Tarzan of the Air
opening chapter was written in 1976 as part of a proposal for Tarzan
of the Air, a book about the Tarzan radio shows [see “Tarzan
on (and off) Radio”].
The evening of Saturday, September 10, 1932, was one of those special
times that come all too seldom in childhood. The event had been announced
over the radio and in the newspapers; for more than a week now, Tarzan,
locked in mortal combat with a leopard, had adorned the pumps of every
Signal Gasoline station in California. The fidgety anticipation, the endless
waiting were almost over. Tarzan was about to take to the airwaves.
Two days later the American Radio Feature Syndicate serial would go into
national release; tonight Hollywood welcomed the Lord of the Jungle in
its own style. KNX-Hollywood broadcast the entire three hour extravaganza
as thousands jammed the Fox Pantages Theatre to attend the World Premiere
Radio Show—what may well have been the first radio premiere ever held.
Freeman Lang, who had served as Master of Ceremonies for so many early
Hollywood premieres, introduced over his microphone the arriving celebrities
of stage, screen, and radio.
Inside, as the show began, Eddie Lamber, star comedian and producer of
the Nine o’Clock Revue, acted as Master of Ceremonies, introducing
the KNX Rangers, singer Mary Rossetti, and Cliff Arquette, better known
in later years as “Charlie Weaver,” who performed his “Aunt Hat” routine.
At home thousands of children grew restless as the long list of entertainers
continued. By now their parents probably would have joined them, laughing
with Cliff Arquette and waiting for Tarzan to begin.
Finally Edgar Rice Burroughs, the author of the Tarzan stories, came to
the microphone. He explained that Tarzan of the Apes was a pre-recorded
production, that tonight’s episode would be played over the theater loudspeakers
at the same time that it was being broadcast to the home audience. Then
he introduced members of the production cast.
The role of Tarzan had been assigned to handsome, thirty-two-year-old James
H. Pierce, a former All-American football player from the University of
Indiana. Six years earlier, as the result of a chance meeting at an El
Caballero Country Club swimming party, Burroughs had personally selected
Pierce to portray the apeman on the screen. Burroughs is reported to have
exclaimed, “There’s Tarzan!” upon sight of the six-foot-four, one-hundred-ninety-pound
A screen test followed, and Pierce, who had previously starred as frontier
hero Natty Bumppo in a 1923 version of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer,
easily convinced studio executives that he could handle the part. The Joseph
P. Kennedy production of Tarzan and the Golden Lion began filming
a few months later, and Pierce became the fourth actor to portray the Lord
of the Jungle on the silver screen.
Pierce had attended the 1926 swimming party as the blind date of Burroughs’
only daughter Joan (pronounced Jo-ann), and the two continued seeing each
other over the next two years, finally marrying August 8, 1928. Joan herself
was an actress, and in 1932, at the tender age of twenty-four, could boast
of ten years experience in dramatic stock, road shows, and light opera.
She was the obvious choice to portray Jane Porter, the woman Tarzan would
At last the lights dimmed. Jungle music set the mental stage, and then
the voice of Frederick Shields, the narrator, began:
Tarzan of the Apes, a character of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ famous book,
in reality is the son of a titled English couple, Lord and Lady Greystoke,
who were put ashore by a mutinous crew in the jungle of West Africa. The
marooned couple were left with tools and firearms and Tarzan’s mother and
father built the little hut in which Tarzan is born a year afterward.
With only a few words the imagination has been captured.
It is the night of their little son’s first birthday. Lord and Lady
Greystoke are sitting in their rude but strongly built home. Around them
lies the jungle—dark, mysterious, teaming with great, sinister shapes.
. . .
A lion roars nearby; from farther away comes the laughing cry of the hyena.
“What’s that, John?” Lady Greystoke asks, startled by a new sound from
just outside the hut.
“I heard it too. . . . Oh, it’s only the wind in the trees, dear,” her
husband answers. The voices of London actress Eily Maylon and British-born
Frederick Harrington are perfectly accented for the roles.
“Nothing short of a herd of elephants could force its way in here,” Lord
Greystoke reassures his wife. “I confess a bit of pride. This place is
built like a vault.”
“Oh, John, I know we’re safe enough, but—but sometimes I don’t think I
can stand it a moment longer. It’s—it’s the nights—they’re dreadful.” From
the distance come other jungle cries. “There—there, that’s what I mean—all
night long the jungle seems to threaten us. . . .”
Her words are prophetic. Within moments a lion is at the door of the hut,
clawing furiously in its attempt to break in, throwing its quarter-ton
bulk against the wood.
Lady Greystoke shrieks.
“There, there dear,” her husband tells her, “he can’t get through. Sit
tight. I’ll pop the beggar through the lattice.”
“John, he’ll smash the door down—I know he will! Don’t get your face too
close to the lattice. He may strike through. Shoot him, John—shoot him!”
“Hold steady. Soon you’ll have a lion skin to wrap the baby in. Lord he
must be hungry to come up this way.”
“Hurry, John—hurry! Every time he claws the door it gives terribly!”
The lines are almost screamed over the ear-splitting roar of the lion and
the rending and groaning of the door.
“Stand away from my arm,” Lord Greystoke tells his wife as he aims his
rifle through narrow opening. He fires twice, killing the beast.
Less than three and a half minutes into the first episode, the new serial
has already demonstrated the kind of action and excitement it will provide
for the American public.
Tarzan offered escape, and in 1932 millions of people found themselves
seeking just that kind of escape from the grim realities of everyday life.
The Great Depression was settling in upon the country; within a year unemployment
would reach twenty-five percent.
Entertainment—cheap entertainment— became a necessity, and radio was beginning
to provide it. Rudy Vallee, “King of the Crooners,” hosted The Fleischman’s
Ed Wynn could be heard as Texaco’s “Fire Chief.” In 1932 the Jack Benny
program, Showboat, and The Linit Show with Fred Allen all
made their debuts. It is hardly surprising that social workers of the period
reported that many families would sooner part with their iceboxes than
And yet only a few years earlier radio had been little more than a gadget,
a primitive toy. Each new set came equipped with a battery guaranteed to
leak all over the living room rug, a bewildering assortment of knobs and
dials, a set of earphones or a goose-necked horn to serve as a loudspeaker,
and an antenna that consisted of twenty or thirty feet of wire to be strung
between the house and a nearby tree; there were also instructions telling
the proud new owner how to ground the antenna so that a lightning stroke
would not destroy the radio and burn the house to the ground.
Radio must have seemed like an echo from Bedlam. All commercial stations
broadcast on the same wavelength (later two wavelengths), and neighboring
stations entered into gentlemen’s agreements to divide up the available
airtime. When gentlemen’s agreements failed, they tried to overpower one
another on the air. Broadcasting regulations were nearly non-existent.
Sometimes one station would break in on another’s broadcast, spiel off
a commercial message, then immediately relinquish the channel. Listeners
could often pick up two, three, or even more nearby stations at the same
time, and static was an accepted fact of life.
Announced schedules were seldom adhered to. Many stations simply stopped
broadcasting when it was time for the staff to eat, and it was not unusual
for a station to be shut down half the day for repairs. Most of the program
time was filled with recorded music, and in between the announcer might
read news and weather information from the newspaper. Scripts were a rarity;
even commercials were usually ad libbed. Live concerts, sports events,
and on-the-spot news coverage were—except for the largest stations—exceptions
to the rule.
By 1927 most of that had changed. The federal Radio Act of that year allotted
a large band of frequencies for commercial broadcasting, Zenith introduced
a radio that would run on house current, and after only a few months of
operation the National Broadcasting Corporation divided itself into its
Red and Blue Networks. Before the end of the year the Columbia Broadcasting
System would be in full operation, with the Mutual Broadcasting System
following belatedly in 1934. Radio was entering a new era.
The first radio drama was broadcast over WGY-Schenectady, when the WGY
Players performed Eugene Walter’s The Wolf on the night of August
3, 1922, yet it was not until the closing years of the decade that the
dramatic form began to demonstrate its potential to entertain millions.
In 1929 First Nighter began its twenty-four year run from “the Little
Theater off Time Square.” In 1930 and 1931 it would be joined by such long-time
favorites as Sherlock Holmes, Death Valley Days, Charlie
Chan, Rin-Tin-Tin, CBS’s Fu Manchu, and NBC’s less popular answer
to the wily mandarin, The Orange Lantern.
The radio serial format utilized in Tarzan of the Apes—a continued
story told in daily or weekly installments—had been almost completely established
in 1928 when ex-minstrel comedians Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll abandoned
their Sam ’n’ Henry impersonations on WGN-Chicago to create Amos ’n’ Andy
over radio station WMAQ. The rest is history: Calvin Coolidge left instructions
with his White House staff that he was not to be interrupted while the
pair were on the air, factories in North Carolina closed early so workers
could be home in time to tune in, and movie theaters and department stores
across America installed loudspeakers so their customers would not desert
them for the new show.
Gosden and Correll had been partially motivated in their move to WMAQ by
their desire to record and syndicate their broadcasts, a procedure objected
to by WGN. Syndication lasted only a little over a year for Amos ’n’ Andy—until
the show moved to NBC—but by then the syndicated serial had proven itself.
The formula was unbeatable for the sponsor whose distribution area did
not coincide with network areas and few listeners resist tuning in to discover
the outcome of the last episode’s cliffhanger ending. (Would Andy Brown
be found guilty of breach of promise?)
Dozens more serials followed in the next few years. By 1932 Henry Saxe’s
Daddy Warbucks was rescuing Shirley Bell in Little Orphan Annie
and Chandu, the Magician was doing his best to astonish listeners.
Tarzan on radio was inevitable.
The story of the noble-born waif of the jungle offered a potential for
exotic adventure that no other serial could hope to equal, and even in
the premiere episode—concerned entirely with Tarzan’s parents—the pace
of the tale was not allowed to slacken for a moment.
No sooner had Lord Greystoke dispatched the huge carnivore attempting to
batter in the door of the little hut, than the script skillfully slipped
from action to suspense:
The jungle grows suddenly still.
“The silence is the worst of all,” Lady Greystoke tells her husband. “The
silence means that something awful and dreadful is passing through the
jungle . . .”
But the silence is broken by a distant scream.
“John, which one of our neighbors is that?”
“A bull ape,” he tells her, and the listener can imagine the young woman
cringing closer to her husband.
“It’s the apes I hate worst of all. They’re so human—and yet so far from
human. Those long powerful arms, their awkward gait, and the terrific speed
in which they swing and leap from branch to branch.”
For the first time since the opening of the episode, the narrator breaks
in, telling the listener that deep in the jungle Bolat the bull ape has
gone mad. Apes scream shrilly as Bolat rampages after them. Kala, a young
she, races through the trees to avoid the male. As she leaps from one tree
to the next, the infant on her back is jarred loose and plummets to its
Back at the hut Lord Greystoke takes his ax with him as he leaves to chop
a few sticks of firewood and bring in the carcass of the lion before the
predators destroy its pelt.
The sound of Greystoke’s ax echoes through the strangely silent jungle.
Greystoke doesn’t notice that fearful tenseness of the silence. The jungle
is cringing, cringing away from a monstrous shadow that moves ominously
through the hushed and fearful night. A huge ape comes to the clearing.
. . .
Bolat, outcast by his tribe, attacks Greystoke, who can only attempt
to defend himself with his ax.
Greystoke raises his ax, brings it down with terrific force. The ape
catches the ax in his terrible hands and flings it from him. With bared
fangs he leaps at Greystoke.
With a deep growl from the ape and a shrill cry from Lady Greystoke
(presumably looking out from the door of the hut), the first of nearly
three hundred fifteen-minute episodes ends abruptly.
That the listeners were delighted seems an understatement. A month later
Signal Oil would begin organization of a Tarzan Club; by the end of the
year the club’s membership in California would reach 125,000. By 1934 the
serial would be sold in all forty-eight states, South America, and Europe.
Everyone involved with the production had ample reason to be pleased.
Everyone, that is, except Edgar Rice Burroughs.