Ave Atque Vale Cheeta

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One of the last remaining survivors of the Golden Age of Hollywood has passed away:

It is with great sadness that the community has lost a dear friend and family member on December 24, 2011,” the Suncoast Primate Sanctuary in Palm Harbor announced on its website.

Cheetah had performed in Tarzan The Ape Man (1932) and Tarzan And His Mate (1934), classic films about a man reared in the jungle starring Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan.

The chimpanzee – who arrived at the sanctuary in 1960 – loved finger-painting and watching football and was soothed by Christian music, the sanctuary’s outreach director Debbie Cobb told the Tampa Tribune.

Back in the Sixties the old Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movies were replayed endlessly on TV, and as a boy I loved them.  Completely inaccurate as to Africa, and with plots as skimpy as some of the costumes worn by Maureen O’Sullivan as Jane, they were always good, and, not infrequently, hilarious entertainment.  I have always treasured Tarzan’s commentary on the legal system in Tarzan’s New York Adventure (1942) where an evil circus owner is attempting to use the courts to win custody of Boy:

Fair Thee Well Cheeta, you were an ornament to a time when Hollywood was a lot less pretentious, a lot more entertaining and when monkeys were in front of the cameras and not attempting, by all apparent evidence, to run film companies!

Update:  Ah, apparently this was not the real Cheeta, but a pretender to the Chimpanzee film throne!

When I arrived, Wells introduced me to two other people sitting patiently at his kitchen table: his friend Stewart Raffill, a former animal trainer and now film director, and Cheryl Shawver, who had been a young trainer at Jungleland in the 1960s, and who had bought Wells’s company, Animal Actors of Hollywood, a few years before. They not only had something to say about Cheeta, but they all had known Gentry. When I began by describing the book I was writing, the three of them shook their heads ruefully.

“It’s not true,” Wells said. “Tony got that chimp from Wally Ross. Wally was a premier chimp and elephant trainer. He was one of the managers of Pacific Ocean Park on the pier in Santa Monica. When Pacific Ocean Park closed [in 1967], he had a chimp he owned and trained, about 6 or 7, the turning point for a chimp. He said, ‘Here, Tony, do you want this chimp?’ Tony said, ‘I’ll take it,’ and he took it.”

If Cheeta was 6 or 7 when Pacific Ocean park closed, he was born in 1960 or 61.

“You’re sure about this?” I asked Wells. “That chimp was Dan Westfall’s Cheeta?”

“Absolutely, no doubt, not for a one minute. Absolutely. I’d known Wally since ’66, and used him on God knows how many pictures. And that chimp was never in any picture, much less a Johnny Weissmuller picture. The big lie is that he was never in the Tarzan movies, never in ‘Doctor Dolittle,’ never in any movie.”

Go here to read the rest at the Washington Post.  Fake Cheetas?  Is nothing sacred?  If I had not already been there, I would be tempted to echo the sentiments of Jimbo Jones:   “You let me down, man! Now I don’t believe in nothin no more! I’m going to law school!


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