11 April 2013

That Company That Time Will Never Forget: A Visit to Edgar Rice Burroughs, Incorporated

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

In the waning days of March 2013, I made a trip I should’ve taken years before. I’ve lived in Los Angeles since I was four, became a fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs in my teens, but never thought about taking the jaunt on the I-405 into the Valley to visit the office of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. I knew the office was there; that part of the Valley didn’t get the name “Tarzana” by accident. But it wasn’t until after working for three years writing numerous articles about Burroughs’s books and movies based on them that I realized the opportunity in plain sight—actually, over the hill. I looked up the company’s website, found a phone number, and gave the office a call, wondering what might come of it. A pleasant-sounding woman answered the phone, and after I provided her only a sentence of explanation (ERB fan, live in L.A., would like to write something about him for an online magazine) she cheerfully told me to call the president of the company, James J. Sullos Jr., and gave me his cell phone number. Another call later—and a half-hour of quality fan talk with Mr. Sullos–I had an appointment to come out to the offices and have lunch with him and Cathy Wilbanks, the company archivist and executive assistant.

What follows is a brief record of that delayed visit. I would love to present myself to you as ERB often did, a fictional version of Ryan Harvey who discovered this account in a bottle that washed ashore from Caspak, or communicated via Gridley Wave from Helium on Mars. But no, it was just me, a humble fan who took some notes and stared in awe at… well, I’ll get to that.

Fifty-three years have passed since the death of the man who created Tarzan, John Carter of Mars, and the inverse world of Pellucidar. The brain that launched millions of dreams in readers all over the world stopped abruptly on the morning of 19 March 1950, as Burroughs was sitting in bed, looking over the Sunday comics section. All Burroughs fans like to think he was reading the Tarzan strip at the time.

“Fifty-two years ago an Army doctor gave me six months to live, and I’ll bet the goddamn old drunk has been dead for twenty years,” Burroughs wrote in a letter to a military buddy in 1948. But could the grand old progenitor of pulp literature have foreseen that even more time than that would pass after his death and the company he started to oversee his creations would still be going—and in the same building where he started it?
The front of the building and the Memorial Tree
Burroughs was one of the first authors to incorporate himself. On 26 March 1923—exactly ninety years and one day before I made my visit—he formed Edgar Rice Burroughs, Incorporated. Although Burroughs had a history of failed business ventures before he discovered his talent as a dreamer on paper, he still took a businessman’s approach to his new career. This is an unexpected combination: we tend to think pure creativity should be divorced from the mundane concerns of handling lucre, but ERB was a man who could do both without one staining the other. If it were only money that Burroughs cared about, ERB Inc. wouldn’t still be sitting where it is today, and I doubt I would have much to write about the man or his work.

ERB Inc. is unusual in the fiction writing landscape. Most late, great authors leave behind a birthplace or some other old residence for fans to remember them, while the handling of their work passes to a separate company, agency, or family member. But Burroughs left behind his own business that continues in the same spot it always has, creating a rare continuity of past and present. The corporation still belongs to his descendants, and in a world where “corporation” has come to stand for soullessness and avarice, ERB Inc. is an amicable and joyful island that celebrates the imagination and skill of its founder. The staff still must to deal with displeasures of the business world, such as copyright infringement (Tarzan attracts plenty of this), but the atmosphere here is one that no writer could deny bursts with the electricity of creativity.

Burroughs established the company office in 1927 on one of the lots he owned in what was then Reseda. A visitor might imagine the charming house started life as a private home and then was converted to commercial use, but from its inception this place has always held ERB Inc. In the year the company moved to its permanent location, Ventura Blvd. was still an unpaved road with gravel shoulders, and Burroughs could ride a horse to work from his nearby Tarzana Ranch. Now the office is a half-hour drive up the snarled 405 freeway, where traffic construction is a daily exercise. But if the current environment is nothing Burroughs would recognize, his company remains much as he left it.
Archivist Cathy Wilbanks shows off the artwork of Zdnek Burian
Looking at the office from across the busy six-lane swath of Ventura Blvd., it looks like the Residential Home That Time Forgot. The one-story Spanish-style building hides behind a vine-covered wall and a lush garden with a large mulberry tree at the center. To one side sits an auto-repair shop and a lounge with an orange traffic horse sign beckoning people to kick the habit with electronic cigarettes. On the other side lies a strip of businesses including two alternative medicine practices, a personal training center, and the Valley’s most common and ephemeral of commercial endeavors, the nail salon. On the other side of the street, in Tarzana Square, is the first Blockbuster Video I had seen in a year. It is likely the next business to go extinct while ERB, Inc. continues.

Few people who enter the strip mall parking lot of Tarzana Square will know that this section of the San Fernando Valley was named after Tarzan, or that across the street is the office of Tarzan’s creator, where a staff of five handles the many off-shoots of the fiction empire he built (such as the revamped company website). Maybe they know that the hair salon where Britney Spears whacked off her locks in a moment of cultural irrelevance is on this block. One local business knows its roots: a pleasant restaurant called the Greystoke Grill, where a rug with Christopher Lambert in his Ape Man pose welcomes you as you step inside. Not the Tarzan actor I would have picked, but maybe it was the easiest color image to find.

When I walked up to front door of ERB Inc., passing under a low porch where I could imagine Burroughs on a deck chair sipping a cool drink and discussing the latest MGM Tarzan offering with his secretary and business manager, Ralph Rothmund, I was struck with conflicting emotions: was I passing into the sanctuary of a great artist, or approaching a private home? Also in the back of my mind: Burroughs’s ashes are buried beneath the mulberry tree in the center of the lush front yard (although at the time of his death, there was a walnut tree there instead).
Early ERB editions in Jim Sullos’s office
Stepping inside the office will give any pulp lover a moment of sensory overload that not even the biggest convention hall could beat. Original paintings from dust jackets, book interiors, magazine covers, comic strips, comic books, and movie posters hang on any available space. Where there are no illustrations, there are bookshelves packed with the spines of Burroughs’s gargantuan output, reproduced in hundreds of versions from across the globe. On the desks stand statues and other pieces of three-dimensional artwork celebrating the Lord of the Jungle and the denizens of Barsoom. A towering Thark armed for battle against the Warhoons guards the desk of the archivist in the center room. And that desk: it’s an original, one that Burroughs himself worked on.

During the hours I was in the office, I never quite adapted to the amount of information coming from every inch of wall or table space. (Me: “Look! There’s the dictionary stand from ERB’s Pocatello, Idaho store [a stationery store he ran in 1898]!” Jim Sullos: “Yes, and the dictionary on it is opened to the entry on ‘Tarzan.’”)

The office could double as an art gallery; nowhere else have I come across so many originals from the great illustrators of fantasy. ERB’s work inspired some of the finest artwork in the history of genre literature, something any fan knows just from glancing at paperback covers. But it never hit me so powerfully as in these rooms, where numerous originals decorate every space not filled with the writing that inspired them. The first edition cover paintings for The Moon Maid and Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar hang beside each other behind Jim Sullos’s desk. The Frank Frazetta originals include the covers for Lost on Venus and the astonishing Out of Time’s Abyss (also used for Land of Terror), which were given to ERB Inc. by Donald Wollheim of Ace Books. (Me: “Hey, is that the original J. Allen St. John painting for the cover of The Moon Maid?” Jim Sullos: “Yes, it is.” Me: “Huh.” I don’t know what else I could have said about that.)
Original J. Allen St. John artwork
The entrance room has illustrations from Czech artist Zdenek Burian. Burian is not as well-known an ERB artist as Frazetta, St. John, or Whelan, but he did remarkable work. (See this page for the examples hanging on the walls of the front office.) The logo for ERB Inc., a Roy Krenkel painting of Tarzan astride the golden lion Jad-bal-ja, also hangs in the front room. Danton Burroughs, ERB’s grandson and former president of the company, wrote that Krenkel was a “key factor in the 1960s revival of my grandfather’s writings,” and it is appropriate to have this image headline the company ERB founded.

Perhaps the final kicker in the artwork department: an original N. C. Wyeth painting used for The Return of Tarzan when it first appeared in Blue Book.

Of course, books are everywhere. The front room has the familiar paperbacks from my generation of Tarzan readers, and Cathy Wilbanks and I agreed that the Ballantine 1970s editions of the Tarzan novels, the ones with the black spines and borders, many with spectacular Neal Adams illustrations, are our personal favorites. I locate the edition of The Land That Time Forgot that was the first Burroughs book I bought with my own money. Later, I found the paperback edition of Tarzan of the Apes that sealed the deal for me as a Burroughs Bibliophile.

Jim Sullos’s office, the largest of the rooms, contains the oldest books, many of them first editions from when ERB Inc. was also a publisher. I have seen and held many elder editions of Mr. Burroughs’s books, but rarely do they have what these have: the dust jackets. Cathy described the difficulty in getting early hardback editions with the dust jackets. “Back then, people just thought of them as wrapping paper and tossed them out right after they bought the book. They had no idea the dust jacket could one day triple the value of the book.” This makes me feel stronger about the 1924 copy of The Gods of Mars that I own, which has a dust jacket in horrible condition… but it does have the dust jacket!

Dictionary stand from ERB’s 1898 stationery store
Seated at a table in Mr. Sullos’s office, talking to him and Cathy, felt like chatting with Edgar Rice Burroughs enthusiasts. There was no sense of awkwardness that I was merely a fan swinging past a corporate office. Burroughs is a living presence in that room, and not just because the walls are lined with editions of every book he wrote, or that hanging on the walls are original J. Allen St. John and Frank Frazetta paintings. It simply feels that the people who work here expect Ed to walk through the back door, straw Panama hat on his head and dust from the horse ride on his boots, and genially ask how they’re all doing. Although the employees today never knew Edgar Rice Burroughs when he was alive, they would no doubt find it easy to talk to him as if they were lifetime friends. I’m sure Ed would be pleased to discover his old writing desk still waiting for him.

Burroughs’s descendants still own the company, and even though no family member was in the office the day I was visiting, the sensation of family is powerful. But there is also a touch of tragedy. Danton Burroughs, ERB’s grandson by his son Jack, served as president of the company for many years, but he died abruptly from heart failure in 2008 at age sixty-three—only a day after a fire at his home destroyed a large amount of family memorabilia. Danton’s death came at a time of major change in the company: that very day he was to be named Chairman of ERB Inc., with Jim Sullos moving into the role of president. “We expected at least ten more years with him,” Jim told me, also remarking that the stress of the fire probably contributed to Danton’s death: he was collector and deeply attached to his grandfather’s legacy. Cathy added that even five years later, they miss him every day.

As we talked, the conversation turned to Burroughs’s appeal that continues to stretch across the generations. Jim pointed out that there is so much happening in his books (he picked Son of Tarzan as a good example—that is a busy book), so many ideas, that readers can’t help but tumble into this creative tsunami. But where did these ideas come from? How did this man, who showed no inclination toward creativity before penning A Princess of Mars, become, in the words of Ray Bradbury displayed on the company website, “The most important author of the twentieth century”?

Nobody, not even Burroughs if he walked into the room to join us like I expected, could answer that. But I explained to Jim and Cathy what personally draws me to Burroughs today: His writing always gives readers something to think about beyond the basic plot and action. This is why I find ERB such a fascinating author to write about; my mind starts clicking furiously as his action-packed plots roar along. You rarely find this quality in thrillers of any stripe today, which are as disposable as candy wrappers after you’ve eaten your sugary treat. Or, dust jackets to folks in the 1920s.

I learned new information from talking to Jim and Cathy, such as that it was Emma, Burroughs’s first wife, who forced him to bring Jane Porter back to life after Burroughs killed her off in Tarzan the Untamed. (The author found a way around that later: he simply ignored Jane for a whole stretch of books.) There are also various movie projects kicking around: a complete screenplay adaptation of The Outlaw of Torn has toured Hollywood. Unfortunately, the word right now is that the Ridley Scott Robin Hood has soured the studios on medieval adventure. I also discovered that the new Tarzan books series from Andy Briggs has finally found a U.S. publisher a few years after the first U.K. publication. Fantastic: I’ve purchased them all now and you can expect to hear more about them soon.
Tarzana Ranch as it looked when Burroughs first lived there
The talk eventually turned, of course, to the recent John Carter movie. Disney has a few years left to decide whether to renew the rights or let them revert back to the family. Jim asked me straight if I thought The Gods of Mars will happen, and I wished I could have answered with greater hope. After reading John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood, the recent book detailing how Disney fumbled the film, it is difficult to stay optimistic about future Mars movies. But there is some positive news about the reception of John Carter. Cathy told me that her thirteen-year-old daughter loved John Carter when she saw it in a packed theater with fans for a special December screening. Yes, these are the young people who need to get Burroughs into their blood!

There was more to see outside the office. After lunch, Jim gave me a short tour of the land ERB once owned and the Tarzana Ranch, the home Burroughs bought in 1919. It was originally built by Harrison Gray Otis, publisher of the Los Angeles Times and a key figure in the Owens Valley Water Scandal. When Burroughs purchased the 4,500-square-foot house, he also bought 550 acres around it, the lots that would become Tarzana, CA when an independent post office opened there 1930. To the west of the ranch house hill sits the El Caballero Country Club, another Burroughs-founded business, although like most of the land here, it is no longer in the hands of the Burroughs family. We couldn’t approach close to either the house or the country club, but the view from Tarzana Blvd. up to the hilltop, surrounded with exotic trees imported from around the world, has not completely forgotten the time when this was a solitary paradise, and the paved parking lot behind ERB Inc. was a dirt space where Ed could tether his horse.

I could have stayed for days inside the office searching every corner and pulling out priceless pieces of the legacy of Mr. Burroughs; my few hours there felt like running through the Metropolitan Museum of Art at Marathon speed, seeing flashes of greatness. In fact, I may have excused myself sooner than I needed to, because how long until I become a nuisance who wanted to take down and look at every first edition on the shelves in Jim Sullos’s office? This was the closest I have ever felt to a favorite author, even ones whom I have met in person: the vast world of ERB in compressed form surrounded me, in the same rooms where he walked and worked.

I drove back home, and before doing anything else, I sat down on my couch and started re-reading Tarzan of the Apes. Great book.