Tarzan’s Cheeta is my primary primate

Published 12:46 am Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Forget the shark in “Jaws.” Don’t bother with me with Lassie in all those movies and television shows about the collie. Perhaps Asta, the dog in the “Thin Man” movies, could provide some competition for my favorite movie animal. That animal is Cheeta, the animal that provided comic relief in the Tarzan movies and subsequent television shows about the ape-man.

I know that several chimpanzees portrayed Cheeta, sometimes billed as Cheetah, Cheta and Chita. Never mind that. It’s the character, and I mean character, of Cheeta that’s important here. When Cheeta wasn’t providing comic relief (check out the Tarzan movies if you doubt me), Cheeta, sometimes a male chimp and other times a female chimp, delivered messages between Tarzan, Jane, Boy and others. Sometimes Cheeta rescued or helped rescue Tarzan, Jane, Boy and various others from evil bwaanas (white hunters), Nazis and Amazonian women.

Cheeta never appeared in any of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan novels. My research indicates more than one chimp portrayed Cheeta in each of the Tarzan movies. Still, it’s the character of Cheeta that matters.

It appears that three chimps portrayed the Cheeta that I am most familiar with: those Cheetas in the 1930s and 1940s Tarzan movies. They were Jiggs, Cheetah-Mike and Jiggs Jr., also known as Jiggs II. My favorite Tarzan movie in which Cheeta performs is “Tarzan’s New York Adventure.” It’s funny enough watching Tarzan adapt to Manhattan, but, at least in my opinion, Cheeta steals the show by getting into Jane’s makeup, particularly Jane’s body powder. Cheeta’s application of the powder is funnier than a barrel full of monkeys.

Cheeta routinely screeches, screams, somersaults and, like Tarzan, swings through the jungle on vines, throughout Tarzan movies.

Cheeta was to Tarzan what Lou Costello was to Bud Abbott, what Jerry Lewis was to Dean Martin and what Stan Laurel was to Oliver Hardy.

When I was a boy and watching those Tarzan movies on television during Saturday mornings or afternoons, my mother could tell when Tarzan was entertaining me.

Chimpanzee-like sounds and Cheeta-like movements that I made gave me away as the culprit trying to mimic Cheeta. If one listened carefully, such shenanigans could be heard throughout the neighborhood. After all, I wasn’t the only boy imitating Cheeta.

Today, I watch Tarzan movies and laugh, not so much at Cheeta’s comic antics, but at the special effects. Those 1930s fake alligators are so hokey, but they do add a bit of comedy by their very presence. When I was a boy, I didn’t really notice what Jane wore — or didn’t wear. These days, I wonder how a scantily clad Jane in the Tarzan movies resulted in those movies not receiving an R rating. Oh, I forgot; movies were not rated in those days. But then the Hays Code came along, putting Jane in less-revealing animal skins that she wore as clothing.

Of course, Cheeta didn’t worry about a wardrobe for the movies. Except for Jane’s powder and an occasional hunter’s hat, all that Cheeta ever wore was a smirk. Cheeta’s performances remind me of words from a Buck Owens’s song: “All I’ve got to do is act naturally.”

There’s a movement afoot to get Cheeta a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. On March 31, 1995, Cheeta was given a star on the Palm Springs Walk of Fame.

Come on, Hollywood, give Cheeta his, or her, due.

There’s bound to be a Cheeta descendant around that would show up for the ceremony. If not, I’d happily put on a chimp suit and do Cheeta proud at the ceremony. All I want to do the job is a round-trip airline ticket, a bunch of bananas and a free DVD collection of Tarzan movies.

Mike Voss covers the city of Washington for the Washington Daily News. What’s his second-favorite movie animal? It’s a horse, of course: Mr. Ed. Now, that was a funny talking horse, no matter what you “neigh-sayers” have to say about it.

About Mike Voss

Mike Voss is the contributing editor at the Washington Daily News. He has a daughter and four grandchildren. Except for nearly six years he worked at the Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Va., in the early to mid-1990s, he has been at the Daily News since April 1986.
Journalism awards:
• Pulitzer Prize for Meritorious Public Service, 1990.
• Society of Professional Journalists: Sigma Delta Chi Award, Bronze Medallion.
• Associated Press Managing Editors’ Public Service Award.
• Investigative Reporters & Editors’ Award.
• North Carolina Press Association, First Place, Public Service Award, 1989.
• North Carolina Press Association, Second Place, Investigative Reporting, 1990.
All those were for the articles he and Betty Gray wrote about the city’s contaminated water system in 1989-1990.
• North Carolina Press Association, First Place, Investigative Reporting, 1991.
• North Carolina Press Association, Third Place, General News Reporting, 2005.
• North Carolina Press Association, Second Place, Lighter Columns, 2006.
Recently learned he will receive another award.
• North Carolina Press Association, First Place, Lighter Columns, 2010.
4. Lectured at or served on seminar panels at journalism schools at UNC-Chapel Hill, University of Maryland, Columbia University, Mary Washington University and Francis Marion University.

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