Despite his leopard-skin loincloth and taste for raw meat, Tarzan is one of our culture’s most enduring characters. The muscled vine swinger was introduced to the world in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 1912 novel, Tarzan of the Apes. Since then, more than 50 million Tarzan books have been sold worldwide, and to this day the silver screen is never without him for long: 2013 saw the release of an animated Tarzan film, and there’s a new live-action version slated for 2016, starring Swedish actor Alexander Skarsgård.
Yet few people know that the king of the jungle grew up in a quiet suburb of Los Angeles.
Tarzana is a pleasant little town in the San Fernando Valley, about 40 kilometres from downtown L.A. In the early 20th century, it was primarily a farming and cattle ranching area, 550 acres of which belonged to General Harrison Gray Otis, the first publisher of the Los Angeles Times.
The town’s modern history, however, began in 1919, when Burroughs bought those acres from Otis, and began building his home and writing quarters, which he named Tarzana Ranch in honor of his creation. In 1922, the author started subdividing the remaining land into plots for sale, promoting the “Tarzana Tract” as “the pride of the beautiful San Fernando Valley,” with everything to make an “ideal home life: High elevation, water, gas, electricity, paved streets …”
By 1928, the town had enough residents to vote on a name for the community. Taking a cue from its most famous export, they settled on Tarzana.
Today, Tarzana is worth a look if you’re in need of respite from L.A.’s glitzier neighbourhoods. Nestled along Ventura Boulevard, just west of Encino, it’s a short drive to Topanga Canyon State Park, which extends south to the Pacific Coast Highway and the beach communities of Malibu and Santa Monica. On Tarzana’s main strip, fans of the Coen Brothers’ movie The Big Lebowski can grab an In-N-Out Burger (technically in adjacent Woodland Hills) and head over to the Corbin Bowl to throw a few rocks. Star-gazers might haunt local spots such as The Little Café or Sol y Luna, in hopes of glimpsing famous denizens like Iggy Azalea, Selena Gomez, filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson or the model Fabio (who’s appeared as Tarzan on six book covers). You can cruise by the old Can-Am Recorders building on Oxnard Street, where Guns N’ Roses recorded part of Appetite for Destruction, and which for a time in the mid-1990s was the home of Death Row Records.
The best way to spend an afternoon in Tarzana, though, is visit the Tarzana Community and Cultural Centre, a small Spanish-style building on a piece of unlikely parkland at the southeast corner of Ventura and Vanalden avenues.
The centre is home to the Tarzan Museum, a modest but fascinating collection of memorabilia related to the town’s namesake. Here, you can find old Tarzan action figures, board games, VHS tapes, publicity stills and dozens of editions of Burroughs’ many Tarzan books. (Tarzan the Magnificent! Tarzan Triumphant! Tarzan and the Ant Men!) There’s even a framed $75 cheque that Burroughs wrote to establish the Tarzana Post Office.
Kevin Taylor, executive director of the centre, says it’s a common misconception that Burroughs actually lived in the house where the museum is located. (The author’s hacienda was further south, in the hills of what’s now Tarzana’s most affluent residential area.) With tongue in cheek, Taylor also points out that Tarzan himself never swung from the branches of the centre’s tall pines. People in town have fun with its history, though: While I’m visiting, a member of the local business association pops in, her cellphone playing a jungle-ready bongo ring tone.
In fact, this humble monument to the mighty ape lord only exists thanks to the efforts of Tarzana residents. For much of the 1980s, the land on which the centre stands was a commercial statuary. In the early ’90s, it was sold to developers who planned to build a huge storage facility on site. That didn’t sit well with locals, who thought it wouldn’t fit with the town’s character. A sizable charitable donation allowed for the establishment of a foundation, which in turn raised enough money to buy the property and set up the Tarzana Community and Cultural Centre.
Today, it’s a not-for-profit venture that hosts community events, art shows and garden tours. One of the latest projects is cultivating a garden of native plants, as a symbolic way to join efforts to conserve water in the drought-stricken state.
You have to assume that Tarzan — who, after all, was a defender of nature long before it was de rigueur — would be proud.