American Times: Tarzana learns it's a jungle out there

Tarzana, California
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The Independent Online
THE DISNEY animated version of Tarzan is at the top of the American box office charts, but you would hardly know it in the small town of Tarzana, California.

As the name strongly suggests, this modest community on the western edge of the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles is where the Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote many of his books. So successful were the original Tarzan novels that they inspired Burroughs to rename his home Tarzana Ranch and, in due course, prompted the town to take the same name. But that is where all local identification with the jungle hero stops.

There are no Johnny Weissmuller look-alike statues, much less any memorials to Edgar Rice Burroughs himself. And now that the Disney movie is out, there is not so much as a banner proclaiming Tarzana to be the film's spiritual home. Even the local multiplex is spurning the opportunity to cash in, advertising the film with no more fanfare than its sister cinemas in Hollywood or Westwood or Peoria, Illinois.

There is a simple, if ugly truth behind this reluctance to jump on the great American marketing bandwagon: Tarzana has never been much fond of old Tarzan, and the feeling is mutual. This was a town conceived by hard-nosed speculators, one that remains far more attached to the niceties of property values and middle-class living than to the romance of a connection to the literary jungle.

Tarzana - or Runnymede, as it was originally called - was part of the great land scam on which modern Los Angeles is based. The proprietor of the Los Angeles Times, General Harrison Gray Otis, bought it on the cheap when it was still pristine farmland, in the second decade of the century, then sold it at a massive profit after the city fathers had stolen enough water from central California to develop it as a residential suburb. It was General Otis's ranch that Burroughs bought in the early Twenties as he moved west from his native Chicago. He too had a sharp business sense, making sure his literary creations were not just copyrighted but trademarked too, so that they would belong to his estate in perpetuity.

Whether through jealousy or personal friction, the townsfolk never paid Burroughs another compliment after renaming their community in his honour in 1930. The public library banned his books, with the excuse that Tarzan and Jane indulged in immoral premarital acts in the jungle. As late as the Sixties, the local council refused to countenance a Tarzan museum.

Because of the trademark, Tarzana has been essentially powerless to exploit the jungle theme without either having to pay large royalties to the Burroughs estate or risk being sued. The town hasnothing except a lame little display in the post office.

While Burroughs' grandson, Danton Burroughs, still lives in town, selling the rights to Tarzan products around the world, he has never made a dime from his community. Tarzana is a drab patchwork of box-style architecture - as far from Lord Greystoke's jungle as is imaginable.

There are people who want to change all that. The Chamber of Commerce has ex-pressed interest in plugging the connection more effectively. But the arrival of the Disney film has added complications, since the Tarzan name has been taken over - for the duration of the animated feature's life, at least - by a mouse with very big ears.

Anyone rash enough to sport a Tarzan bumper sticker risks being sued at least once. Only McDonald's sports Tarzan posters, and that is because of a deal made at national, not local, level.

The only business brave enough to make the connection is Greystoke Furniture on Ventura Boulevard. "You have to embrace the kitschiness," says the manager, Lorenda Starfelt. "I'd like to have vines hanging above the entrance way and Tarzan yells echoing down the street."

Except, this being Tarzana, she isn't allowed to.

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