The Cheeta Hoax

April 2, 1932 saw the release of the MGM film Tarzan the Apeman (1932) featuring Johnny Weissmuller. having already done a post about all the versions of Tarzan, it seemed to me that this might be the proper date to talk about Cheeta, Tarzan’s chimpanzee companion. The character was and remains beloved. There was always some adorable bit of comic business where Cheeta gets into trouble, or somehow saves the day. Cheeta didn’t appear in the novels, he made his debut in this picture. The birthdate of Jiggs, the simian actor who first played him is unknown. Although, it was publicly celebrated every year on April 9, by a man with a chimp that almost certainly wasn’t the original Cheeta, though he claimed that he was.

I amused to find controversy about it on the internet. What most probably happened was that the original Cheeta’s trainer, a man by the name of Tony Gentry, acquired a young chimp in 1967, when the original Cheeta was long gone. He called this one Cheeta, and probably even intimated that it was the real one from 1932. In the ’90s, shortly before he died, Gentry gave it to a cousin who AGRESSIVELY promoted the chimp as the original Cheeta, held press events, sold tickets, whatever. And then reporters, scientists way in about what the chimp really is, can’t be the real one, whatever. He’d be 80 years old, and so forth. Here’s one for ya: WHO GIVES A DAMN? If some enterprising carny is fobbing off some chimp he bought as Cheeta from the movies, and delighted customers but tickets and interact with a chimp they think is a star, is anybody losing ANYTHING? Not in my calculus, baby. I’m sorry — anybody who makes a big noise about busting that operation, and shining the harsh spotlight of truth on this insidious crime is a loser of the poopiest water, full stop.

The Hollywood Reporter ran this item on “Chimp-Gate” in 2011. I’m like, WTF? It’s fun, I guess, but man, what turkeys. “Where’s the proof? Where’s the provenance? I’m skeptical about these claims!” You’ve got nothing better to do? Unless of course, this is a next level hoax in which the debunkers are also pulling our legs, in which case (Emily Latella voice) never mind.

For more on show business historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous