Fanatical fans are still going ape for Tarzan

June 19, 1992|By Knight-Ridder News Service

George McWhorter's mother taught him to read at age 5 by enticing him with the Tarzan novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

For Kevin Hancer, Mr. Burroughs was "the author that nobody in school was going to tell me about." Reading the Tarzan epics -- there are 24 novels -- was an act of rebellion for the teen-age Hancer.

Now adults, Mr. McWhorter and Mr. Hancer continue to be held in the primordial grip of the ageless apeman, who is still swinging as he celebrates his 80th birthday this year.

Mr. Hancer runs the Jungle Club, a loosely organized club of fans and collectors, out of his home in Edina, Minn. Mr. McWhorter, a former opera singer, is curator of the Burroughs Memorial Collection at the University of Louisville in Kentucky.

They are part of a surprisingly large group of fanatical Burroughs fans: people who know all about the Tarzan novels, the 40-plus movies, the TV shows and even the 19 actors who have portrayed (never adequately, of course) the famous Lord of the Jungle.

Tarzan is big business, not only for the Burroughs family, but also for collectors like Mr. McWhorter and Mr. Hancer. "Most of the fans specialize," says Mr. McWhorter, who oversees the Louisville collection of more than 30,000 items.

"The doodad-ers go after things like cereal-box premiums or badges or trading cards," Mr. McWhorter explains. "Then there are others who are exclusively into artwork, and others are exclusively into books. Some people overlap, of course."

Some, like Mr. McWhorter, manage to make Tarzan a semi-profession. Mike Conran of Jenison, Mich., has what is considered to be among the finest collections of Mr. Burroughs' first-edition books in the world. He also publishes NewsDateline, one of several Burroughs-related newsletters.

Mr. McWhorter, however, is considered the official source of all things Tarzan. In addition to managing the huge Louisville collection, he's also the head of Burroughs Bibliophiles, an umbrella organization started by ex-circus acrobat Vern Coriell in 1947.

All the old Tarzan stuff is in big demand. The Burroughs Bulletin, another fan magazine, lists hundreds of Jungle Lord items -- some at big prices. For example, one of the early comic books, which was drawn by "Prince Valiant" creator Hal Foster, can be purchased for $650.

"Well, that's how the collecting market goes," sighs Mr. McWhorter, who once owned 6,000 artifacts before donating them to the University of Louisville.

Mr. Hancer says a wrapper for Tarzan Bread -- yes, there once was such a product -- can be worth $75 to $100. A 1935 bubble gum wrapper, in pristine condition, can command $1,000, he says. And the Tarzan poster used in advertising Signal Oil Co. gasoline (which had "the power of Tarzan!") is worth big money, Mr. Hancer says.

"Burroughs is probably the most collected author in the world -- with the possible exception of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle," Mr. Hancer says, referring to the British author of the Sherlock Holmes stories.

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