Tarzan Was Here

By James Harris

On August 11, 1933 ten-year-old Bobby Wheeler was swimming next to the Santa Monica Pier when his foot got tangled in a string of loose kelp. In his mind, he was doomed. He screamed for help at the top of his lungs as he thrashed in the water. From atop the Pier a hero dove 30-feet down into the sea, then surfaced next to him. Bobby couldn’t believe his eyes when he looked into his hero’s familiar face. It couldn’t be, could it? Indeed it was… His hero was Tarzan. Johnny Weissmuller made his mark in the world in two fantastic arenas – competitive swimming and the silver screen. Winner of five Olympic gold medals in the 1924 and 1928 games, fifty-two US national champions and sixty-seven world records, his feats in the water have stood unparalleled for nearly a century. His post-swimming career landed him in Hollywood, where he immortalized the legendary Edgar Rice Boroughs character “Tarzan” in twelve films, including the 1932 classic Tarzan of the Apes. He is easily one of the most recognizable watermen ever to have lived, and he was very often recognized at the Santa Monica Pier! Johnny loved Santa Monica and its magnificent pier. He trained often with the Santa Monica Lifeguards in the 1930’s in order to keep himself in top physical condition for his movie appearances. Several times his water skills were put the test with a few impromptu - and always successful – rescues. His talent and willingness to risk his life to rescue others prompted lifeguard chief “Cap” Watkins to induct him as an Honorary Santa Monica Lifeguard.

In the 1940’s Johnny happened upon the Pier’s meteorically popular new Manoa Paddleboard Club. This fun-loving, talented group of youngsters gladly welcomed him into the club and Johnny found new workout partners to challenge him and keep him physically fit. He invited his Hollywood friends, stuntmen Paul Stader and Stubby Kreuger and fellow actor Johnny Sheffield (“Boy” in the Tarzan films), to join as well, making the Manoa club even more of a public draw. Visitors to the Pier during those days could enjoy not only watching incredible paddleboarding feats, but also hearing the occasional Tarzan yell (“aah- aaahaahaa-aahaah!”) and seeing a man swing from the clubhouse rope out over the beautiful Santa Monica Bay. It couldn’t be, could it? Indeed it was… Johnny Weissmuller.