Tarzan’s chimpanzee is dead… Or is he?
I was suprised by news this morning from the Suncoast wildlife sanctuary in Florida: a chimpanzee called Cheetah was reported to have died at the grand old age of 80.
No ordinary chimp, either. According to his owners, Cheetah played Tarzan’s sidekick, of the same name, in the films of the 1930s. The sanctuary’s “outreach director,” Debbie Cobb, told the Associated Press that her grandfather acquired the creature from Johnny Weismuller in around 1960. She waxes lyrical about him in tomorrow’s Independent.
But her claims sound fishy to me. A couple of years back, I investigated a minor controversy involving a chimpanzee called Cheeta (no “h”), who lives in Palm Springs, just east of Los Angeles. Cheetah (no “h”) is also purported to have starred in the Tarzan flicks of the same era, but for reasons explained in that article (which has for some reason disappeared from our website, but is cut-and-pasted below), had been cruelly denied a star on the Hollywood walk of fame.
Six months after my article was published, the Washington Post ran a lengthy and fascinating expose [read it here] which suggested that Cheeta was actually born in 1960. Despite having been interviewed by everyone from People to Newsweek to This American Life over the years, he turned out to be an imposter, presumably used by his owners to lure gullible tourists to their sanctuary. Eventually, they admitted that he was a fraud.
There was, in fact, no single primate who starred in the Tarzan movies. Instead, the film-makers of the era used a selection of creatures, all of whom are now probably dead. All of which means that Cheetah (with an “h”), who passed away from kidney failure on December 24th, was almost certainly also a low-rent phoney too.
Asked by the Associated Press to provide evidence of her animal’s provenance, Ms Cobb claimed today that documents detailing his sale had been destroyed in a house fire in the mid 1990s. RD Rosen, who wrote the original Washington Post piece, seems to smell BS about that claim. And so should you.
The Independent, June 20, 2008
By Guy Adams
It’s a hard life, being a show-business chimpanzee. All that cross-dressing. Those endless cups of tea. Then, if you’re really unlucky, you end up in nappies and holding hands with Michael Jackson. Consider, then, the cruel hand that fate has dealt to Cheeta. He was born in the wilds of Liberia 76 years ago, but taken into captivity as a youngster – and promptly shipped halfway across the world, to California. Yet despite this tricky start to life, the plucky primate overcame his broken childhood to become one of the most distinguished animal actors in history. He starred – under his own name, mind you – in most of the Tarzan films of the 1930s and 40s, together with the 1967 smash hit, Dr Dolittle.
These days, like most Hollywood old-timers, Cheeta lives in genteel semi-retirement in the desert resort of Palm Springs, where he spends his days watching TV, eating burgers and chips, and producing colourful paintings, sold to tourists who come from across the world to pay tribute.
Yet despite his extraordinary CV, and in stark contrast to almost all of his fellow stars from the so-called golden era of film, Cheeta has yet to receive the one signal honour he really deserves; the monumental recognition that America’s epicentre of entertainment is supposed to bestow upon all of its favourite sons: his very own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Seven times the chimp’s fans have asked the local Chamber of Commerce, which runs the tourist attraction, to give Cheeta a marble star in that legendary two-and-a-half-mile pavement. Seven times, the Chamber’s admissions committee has waded through the carefully-typed application, only to give it the proverbial raspberry.
The most recent rejection came yesterday, when 2009’s “walk of famers” were formally unveiled. The 25 new recruits included several bona fide global megastars – Tim Burton, Cameron Diaz, Robert Downey Jr, Ralph Fiennes, Shakira, The Village People, “Sir” Ben Kingsley – and a selection of relative nobodies, including one Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds, and even a local radio jock by the name of Bill Handel.
It’s a bitter pill for Cheeta to swallow. And it’s even tougher for his many supporters, who had collected a 10,000-name petition in support of his bid. Particularly galling is the fact that they were beaten to this year’s star by the likes of Mark Burnett (Mark who?), the near-geriatric Canadian rock group Rush, and Desperate Housewives’ Felicity Huffman.
Even Tinkerbell was included in the new Walk of Fame line-up. That’s Tinkerbell from Peter Pan: not even a living creature, but a fictional fairy. And among Cheeta’s supporters, this particular snub has sparked dark rumours of an anti-chimp vendetta.
“I can’t believe this,” said film-maker Matt Devlen, Cheeta’s campaign manager, yesterday. “We’ve been trying for six years, and this time we thought we’d showed them that Cheeta has relevance. There was an outpouring of support with the petition, which got us on TMZ and Showbusiness Tonight. It does make you wonder: what have we got to do?”
“With all those other people who got included, I wouldn’t mind betting that they’ve got some big studio behind them. And Tinkerbell really did pinch our spot: every year they generally give one star out to a non-human. Last year, it was The Munchkins, this year, the fairy. So it will be interesting to see who backed the Peter Pan bid.”
As Devlen’s talk of a stitch-up suggests, the Cheeta affair shines an uncomfortably bright light on the byzantine workings of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, the organisation which has sole responsibility for the awarding of new stars. The selection process it exposes turns out to be so scandalously opaque that it makes even the Walk’s UK equivalent, the honours system, look as clear as crystal.
Each June, the Chamber’s selection committee meets in secret, to sift through the 200-300 applications to join the 2,300-strong list of celebrities who already have their name on a star. They generally approve between 20 and 30 new recruits per year.
The committee is headed by one Earl Lestz, a former Paramount Pictures chief, and has five other members, whose identities are unclear. Also at the annual meeting is the Walk of Fame’s administrative chief, Ana Martinez-Holler. “Anyone can apply to be awarded a star, though generally a celebrity’s fan club, or a film studio, will do it on their behalf,” says Martinez-Holler. “The only rule is the person who is to be honoured gives their written consent. After that, the decision is down to the committee.”
Yet bizarrely – for what amounts to a public body – no one knows exactly what criteria are considered by this committee’s members. Minutes of their discussion are never published. The date when the meeting takes place is never announced. There is no system of appeal, and no formal guidelines that define what star qualities must be considered.
So no one knows why Lassie, Rin Tin Tin, and Donald Duck boast a star, but not Cheeta (or, for that matter, Hugh Grant). The public are not told why Dirk Bogarde’s name is yet to be found on the two-and-a-half-mile stretch of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street when Tony Curtis has been there for donkey’s years.
The system gets really, properly, fishy, though, after a new plaque is approved. If and when an application is given the thumbs-up, Martinez-Holler admits that either the celebrity in question, or their supporters, must then stump up a $25,000 (£12,700) “sponsorship fee” to have the monument installed.
Often, that fee is footed by a film company, as a cheap way of garnering publicity around the launch of a new movie. But that means the Chamber of Commerce committee (largely made up of studio executives) is sometimes accused of being improperly influenced by their employers’ financial concerns.
Either way, it’s a rum old do: in effect, the heritage of the city of Los Angeles ends up being bought and sold like some sort of cheap second-hand car, and in a totally unaccountable fashion.
In defence, Martinez-Holler insists the money is needed to pay for the upkeep of the Walk, since “the city cannot afford to subsidise it.”
But you’d have thought the Chamber of Commerce, which swims in money thanks to the entertainment industry (for which the Walk provides a showpiece) might dig into its pockets.
This tortured debate won’t trouble Cheeta, though. Despite having recently been admitted to the Guinness World Records as the oldest living non-human primate, he’s on the verge of an extraordinary comeback. Owner Dan Westfall, the nephew of Cheeta’s original handler Tony Gentry (who introduced him to such stars as Maureen O’Sullivan, Johnny Weissmuller, Ronald Reagan and Rex Harrison), says the chimp recently signed a deal with Immergent Records (his debut single comes out on iTunes shortly) and last month filmed a walk-on role for the film Hollywood Deadbeat.
A ghostwritten autobiography, with the working title Meet Cheeta, is out early next year. Then they’re going to try, for an eighth time, to get that Walk of Fame star – and plan to further bid for the judges’ sympathy by suggesting that Cheeta’s inclusion will send out a message of support to his cousins in the wild, who are threatened with extinction.
“I don’t know why we’ve not been selected yet, and I have no idea whether we’ll be lucky next year,” adds Westfall. “It’s politics, of course. But we deserve better: a few years ago, they gave a star to Donald Duck, a cartoon character. Well Cheeta is a living, breathing creature who has made millions of people happy, and he has every right to his star.”
EndsTagged in: BS, hollywood
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