ferryboat sinking beneath the water. Johnny jumped into the rowboat, grabbed the other pair of oars. He and Pete rowed as rapidly as possible to the scene of the accident. When they arrived, only the rigging of the boat was above the angry water. Eighty-five children and their mothers, picnic-bound, were pinned under the waves in the wrecked boat.

Sick with fear and dread, Johnny and Pete dived again and again into the lake, bringing up small, lifeless bodies and placing them on the decks of rescue boats. Of the thirty women and children whom the brothers lifted from the water, fifteen were brought back to life by pulmotors.

Only once since that tragic day has Johnny been a life-saver. He was swimming with the lifeguards at Santa Monica one afternoon when he saw a small boy struggling in the ocean's surf. The child sank from sight before Johnny could reach him. But Johnny found the small, unconscious body and carried it to shore. When the little boy opened his eyes and saw Johnny bending over him, he gasped one word, "Tarzan." He will probably never forget the day when he was saved by the man who was Tarzan, in spite of the fact that he wore blue trunks and a white swimming shirt instead of Tarzan's leopard skin.

In 1928 Johnny journeyed to Sweden to his second Olympic Games where he made new records, won more honors. Before he returned to his home, he spent two months in Japan, teaching Japanese swimmers the art of the Weissmuller Crawl, the stroke which had gained him fame and glory. Then he toured the United States, giving exhibitions and teaching excited boys the first rules of swimming.


Johnny Weissmuller happened to be in Hollywood when the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer motion picture studios were hunting for a young man who looked like Tarzan. One of the officials saw Johnny swimming in an athletic club pool and persuaded him to go to the studio for a test.

"You're just the boy we're looking for," he told Johnny.

"But I'm a swimmer, not an actor," Johnny answered, "I wouldn't know what to do in front of a camera."

"Try it, anyway," the man insisted, "It won't do any harm to take a screen test. Then you'll find out whether you're an actor or not."

So Johnny, wearing a gray, turtle-necked sweater, went to the studio to meet the director of the picture, W. S. Van Dyke.

"Will you take off your sweater, Weissmuller?" the director asked.

Johnny pulled it over his head and smiled Tarzan's flashing smile. When Van Dyke saw his broad shoulders and the rippling muscles of his arms, he said, "You're Tarzan. Come on. Let's see if you photograph as well as you look."

Johnny, Van Dyke and a cameraman walked out to the park on the studio's back lot where the grass was soft and the trees had low branches. While the camera clicked, Johnny ran and jumped, climbed trees and swung his lithe body from branch to branch. He discovered that he wasn't afraid of the camera, that it was fun to be an actor.

The next day the studio executives looked at the pictures and said almost in one voice, "There's the man we want."

So Johnny Weissmuller gave up swimming for a short time to become a motion picture actor. He covered his body with brown grease paint to give it the dark color of the skin of Tarzan. He let his hair grow long and shaggy because, of course, Tarzan's hair was never cut or combed. His only clothing was a leopard skin, fastened around his slim waist. His feet, toughened by years of swimming, were bare.

The company travelled to a forest near Hollywood where they found thick trees and a lake. There they built African villages and high stockades to hold the wild animals which were used in the pictures. Crocodiles and hippopotami were turned loose in the lake and guarded to prevent their escape. It was so cold in the woods that huge bonfires were built to warm Tarzan, the natives and the Pygmies, who wore no clothes except scanty animal skins. At night they slept in tents heated by oil stoves.

Johnny made friends with the animals. He had no fear of them. He learned to touch the elephants on their heads to tell them to wrap their trunks around him and lift him to their backs. His bare arms and legs were scratched in a thousand little gashes from the tough, rough hides of the huge animals. But Johnny didn't care. He was having fun. Every day he found a new adventure.

The most exciting days were the ones when Johnny swam in the chilly waters of the lake, escaping from the crocodiles and hippopotami which pursued him. When the director asked him if he were afraid, he said, "No. Of course, not. I won't let them catch me." Guards, with loaded guns in their hands, rowed in boats beside him, ready to shoot the animals if they should happen to draw too close to Johnny's flashing bare legs. But the swift Weissmuller Crawl easily outdistanced the animals.

It was Johnny, himself, who invented the Tarzan call, that strange, weird sound which echoed again and again through the jungle. He practiced until the sound engineers told him that he had found just the right tones. He stood in the silence of the woods by the lake and yelled until his voice was hoarse and until the animals crept closer to him to listen.

Johnny and the troupe of apes carried on conversations in a queer language which only they could understand. He called them by name and they answered him. Little Chita, a small monkey with a friendly brown eyes, was his constant companion during all his months in the woods. She ran to him and climbed into his strong arms whenever she was frightened or lonely. She sat contentedly beside him when he ate his meals, waiting for him to give her a bit of bread or fruit.

All the animals seemed to know that Johnny was unafraid, to feel that he belonged to the woods and to the lake and to the trees through which he swung so gracefully. When he walked into their fenced enclosure, they stood still and watched with calm, friendly eyes. On the back of one elephant, a huge gray, wise, old animal, Johnny took long rides along the paths which bordered the lake.

When Johnny left Hollywood to go into the forest, he was no longer Johnny Weissmuller, the world's greatest swimmer. He became Tarzan himself, a strong, fearless, sun-browned man whose home was in the green treetops and in the gleaming waters of the lakes and rivers, whose language was that of the birds and beasts.

Johnny Weissmuller liked being Tarzan. He didn't want to say goodbye to little Chita, the apes, and the elephants. It was fun to dash through the forest, to swing from limb to limb of the trees and to splash in the clear waters of the lake. Because Johnny, like Tarzan, really belongs to the woods and the sparkling waters which he has loved since he was a little, ten-year-old boy, wading in the "Baby Beach" on the shores of Lake Michigan.

Tarzan of the Screen: Big Little Book
For more Weissmuller photos,
career information,
and reference links,
visit our companion sites at:
ERBzine 0394: The Johnny Weissmuller Scrapbook
ERBzine 0393: David "Nkima" Adams' Review of David Fury's
                Johnny Weissmuller: Twice the Hero
ERBzine 0320: Tarzan Was Born In Chicago Pt. I
ERBzine 0321: Tarzan Was Born In Chicago Pt. II
ERBzine 0611: Tarzan the Ape Man II

Weissmuller Family Album

Tarzan's 7 Lives: ERB discusses Tarzan actors 
on the eve of the release of Tarzan and His Mate
ERBzine 0615: 
Credits ~ Posters ~ Trivia ~ Reviews
ERBzine 0616:
BLB Synopsis and Stills I
 ERBzine 0617
The Story of Johnny Weissmuller

Volume 0617

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