In the mornings we would clunk down the back stairs into the warm kitchen, my twin brother Bob and I. Tootie, our mother, would be at the stove stirring Cream of Wheat and Dad would be sitting at the drop-leaf breakfast table reading the morning paper.
We would scrunch down on the linoleum floor next to the dog’s box, ask for and receive the paper’s second section and hastily turn to the entertainment pages. We would scan the movie ads, hoping, hoping…
No more than once a year were our longings fulfilled. But how happy those once-a-year mornings! Joy exploded inside us. Our spirits soared for weeks.
“Tarzan’s New York Adventure,” the advertisement would announce. “Starring Johnny Weismuller, Maureen O’Sullivan and Johnny Sheffield as Boy,”
And so it had come at last: the new Tarzan movie! We had known it was on its way, for we kept abreast of such things. Where other kids read comics, we read movie magazines: Movie Story, Photoplay, and others whose names I have forgotten.
We read them at the magazine stand in the Thrifty Drug Store at Cochran and Wilshire: two kids sitting Indian fashion, avidly thumbing through the latest stock before a salesgirl spotted us and wondered if this time for once there would be a sale in it for Thrifty. Eventually she would decide not and come over and tell us to push on.
Because of this reading we would know that “Tarzan’s New York Adventure” (or whatever) had finished production and was coming out soon. We’d begin to watch for ads in the paper. Then, when they came: Ahhh!!! Something to look forward to! Something to give the Cream of Wheat an extra touch of flavor!
After breakfast we would toss on our leather jackets, fasten our schoolbooks on the carrying racks, jump onto our bicycles, and exhilaratedly pedal the three miles to school. We’d sit back, riding no-handed, and talk giddily about the ad that had finally appeared.
While growing up, Bob and I suffered deprivation. Movies were rationed to us. At first we could go no oftener than once a month. One day – it was the day school got out one summer – Ronnie Rice’s mother said that to celebrate she would take Ronnie and Bob and me to see a cowboy movie in Hollywood. What a heartbreaking invitation! We had already seen our movie for that month.
About the time we were ten, we were allowed to go to the movies once a week. We would save the money earned from our chores and from our job emptying garbage cans at an apartment house a couple of blocks away and spend it on Saturday afternoon movies.
Sometimes the money just wasn’t there. Once – Tommy Treanor had come over and my parents were gone – I had to seek out a sympathetic neighbor lady. I rang her doorbell. Then when she answered it, I said: “Hi. To get down to brass tacks, I need some money to go to the show.” She provided the amount needed.
Bob could not go to the movies that week – he was being punished – and mocked my “brass tacks” line, a phrase I thought very adult. So Tommy and I went off by ourselves to a chilling movie called “Kiss of Death.” We huddled beneath a shared windbreaker and watched Richard Widmark commit sundry heinous crimes before Victor Mature got him in the end. Unquestionably it was an afternoon well worth a little begging.
We often spent much of the week speculating on the choice facing us Saturday afternoon. Would it be Tyrone Power and Maureen O’Hara in “The Black Swan” at the La Brea or a rerun of Abbott and Costello”s “It Ain’t Hay” at the cheaper El Rey?
Before we turned twelve and entered the price category of juniors, we got into the El Rey for only eleven cents. And what kid wouldn’t pay that to see something like Gary Cooper hanging by his thumbs from the rigging of a vessel – even if it was an old movie?
For a while the La Brea ran a serial. It faded out each week with a cowboy hero tied to a bedstead in a burning building, or lashed to railroad tracks, or dangling over a precipice. When we felt no clear preference about the feature, the serial lured us to the La Brea.
I wonder how many Saturday afternoons we spent in darkened movie theaters, squunched down in our seats, munching Baffle Bars and impassively observing dramatic situations: Ray Milland walking streets in “the Lost Weekend,” Anthony Quinn getting it in the back in “Quadalcanal Diary,” Sabu facing tigers in “The Jungle Book,” Jon Hall saving Maria Montez in “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.” We sweated out Corregidor with Paulette Goddard, Veronica Lake, and Sonny Tufts in “So Proudly We Hail.” We chewed our thumbnails during “Union Pacific” as Joel McCrea wondered whether or not to finish off Barbara Stanwyck with a pistol to prevent Indians from subjecting her to tortures unspeakable in their depravity.
Tarzan was the greatest of them all. While other characters writhed with torturous problems, Tarzan was simply himself: the noble savage. He swam magnificently, rode elephants, ran around on trees without holding on, conversed fluently with Cheeta.
He had no romantic problems. That was a relief. Bob yelled, “Ick!” – quite loudly – when in “To Have and to Hold” Joseph Cotton kissed Deanna Durbin before they had ever met. Tootie told him to leave the theater. Both of us snickered at the romantic entanglements of Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra in “Anchors Aweigh.” That time Dad told us to hush or got outside. It was during the war and the sailors in front of us, he pointed out, had come to see exactly what we thought so icky.
Tarzan didn’t bore you with stuff like that. He fought crocodiles under water and always won. He lived in a neat tree house and dispatched the villains without a lot of mooning over Jane. And was there ever anything more beautiful than a long shot of him swinging through the trees, screaming “Ahhhh-eee-ahhhh!”
We had a big sycamore in the front yard then and Bob and I filled it with ropes, rope ladders, and a tree house. I used to lounge on the platform-tree house, walk barefoot along one of the branches, and swing down from the tree yelling, “Ahhhh-eee-ahhhh!”
More than once I hoped a movie scout would discover me. After all, Johnny Sheffield couldn’t play Boy forever. And Lana Turner who as far as I knew could not walk barefoot on tree branches or swing on ropes, had been discovered sipping a soda in a drugstore.
But if Sol Lesser’s talent scout ever drove down Masselin Avenue looking into the branches of its sycamores for a new a Boy, he must have come by when I was in school.
It’s been a long time since I read movie magazines seated cross-legged at the Thrifty Drugstore. In the interim I have lived in Africa. My part of it had vast plains. There were few trees and no noble savages swinging through or dwelling in them.
Still, for me, Tarzan lives. He lives – in my memory.