Tarzan in Los Angeles: The Legacy of Edgar Rice Burroughs

by David Silon

When considering which author I should investigate, I figured the best place to start is right in my own backyard. But since my apartment does not have a backyard, I would have to use someone else’s backyard. So this brings me to the town of Tarzana in the San Fernando Valley just north of Los Angeles. What makes this place so unique among all other places on this planet, is that Tarzana is the only place named after a literary character deemed so by the author himself.

The author, of course, was Edgar Rice Burroughs, born in 1875 in Chicago, the son of a businessman. In 1919, he purchased, for the handsome sum of $125,000, 540 acres of land in the Valley at the northern edge of the Santa Monica Mountains from the estate of General Harrison Gray Otis, former editor of the Los Angeles Times, who had died two years earlier. The quiet and seclusion of the area were two of the main factors that drew Burroughs to this place. It was also only a short drive from the glamour of Hollywood. On the former Otis land, Burroughs built a large ranch house and named it after his creation that brought him so much success – “Tarzana Ranch” – located on one of the first hills that form the northern edge of the Santa Monica Mountain range. It was behind this house, that the 1929 film Rio Rita, starring John Boles, was shot. The landscaping, represented by trees of all types, which one can still see today, was the work of General Otis who had imported many rare species from various parts of the world.

This beautiful ranch home was the culmination of years of struggle and drifting. Back in 1911, after seven years of low wages, he was working as a pencil sharpener salesman in Chicago. In his spare time, he began reading pulp magazines during which, he was reported to have said:

If people were paid for writing rot such as I read in some of those magazines [then] I could write stories just as rotten. As a matter of fact, although I had never written a story, I knew absolutely that I could write stories just as entertaining and probably a whole lot more so than any I chanced to read in those magazines.

Then he began to write, focusing primarily on the pulp market. His first story “Under the Moons of Mars” was serialized in All-Story magazine in 1912 and earned him $400 (today’s rough equivalent of $7600).

Burroughs soon took up writing full-time, mainly in the science fiction/fantasy genre, and by the time the run of his “Moons of Mars” serial had finished he had completed two novels, one of which was Tarzan of the Apes which was published later that year, the first in his Tarzan series. As it turned out, Tarzan became a cultural sensation and he was determined to capitalize on its popularity in every way possible, mainly through Tarzan comic strips and merchandise. Experts warned against this, noting that these different venues would just end up competing against each other. Burroughs went ahead, anyway, and proved them wrong. His Tarzan character remains one of the most successful fictional characters to this day. Several more stories were written, besides the Tarzan stories, before he began his flirtation with Hollywood– “The Gods of Mars,” “At the Earth’s Core,” ” The Lost Continent,” “Sweetheart Primeval,”  “The Girl From Fariss,” ” The Oakdale Affair,” and “The Land That Time Forgot.”

His connection with Hollywood began back in 1917 when the Selig Polyscope Co. produced one of his earliest novels The Lad and the Lion. By 1918, Hollywood began to take an interest in his Tarzan serials and that year, Tarzan of the Apes was produced by the National Film Corporation of America. It opened on Broadway and was a huge success, becoming one of the first Hollywood movies ever to gross over $1 million. Apes was followed later in the year by The Romance of Tarzan.

Because of the success of these two films, Hollywood planned to produce more of his Tarzan stories. Subsequently, he and his family moved out to California and purchased the ranch that became the Tarzana Ranch. In 1923, Burroughs subdivided a portion of his land for homes and this subdivision became known as the Tarzana Tract growing into the town of Tarzana in 1928 when it was incorporated.

In 1923 the author set up his own company, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc., and began printing his own books which he continued to do throughout the 1930s. He and his family lived in the ranch house where he wrote, until about 1925 when the El Caballero Country Club was developed adjacent to the ranch property and, by agreement, the ranch house then became the clubhouse. (Burroughs would, eventually, build another house on nearby Mecca Ave.) On the newly-developed golf course, the Burroughs family would often play rounds of golf with their friends, and in 1927, the Los Angeles Open Golf Tournament was held there.

The next decade proved to be a difficult time for Burroughs. During the Depression years, the club went broke and he had to assume the mortgage, operating the club property as a public course, renamed Tarzana Golf Course, to help in the payments. However, he was unable to pay off the mortgage and ended up losing this property to the bank. During this time, he often fought the illegal poachers and hunters who often invaded his former homesite. By 1934, he found himself divorced. In 1936, he put his former homesite up for sale.

Burroughs was living in Hawaii when the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred, and subsequently enlisted as a war correspondent, becoming the oldest war correspondent for the US during WWII. After the war, he moved back to California and bought a house in Encino, just down the road from Tarzana Ranch where he died of a heart attack at the age of 74. During his lifetime, he had written almost 70 novels.

Tarzana Ranch still exists today. The surrounding town of Tarzana has become a chic town which forms a row of other chic towns along Ventura Blvd. that could possibly be compared to Beverly Hills. But Tarzana stands out from the rest as, chic, with a hometown feel to it, even though, the part of the town south of Ventura, is the abode of the super-rich, with estates as big as Monaco, not unlike the Ranch itself. The neighborhing houses are built in either Spanish, California tract, Midwestern, or European styles. After World War II, the El Caballero has been revived and is now situated in approximately the same place as originally. As for Tarzana Ranch itself, the property that cost $125,000 in 1919, is worth much more today. In 2004, it was sold for $3.5 million. As of this writing, the ranch is, once again on the market selling for $8 million.

I tried my best to pay a visit to the ranch house to get a feel of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ life during his time there. Since I did not think anyone was living there at the time, I considered calling the real estate office to ask for a tour. But then again, since their whole purpose was to sell the ranch house, I did not think they would be too happy just to show this writer the property. So with my pen and notepad in hand, I walked along the edge of the estate, trying to find out where in the world the entrance was. But the challenge was, how to do that in a residential area without the residents or police becoming suspicious of me. It just so happened, no one really cared so I just went about the business at hand.

I finally found the entrance around the corner on Mecca Ave. But at the corner of the block, outside of the ranch property, a new mansion was being constructed. In addition, the driveway leading up to the ranch house was being paved, and the entire area was cordoned off. In the distance, on a tree, was a big sign that read “Security Dog on Property.” Of course, I saw no dog. Therefore, I proceeded up the driveway. Then I saw the dog and he did not look too friendly. So I decided to change my mind and not go up the driveway after all thus keeping a respectable distance between me and the ranch house and most of all, the dog. But even from this distance, I could see a little bit of the house – a huge 2-story, built in the Spanish style, and its coloring was a light beige. It was most unfortunate that I could not go inside of the building, but perhaps, if there is a future sequel and if circumstances permit. . .

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