Tarzan is a septuagenarian now, but the fictional, loincloth-clad hero is still doing his vine-swinging act in books, movies, TV shows and comic strips.
His image is used to sell T-shirts, vitamins and even “chest wigs.” The character is popular worldwide, particularly in Japan, where a fitness magazine is named after him.
Every time the Tarzan name or image is used, royalties are collected by Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc.--the corporation founded by the late author in 1923 that owns the Tarzan trademark and the licensing rights to all of Burroughs’ published works.
Burroughs Inc. is based in Tarzana, the community that was named after the lord of the apes in 1930. The company is owned by the writer’s descendants and is still run out of the small, bungalow-style offices that the author built on Ventura Boulevard in 1926.
Burroughs left his heirs quite a legacy. The prolific writer had 69 novels published from 1912 to shortly before his death in 1950. He also wrote short stories, comic books and comic strips.
Burroughs’ Tarzan stories have inspired about 50 motion pictures, from a 1918 silent movie to the famous Johnny Weissmuller films of the 1930s and 1940s, to the 1984 Warner Bros. movie “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes.” There was also a 1960s television show and an animated children’s program in the 1970s.
Tarzan “was what all of us red-blooded Americans wanted to be,” said Danton Burroughs, 45, grandson of the author and a director of Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc.
Last year, a TV movie, “Tarzan in Manhattan,” ran on CBS. Stanley Canter, who produced the 1984 “Greystoke” movie, is working on another Tarzan flick. And a TV series featuring a modern-day Tarzan and Jane is being developed by American First Run Studios in Sherman Oaks.
Tarzan wasn’t the only creation of Burroughs’ fertile mind. He also wrote the popular John Carter of Mars novels--one of which is the source for a movie in development at Disney--the Pellucidar series, which centered around a fictional world at the Earth’s core, and scores of other adventure yarns. His works have been published in 35 languages and in Braille.
All this is good news to Burroughs Inc., which negotiates royalty payments with the makers of these shows. And the company has benefited from sales of products such as Tarzan cookies, candy, posters, dolls, sleep wear and video games.
That his family keeps the cash rolling in from such projects is due to the foresight of Burroughs, who was the first American author to have incorporated. All his works are property of the corporation.
“My grandfather was always smart, taking care of trademarks and copyrights and going after infringers,” said Danton Burroughs, who runs the business with his aunt Marion Burroughs, the chief executive officer. But attorney Sandra Galfas, Burroughs Inc.'s president, wouldn’t disclose the company’s earnings or revenues.
Don Mastrangelo, an independent agent based in Manhattan Beach who handles the merchandising and licensing of Tarzan in the United States, said a contract with a consumer products company might call for Burroughs to receive 7% to 15% of the product sales. Also, he said, the Burroughs corporation wields veto power over how the character will be used.
One company, for instance, wanted to make a plastic Tarzan figurine, said Mastrangelo. “He was squatty, the arms were out of proportion and the face was wrong,” he said. “So we just walked away.”
Last year a company approached Mastrangelo with an idea to market $700 denim jackets adorned with Tarzan artwork. Mastrangelo struck a “very favorable deal,” but said when he found out that proceeds from the jackets would fund an offbeat religious sect, he killed the deal.
But Mastrangelo is excited about a planned Tarzan talking alarm clock that will wake its owners with the “victory cry of the bull ape"--the famous Tarzan yell. “It will be well done and with class,” he said.
Burroughs Inc. has only five full-time staffers, but it employs part-time agents all over the world who look for trademark infringers. In 1980 the company sued Metro Goldwyn Mayer and United Artists in federal court in New York to try to stop the R-rated remake of “Tarzan, the Ape Man,” with Bo Derek. Burroughs tried to negate its contract with the studios because it said the film didn’t portray the proper Tarzan image. The court would not halt distribution of the movie, but some of the nudity was shaved from the film and MGM was barred from further Tarzan remakes.
Burroughs has taken on smaller targets too. When the tiny town of Morgan City, La., where the first Tarzan movie was filmed, wanted to hold a Tarzan festival in 1987, Burroughs Inc. demanded a $5,000 fee and restrictions on the merchandise sold. The town, suffering through a depressed local economy, couldn’t cough up the money and the festival was canceled.
Some Tarzan fans say that the company goes overboard in asserting its rights. “I think it’s better to keep the Tarzan image in front of the public and maybe take less money,” said George McWhorter, curator of the Burroughs Memorial Collection at the University of Louisville and president of the Burroughs Bibliophiles, a fan group.
Bill Ross of Oxon Hill, Md., who publishes the ERB Collector, a newsletter circulated to collectors of Burroughs’ books and memorabilia, is worried that interest in Burroughs is waning because, he contended, the Burroughs corporation turns down too many opportunities to promote Tarzan to kids.
But Galfas said interest in Tarzan and other Burroughs characters is cyclic. Not only are new movies and TV shows on the way, she said, but she is negotiating to bring back the long-dormant Tarzan comic book program. Meanwhile, Ballantine, a division of Random House, has begun reprinting 35 Burroughs titles.
Danton Burroughs said he also has high hopes for a motion picture in development at Disney that will be based on his grandfather’s first adventure novel, “Princess of Mars.” Variety reported that Disney hoped to land Mel Gibson, Tom Selleck or Kevin Costner for the lead. Disney, however, wouldn’t confirm or deny that the project is in the works.
“Princess of Mars,” is a John Carter tale, in which he is transported to Mars where he swashbuckles his way around all kinds of extraterrestrials and finds love with a Martian princess. If the film is a hit, Burroughs believes there will be renewed interest in the books and merchandise based on the “Mars” characters. “It’s like having a second property to Tarzan,” he said.
That could be very lucrative for Burroughs Inc. With the recent success of the “Batman” film, for example, Warner Bros. could get $25 million from product sales based on the character, said Roger Richman of Beverly Hills, who handles the licensing of 50 personalities, including Marilyn Monroe and W.C. Fields.
Edgar Rice Burroughs was born in Chicago in 1875 and graduated from the Michigan Military Academy in 1895. He joined the U.S. Cavalry, which sent him to “chase the Apaches,” he said. After his discharge, he drifted from one failed business venture to another, including shop keeping, gold mining and accounting. In 1911, at the age of 35 he wrote “Under the Moons of Mars,” which later became “Princess of Mars,” and sold it to All-Story magazine for $400. “Tarzan of the Apes,” published by the magazine in 1912, was a huge success.
In 1919, the writer moved to California, purchased the 550-acre estate of Gen. Harrison Gray Otis and renamed it “Tarzana Ranch.” The ranch has long since been subdivided and sold, and some of the original land is now the site of the Braemar Country Club. All that is left of the original Burroughs land holdings is the Ventura Boulevard office. As he requested, Burroughs’ ashes were buried under a walnut tree in front of the office.
Marion Burroughs and her husband Hulbert, 80, the author’s oldest son and the only one of his three children still alive, live in Encino.
Danton Burroughs, who has worked in the family business since 1972, is the only family member still living in Tarzana and he hopes one of his young daughters might one day run the corporation. “It’s a family responsibility,” he said.