A Chimp Off the Old Block in Many a Tarzan Movie

Times Staff Writer

What can I tell ya, kid. Here today, Newbury Park tomorrow. From banana splits at the Brown Derby to week-old doughnuts out of a rusty bucket. They stop knowing who you are the moment they forget what you used to be. That, kid, is the Hollywood Rule.

Especially for animal actors.

Even Chetta. Aka Cheeta. Or Cheetah.

Whose movie career really has faded to Newbury Park and one beer (generic, from Ralphs) a day while approaching (or departing) his 50th birthday without even the hint of a guest spot on "Love Boat." All of which is a far cry, more of a jungle yell, actually, from those swinging '30s and '40s when This Chetta appeared alongside The Real Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller), The One and Only Jane (Maureen O'Sullivan) and The Original Boy (John Sheffield) and moviegoers whispered a common mystery:

In the absence of staples and starch, how come Tarzan's loincloth and modesty always remained on center? "I dunno. Chetta never had that problem." That's Tony Gentry talking. He's 78 and has trained more chimpanzees than Lassie had pups. On an industry level at least, Chetta has done more for Tony Gentry than Bonzo did for Ronald Reagan.

"How much money did he make for me? I dunno. A million? I dunno. Lots and lots, I guess. What do you say, Chetta? How much money have you made your dad?"

Chetta answers. Unblinking, 160 pounds of irritable bulk beneath sisal whiskers, he pinches Gentry's nose between two forefingers and ebony nails. He nibbles at a nostril. Very, very daintily. It's almost an adoring gentleness.

Gentry speaks his affection: "We traveled a lot of roads together and y'know, out of about 50 chimps I trained to perform in the movies, there have been only three, mebbe four that were really special."

He ticks them off. There was Jiggs, who became the first Chetta, serving several Tarzan masters (Herman Brix, Johnny Weissmuller and Buster Crabbe) and one mistress--Dorothy Lamour, l'amour of the forgettable "Jungle Princess" (1936) and "Her Jungle Love" (1938). Both roles had a profound effect on Jiggs-Chetta. He died and is buried in the Hollywood Pet Cemetery.

Records Skimpy

There was Jiggs II. More Tarzans, more movies. When Gentry went to World War II, Jiggs II went to the Baltimore Zoo. It was an unpublicized move, Gentry says. Jiggs could have died there or been resold. Records of the '30s are a little skimpy, said a zoo spokesman. No mention of a Jiggs. "But you're telling me that we actually had Chetta here?" asked Colleen Hughes. "Wow."

There was no time for favorites in the '50s when Gentry bought, sold and trained guinea chimps by the hundreds for NASA and experiments with expendable travelers before sending a human mammal to the moon. Gentry, however, remembers two talented, button-pushing pioneers among all those students . . . Ham and Enos, rocketed aloft in Mercury capsules and recovered from space in 1961.

And all this time--just before Jiggs I had shuffled off this mortal coil and long before Jiggs II had shuffled off to Baltimore--there was Chetta.

"That's what we called him, not Jiggs III," Gentry says. "Chetta, you see, is a trade name in the Tarzan pictures. We called him Chetta because we knew he would be in the Tarzan movies.

"I bought him from a dealer when they closed down the old Santa Monica Pier. Lemme see, when was that? Late '30s sometime. Mebbe 1938. Anyway, he was about 2 or 3 years old then . . . so this Chetta did one (movie) with Weissmuller and two with Lex Barker. Or was it two with Weissmuller and one with Barker? Which ones? I dunno . . . but it's been a long time."

Gentry knocks his head with his knuckles. It's his way of shaking the memories straight. He raps his head a lot. He has trouble, understandably, deciding which Chetta (among his and several others) appeared with what Lord of the Apes (more than 20) and in which movie (something like three dozen, plus four serials and Ron Ely's television series) in the 67-year history of Tarzan's Hollywood Adventures.

A Hope for Walk of Fame

That wobbling memory, Gentry admits, wasn't helped by two recent heart attacks. He's also in daily pain from arthritis, needs pills to sleep, but hurts much more from last year's loss of Margaret, his wife of 50 years.

Still, he's absolutely clear concerning the present.

Gentry wants something for Chetta and for himself.

He thinks they should share a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame. "We're both old and tired now," Gentry says. "We just want to be recognized and remembered."

The precedent for honoring animal actors certainly has been set. Cast in stone, as it were. Rin Tin Tin and Lassie have been awarded stars. If one chooses to stretch the issue, so has Mickey Mouse.

And Chetta and Gentry, as they say in the trade, certainly have the bios.

On the Tarzan 'A-Team'

Chetta, no matter several dozen stand-ins, stunt chimps and television impersonators, remains the oldest survivor of the role. He was certainly on MGM's vintage, best-remembered A-Team of Weissmuller (who died in Acapulco last year), O'Sullivan (she is 74, retired from Tarzan movies in 1934 and went on to become Mia Farrow's mother) and Sheffield (now a 54-year-old home remodeling contractor in Chula Vista).

Gentry could ace any examination of his industry contribution. He's been involved with performing animals as public entertainment since he was a 16-year-old who ran away from Putnam County, Tenn., to join the circus. He worked for Frank (Bring 'Em Back Alive) Buck for a decade. Gentry's first film work was alongside Fatty Arbuckle, and his last job was supplying and handling animals for "Dr. Doolittle."

Yet there's more to this sidewalk-star-selection thing than credentials.

No Money, No Honor

Although the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce considers all nominations of entertainers of note (150 were suggested last year, only 15 were selected , and Benji and Donald Duck were among the rejected), all honorees, or their sponsors, must pay for their immortality by coughing up $3,000 to cover the cost of a terrazo and brass star, its installation and the ceremony.

Gentry doesn't have $3,000. There's no Chetta Fan Club that might sponsor a nomination. The top bananas at Chiquita and Del Monte, a movie publicist claims, haven't been interested in promoting anything Hollywood since Carmen Miranda stopped wearing hats.

And it might be tough to dun Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc. of Tarzana for a subsidy. The guardians of the late author's estate know the truth. Chetta the chimp was strictly a screenwriter's creation. In Burroughs' original books, Tarzan's faithful furry friend was a spider monkey called Nkima.

Transient Polar Bears

So while absolutely nothing happens, Gentry and Chetta live out their twilight in a somewhat scruffy farm on a small parcel of land south of the Ventura Freeway near Thousand Oaks.

A couple of good-looking horses share the place. So do chickens and roosters, a fat sheep, a Panamanian parrot called Pancho and a 14-year-old French poodle. Toodles. Plus transient polar bears, the occasional caged leftover from a disbanded circus act and trailers of any old buddies in search of a parking spot within legal zoning for a few days.

Chetta spends time out back in an old trailer that was once his mobile dressing room. He snoozes a lot, munches four squares a day and eats and drinks like people. On hot days he's allowed one cold beer. On cold nights he's tucked in with a shot of brandy.

Gentry lists the day's breakfast and turns it into a conversation with Chetta. "You had your breakfast, didn't you. You had eggs, you had sausage, you had toast, you had coffee. What do you want then? Lunch?"

Aping Al Jolson

Gentry laughs. Durned if Chetta doesn't start chortling.

"Stop that funny face," Gentry chides. That, of course, is to encourage Chetta, who grins until his upper lip is turned back over his nose. "You know, we used to have this thing where Chetta would make a face like Al Jolson. Do an Al Jolson then." Chetta obliges. Up curls the lip. "Hey, that's my baby. Now, what do you think with?" Chetta taps his skull. "That's my boy, my big ol' boy."

Chetta is on a roll. So is Gentry. Why not? The ham in them senses something. Me Chetta. You audience.

"Stand on your head and clap your feet." Chetta produces applause from the sole. Anything for art. "Chetta, over backwards." Chetta somersaults. It's Mary Lou Retton with a beard. "Now jump up and down, Chetta. Call Tarzan. Where's Tarzan?" Chetta examines the dirt like a guy who has dropped a quarter. Why call when nobody comes? Gentry explains. "He says: 'I'm too old to jump up and down like that, Dad.' "

Definitely a House Chimp

Chetta is a house chimp. He watches television and his addiction, no kidding, is KCET's animal programs. He has a bed alongside Gentry's and is toilet trained. He eats meals off a plate and with a fork. Gentry keeps the apricot brandy hidden and corked.

Discipline is easy. Gentry simply tells Chetta to stop behaving like a monkey. Chetta reacts to that like a bop in the snoot.

Yet it's a sad house crammed with the keepings from long-gone yesterdays. Mostly framed photographs. Chetta with Weissmuller. Jiggs with Weissmuller. Gentry with Weissmuller and Lamour and Esther Williams and Arbuckle. And cobwebs and clutter everywhere.

Plates and plaques. Best Performer trophies engraved for "Captain Tony" and "Lady Margaret" for appearances at the Moulin Rouge on Sunset Boulevard and on Rue Pigalle. Also a collection of animal carvings that were Gentry's gifts from stars and film makers.

Gift From Esther Williams

"Esther Williams gave me this, and that one was from 'Elephant Walk' . . . it's solid mahogany, you know . . . this one was for 'The Good Earth' and that carved stag, oh, it's . . . dear me, it's getting so I can't think much anymore." Gentry raps his head. "That's it, 'The Yearling.' "

Gentry likes talking about the past. But sometimes it stirs too much. Then he realizes it will never be again. Then he cries. That's when he turns to Chetta. They are more than company. They almost are father and son.

"The old man and I are both retired," he says, "but we're having fun. And you know, he's got a personality that won't quit. He makes me laugh when Don Knotts can't make me laugh."

As chimpanzees follow human life spans it is very likely that Chetta will outlive Gentry. What then?

"A zoo? Universal Studios? I'm afraid of those things," Gentry says. "What if they got tired of him and sent him out for medical experiments. No sir. Not my Chetta."

Provisions in Will

Therefore, there are firm provisions in Gentry's will. One is that on the trainer's death, Chetta will be put to sleep and buried close to Jiggs in the Hollywood Pet Cemetery. Or, if the school agrees to provide full care, the big chimp will be donated to Moorpark College as the center of its developing animal care program.

But enough of this morbid stuff. Gentry and Chetta aren't that lonely. They have time together and each other.

Each Sunday, man takes ape for a drive. Chetta likes to wave at kids in the other cars. If they only knew.

Then there's the special outing.

"We go over to Lake Sherwood and play around the trees and Chetta remembers." He remembers that many Tarzan movies were filmed there. "He seems to be saying: 'Hey, Weissmuller and I were here. I know this place.'

"And he'll be off, swinging through the trees and remembering the good old days."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World