May 1st is the 8th anniversary of the death of Danton Burroughs — one of the few very great human beings I’ve had the pleasure to know. In celebration of his memory I offer an article I originally wrote for Erbzine about my first meeting with Danton in 2003.
It was mid-October, one of those hot autumn days in LA that are worse than the summer. We drove north from Los Angeles on 101 in rush hour traffic on a Thursday evening as the sun set over the San Fernando Valley. After an hour of bumper to bumper madness, the traffic began to thin and we made a left on Reseda Avenue, where we were greeted everywhere with the word “Tarzan” … only, not quite, it was “Tarzana”, not “Tarzan” – as in “Tarzana Dry Cleaners”, “Tarzana Auto Repair”, “Tarzana Stationers”. The hand of the old master was seen everywhere.
A left on Ventura Boulevard, and we were immediately forced to slow down, looking for 18354, the address of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. This part of Ventura Boulevard is much like the rest of it (it runs 40 miles through San Fernando Valley, once a highway, now a commercial boulevard), a MacDonald’s here, Starbucks there, mid-rise office buildings, storefronts, a comfortable blend of city and suburb, metered parking spots on both sides of the street.
I opened the rusty gate and only then saw that down at about waist level, almost hidden on the gate were, in fact, the numbers 18354. We walked forward along a stone walkway past an oversized old fashioned mailbox toward the quaint little house. The yard around us was filled with desert shrubs and a huge tree, and the entire front of the house had a porch which was largely hidden behind columns that were covered with ivy and other vines. We stepped up one small step to a large wooden door. “Absolutely no solicitors”, an old plaque read – otherwise, the door was blank except for an American flag. I looked for a doorbell, but could find none. The house/office looked like it might be closed for the night, but we had an appointment, so I knocked.
A few moments later the door opened and there stood a kindly man, late fifties, his receding hairline and gentle features immediately identifying him as a descendant of the man himself. In fact, if you were casting a movie and needed someone to play Edgar Rice Burroughs, this is the guy you would pick. He was Danton Burroughs, the man who runs Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc., and he was alone in the little three room bungalow that serves as the office of the enterprise that oversees the most amazing realm of adventure ever created by the mind of man. “You’re Michael Sellers”, Danton said with a warm smile, and invited me and my wife Rena inside.
The first step inside almost took my breath away and Danton saw why. “These are all by a Czech artist who loved my grandfather’s works”, he said without hesitation when he saw my eyes dart to the walls of that first room – walls that were covered with exquisite black and white paintings of scenes from the Tarzan books. “Oh, look,” Rena said beside me, and pointed to a picture where a massive ape held a tiny baby aloft. “That’s Tarzan as a baby,” she said. “And Kala,” I added, “when she first saved Tarzan from Kerchak.”
Part of the Tarzan Art Collection on the ERB, Inc. Zdenek Burian Wall
Danton beamed with a pride that seemed to come from somewhere deep inside his kindly soul. “So you’ve read my grandfather’s books, both of you,” he said. “Take a look at these for a minute, I’ll be right back.” And with that he disappeared into the back, leaving us alone with the paintings. Only then did I look around the rest of the room and see what was there—a couple of cluttered desks stacked high with papers and memorabilia, a computer looking decidedly lonely and out of place. I looked at more of the pictures. There was Tarzan as a teenager in front of his nemesis Terkoz, and I realized this was the moment of his confrontation passage into manhood – the fight that would leave him wounded and bleeding and with the scar across his forehead that would “burn crimson” when he was angry or on the attack. And here was his fight with Numa, the lion…..and here he is hiding in the trees above Mbonga’s Gomangani village — there was even one of Tarzan in a sycamore tree with Jane, which is the only rendering I had ever seen of Tarzan in Baltimore at the end of the first book. Then I realized Danton was looking at me. “Come on, I’ll show you more.” And with that he went into the second room of the bungalow.
It was thirty odd years earlier that a young boy, 11 years old, living on an army base in Stuttgart, Germany, found himself in the Robinson Barracks post library, a place he had been haunting with great regularity these past few months since his family had arrived in Europe. After all, the only TV was local German television, and in those early months he didn’t have too many friends. He’d been reading every sports book he could find – the exploits of Bronc Burnett in Sonora, New Mexico being one, and the stories of Clint Lane, West Point Cadet were another. But he was tired of those. And so he decided that on this cold, rainy afternoon, he would start with the “A’s” and work his way methodically along the bookshelves until he found something interesting to read, something new and different.
The A’s passed without incident, and then most of the B’s. Near the end of the B’s a title caught his eye. It was an older book, rebound with green tape on the spine so that it had been necessary for the librarian to handwrite the title in white ink: “Llana of Gathol”, it read. Hmm. Double L at the beginning. Is that a misprint? Let’s look and see.
I still remember as clearly as if it were yesterday the moment of discovery as I pulled the book from the shelf and opened it up to view one of the most unforgettable images I would ever see in my life, before or after – a glorious John Coleman Burroughs illustration showing a muscular man, clad in not much more than what Tarzan would wear, holding a torch in one hand and a sword in the other as a snarling eight legged beast bore down on him. The caption read “As the banth bore down on me, I drew my sword and waited.” Whoa……This was interesting.
Then I noticed next to this book was another one: “Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle”. I get it. Same author. I’m onto something here.
And thus began two years of intense, mind expanding imaginative exploration. I would come to know just what a “banth” was, as well as a thoat, and more. Barsoom, Amtor, Caspak, Pellucidar, Opar – all of these magical places would come alive in my imagination. Jeds and Tanjongs, Numa and Histah, one man scout flyers and twin moons that hurtled through the sky above the dry ocher seabeds of a dying planet.
In the years before and after I would read much adventure literature, much science fiction literature. Heinlein, Asimov, Bradbury, Jules Verne, H. Rider Haggard – I would read it all. But nothing, ever, would captivate my heart, soul, and mind like the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs – “ERB” as those in the know were wont to call him. Burroughs, the creator of Tarzan – and of John Carter, and Dejah Thoris, and Carson Napier, and David Innes, and Kala and Kerchak – though he had died a decade before I was born, would become my idol, not just as an author, but as an almost godlike figure whose imagination transported me from the mundane world of 1960’s Earth, to places equally vivid but far more exhilarating.
Our meeting with Danton was not supposed to be a fan pilgrimage. There was business to be attended to. I had just finished writing and directing my first feature film, I had produced a dozen or so other films; and I had a professional interest in acquiring the rights to one or more of ERB’s books. I knew the Martian series was out of bounds, property of Disney (I thought), and Tarzan being the crown jewels was something I would defer until I had proved myself with these people. My sights were instead set on some of the lesser known books.
But business hardly entered into it at all as Danton joyfully took us into the second room where he works at the same large oaken desk used by the creator of Tarzan almost a century earlier. Here there were bookshelves filled with the ERB’s books. One shelf, near the door, contained all the ACE and Ballantine Paperbacks which had been published in the 60’s and had been the editions that I read in those wonder years of first discovery. But there were hardbacks too, and collections of illustrations from the books. And family photos, stashed away here and there in envelopes which Danton would bring out and share with us. I couldn’t help but be struck by the gentle kindliness of the man who is in essence the curator of ERBdom. So much pride, such warmth. He quickly established a paternal comradery with Rena, especially warming to her when he discovered that she had read the entire Martian series and confiding to her that, “You know, my mother was Dejah Thoris,” and then showing beautiful illustrations by John Coleman Burroughs, Danton’s father, in which the model for “the incomparable Dejah Thoris” was indeed John’s wife—Danton’s mother, Jane Ralston Burroughs.
An hour after arriving we had not even begun anything remotely resembling a business discussion, and it didn’t seem to matter at all. Intead we were lost in a magical exploration of a treasure trove of memorabilia, seemingly stored in haphazard fashion yet Danton could always find exactly what he was looking for, usually without hesitation. We did start talking about projects, but not in a coherent, focused way – there was far too much fun and excitement for that. “We need an in-house Steven Spielberg,” Danton said at one point. Then, speaking on the phone to a caller, he said: “John, I’m here with some friends, Michael and Rena, why don’t you come over.” And a few minutes later into the room walked white haired, white bearded, John Westerveldt, longtime friend of Danton, Tarzana neighbor and collector of classic automobiles – but more importantly, for the moment, a fine photographer. John began clicking pictures as the three of us – Danton, Rena, and I – explored every nook and cranny of the amazing room.
Our appointment had been scheduled for 6:30 in the office, with dinner to follow at 7:00 at Charlie G’s, a steakhouse down the street in Tarzana which is Danton’s favorite. At 7:30 I called to explain we were running late, and the hostess told me that it might be a problem, the restaurant was quite busy tonight. On impulse I mentioned that we were at the office of Danton Burroughs, and would be coming soon—and at the mention of “Danton Burroughs” the voice on the end of the line (which had been gracious enough up till then) suddenly changed, becoming even more gracious. “Oh, and will you be sitting with Danton tonight?” Oh yes, I said. “Then no problem, then.” It’s great to dine with royalty!
Prince of ERBdom or not, Danton Burroughs is a gentle, friendly man, who has the capacity to warm to a new friend without any of the reserve that might be expected of the grandson of Edgar Rice Burroughs. His fascination and pride in his grandfather’s accomplishments is palpable – yet just as palpable is the pleasure he genuinely feels when he senses that he’s in the presence of someone who genuinely loves and respects his granddad’s works. At one point in our dinner I found myself describing the absolute magic of my discovery of Edgar Rice Burroughs as an 11 year old, and Danton poked his friend John Westerveldt in the shoulder and said with absolute pride, “See. My grandfather changed his life!” And he is absolutely right.
Perhaps in honor of Tarzan we all ordered steaks – in my case, rare, taking it a step further. I still remember the vivid descriptions of Tarzan’s love for raw meat, and his disdain for the whole idea of ruining meat by cooking it, and in spite of the fct that my diet tends more toward fish and vegetables these days, I ordered a bloody steak and loved it. Danton ordered a Mai-Tai and, thinking of Rokov in The Beasts of Tarzan, I ordered a black Russian.
I think I mention all of this in part just to give a feel to those who have never met him that in spite of his illustrious heritage, Danton is a regular guy – someone you’d enjoy spending time with, not just to celebrate ERB, but to celebrate life. He’s fun to hang out with.
During dinner Danton mentioned that there would be a 16mm screening of the 1932 Tarzan, The Ape Man on Sunday, and invited us to view it. When I acknowledged, he also asked if I, being a film-maker, might be able to help him with the projector. I said sure, thinking secretly what a delight that even now, here in the land of ERB, it was evidently the the Prince of ERB himself who was evidently responsible for threading the projector, and needed help. I’d be happy to provide it. Assuming, of course, I am able to figure it out. (Haven’t seen a 16mm projector in more or less half a lifetime!)
During dinner we ran into some neighbors of Danton, Esther and JT and spirits got higher. Next thing I knew we were all being invited over to Danton’s house to see his “hodge-podge”. Not knowing quite what to expect, we piled into our cars and drove over.
On the way I was struck by the charm of Tarzana. Although I’m very familiar with the San Fernando Valley suburbs of Los Angeles, it was only in Tarzana that I for the first time could actually feel the sense of being “away from it all” that the valley was supposed to convey in the old days, when “the valley” meant fruit orchards and asparagus fields instead of freeways and shopping malls.
Danton’s house is at the perimeter of the developed area, where the hills and forests begin. We turned off a main road, traversed an unpaved section of a few hundred yards, then turned left into a narrow driveway with a white wooden fence on one side, and a stone wall on the other. Winding around for a quarter of a mile, we pulled left into a dusty parking area next to a workshed and a yard that already captured some unexpected magic. There, in the yard, were dozens, if not hundreds, of street lamps – some lighted, others piled in stacks. There was a also a stone wall covered with a collection of signs, and other odds and ends piled about.
Danton took us into the workshop and showed us through a delightful clutter of shelves and workbenches. Here was a stack of original art, there a box with family heirlooms in it, all cast about in a manner that was at once haphazard and organized. “I just found these,” he said, and opened some beautiful original sketches with “John Coleman Burroughs” penned in the lower right hand corner.
But the workshop was just an appetizer. After a few minutes Danton excused himself and asked us to wait. And we waited. And waited. Ten minutes later he emerged from the main house – a beautiful and somewhat whimsical two story mini-castle –and beckoned us in. And enter we did – into a kingdom as magical as anything anyone might possibly imagine. For here, there was an entire downstairs floor which included not only every piece of Tarzan or Burroughs paraphernalia one might hope to see – but also a dozen or so meticulously maintained classical era juke boxes, each with a colorful set of lights casting a rapturous glow through the room.
But that wasn’t all. There were pinball machines, a couple of skeletons hanging in a corner, Tarzan movie posters, more artwork, books, comic strips. Statues, an ape skull, a hundred or so pocket watches, a moosehead with a tiny Disney Tarzan party hat perched on its head, a statue of a saber-toothed tiger, family photos including one of Danton’s mother, Janet Ralston Burroughs…the list goes on. It was a treasure trove of not only ERB memorabilia – but more. I think we all felt we’d entered a very special realm.
We spent half an hour in the house. I took pictures. The magic continued. And then finally it was time to go home. Handshakes and hugs, and sometime after midnight we were back on the freeway, smiles not only in our faces but in our hearts as well.
This has been longer than it should be – but I know what it’s like to have deep fascination and love for Edgar Rice Burroughs, and to sit there in some far corner of America or the world and wonder what a town named Tarzana could possibly be like, and what sort of a place the offices of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc., could possibly be. It is absolutely an enchanting place. If you ever get the chance to make the pilgrimage – do it! It’s worth a cross country trip, and you won’t regret it.
As I write this it is December 2011 and the release of Disney’s John Carter is less than 100 days away. I can’t post this without explaining the tragic nature of Danton’s death in 2008.
The brief notice in the Los Angeles times simply said:
Tarzan creator’s heir protected the legacy
Obituaries / Danton Burroughs, 1944 – 2008
May 15, 2008|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer
Danton Burroughs, who spent his life marketing and protecting the work of his grandfather, Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs, died May 1 at his home in Tarzana, the San Fernando Valley community named after his ancestor’s most famous fictional character. He was 63. Burroughs, who had been battling Parkinson’s disease, died of heart failure a day after a fire at his home destroyed a room filled with family memorabilia.
What the article didn’t say was that Danton, who suffered from chronic asthma in addition to Parkinsons, refused to leave what was essentially the smoldering ruins of the treasure trove of memorabilia he had worked so hard, and so lovingly, to protect. The doctor’s urged him to get away from the smoke, give his lungs a break, but he refused.
The LA Times had it right. He did die of heart failure, just not the kind the writer of the obituary had in mind.