Tarzan 101 | Tarzan of the Radio

Celebrating Tarzan’s 101st anniversary by walking through Scott Tracy Griffin’s Tarzan: The Centennial Celebration.

After the success of the Tarzan movies (which we’ll start looking at next week), you’d think that radio would be a step backwards, but there were still a lot of profits to be made by serializing Tarzan’s adventures for the air waves. Burroughs made the first attempt at setting up a Tarzan radio program in 1930, but it wasn’t until late ’31 that the same guy who’d launched the comic strips got involved and things started moving.

Burroughs was still heavily involved though and cast Jim Pierce in the lead role. Burroughs had met Pierce at a party in the ’20s and immediately wanted the actor to play Tarzan in the 1927 silent film, Tarzan and the Golden Lion. Not long after, Pierce and Burroughs’ daughter Joan fell in love and got married (staying so until Joan’s death in 1972), so Burroughs made it a family deal and cast Joan as Jane for the radio show.

The program debuted in September 1932 on KSTP, a Saint Paul radio station that still exists today, playing adult contemporary music. The series was one of the first pre-recorded radio shows (as opposed to live broadcast) and went for almost 300 episodes just adapting the first two Tarzan novels. The show was incredibly successful and spurred sponsor Signal Oil to start its Tarzan fan club that had to be aborted when it grew too large for the company to manage.

After the two novel adaptations, writer Rob Thompson wrote two original stories, Tarzan and the Diamond of Asher and Tarzan and the Fires of Tohr. The first was later adapted by Burroughs to become the novel Tarzan and the Forbidden City; the second became one of the early Dell comics. By the time Fires of Tohr came out in ’35 though, the program had run out of steam and was only playing on 10 stations.

Burroughs tried to get it going again in ’38, but it wasn’t until 1951 – after Burroughs’ death – that a second radio show started up. This one starred Lamont Johnson as Tarzan and was sort of a mix of the novel and film versions of the character. There was no Jane, but the show featured a lot of voice artists including some of the earliest work of future Bond girl (and Riddler henchman on the ’60s Batman), Jill St. John.

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