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Signals (Verbal & Visual)

Tarzan YellTarzan Yell - When Tarzan, the Lord of the Jungle needed to communicate, he used a unique yell that became a standard gimmick used by actor Johnny Weissmuller and others in TV and movies like Tarzan the Ape Man (1932), Tarzan and His Mates (1934) Tarzan and the Leopard Woman (1946), TARZAN/NBC/1966-69 and the animated TARZAN, LORD OF THE JUNGLE/CBS/1976.

There are multiple stories behind the origins of the Tarzan sound effect used in the Tarzan movies. One story from Tom Held, an MGM film editor, states the sound was achieved by combining the sounds from a Violin G-string, a hyena howl, a dog's growl, and a camel's bleat. Another source reports that the yell is a recording made by opera star Lloyd Thomas Leech (1914-2003). Reportedly, the film studio asked Leech to record the yell because actor Johnny Weissmuller refused to do it.

In his book, "Mayer and Thalberg: The Make-Believe Saints" (1975), author Samuel Marx wrote that the Tarzan cry was contrived by a man named Douglas Shearer, who recorded a shout that was electronically enhanced and run backwards. A computer analysis of the sound proved that the yell is "palindromic" and seems to support the electronically enhanced story. However, Weissmuller did perform his own Tarzan yells when he moved from MGM to RKO studios. Listen and compare for yourself: MGM Yell; RKO Yell.

Through the years other stories have surfaced in the popular culture. But in a October 18, 1971 Stars & Stripes interview at the hotel in Wiesbaden, Germany, retired actor Johnny Weissmuller explained the origins of his famous Tarzan yell. Simply stated: "My parents came from Vienna...I learned to yodel at German picnics."

Johnny Weissmuller died in Acapulco, Mexico on January 20, 1984 after a series of strokes (pulmonary edema). At Weissmuller's grave site funeral at the Valley of The Light Cemetery, a recording of his trademark Tarzan yell was played as his coffin was lowered into the ground. This was Johnny's last request.

Prior to Weissmuller's Tarzan yell, actor Frank Merrill, a 36-year-old gymnastics champion was the first to voice a crude Tarzan yell in the adventure film "Tarzan the Tiger" (1929). The music and sound effects for the film were placed on a record and played in sync with "silent" film images. One source described Merrill's yell as if an "elephant had stepped on his toes."

The Tarzan yell later became a running gag on the comedy variety show THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW/CBS/1967-78 when audience members week after week asked Carol to do her version of Tarzan's noisy cry. She learned the yell as a child while play acting the role of Sheena of the Jungle.

TRIVIA NOTE: Tarzan's yell is a registered trademark owned by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Inc.. Versions of the trademark Tarzan yell can be heard as wookies swing in on ropes in the sci-fi films Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Sith (2005); and Star Wars Episode III: Return of the Jedi (1983). Chewbacca (a wookie) does the Tarzan yell in 1983, while a generic wookie does the same thing in the 2005 finale of the franchise.

One story I "heard" floating about the rumor mill of celebrity gossip years ago was that during one of Johnny Weissmuller's hospital stays, he supposedly went goofy and began to yelp his Tarzan yell as he ran uncontrollably about the place - much to the chagrin of his keepers. At best, it's an interesting urban legend, at worst, it soils the legend of a man whom many have admired.

For a great biography on Johnny Weissmuller read: "Tarzan, My Father" written by his only son and co-author W. Craig Reed.


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