Top L.A. Legends #23: The Origins Of Tarzana

We have the City Nerd to thank for this legend suggestion: is the Neighborhood of Tarzana really named for the early twentieth-century fictional character?

tarzan6.JPGAnswer: Yes. In fact, Encino Man‘s location in the Valley was more appropriate than the movie’s creators may have realized. The plot mirrors the same conflict as the movie and book of Tarzan, which is that a man, raised outside of civilization, must suddenly adapt to it. And Encino is right next to Tarzana, where Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs bought land off none other than L.A. Times owner and land mogul, General Otis in 1915. Burroughs named his land the Tarzana Ranch, in honor of his literary creation. But it was the people of Tarzana, in 1927, who renamed their suburb after the ranch, and the legend from books & the silver screen. Yet, when the town was named, Tarzan had not yet reached the apex of his popularity. Only a handful of mostly silent films had been made by 1927 – the most famous sound movie, a re-interpretation called Tarzan the Ape Man, would not be released until 1932.

Tarzan first appeared in book form, in Tarzan of the Apes, published in 1912. The book – which went on to spawn twenty-three sequels – was published in the last year that Tarzana was still a wheat field. Tarzana – along with the rest of the Valley – would go on to become desirable real estate the next year, 1913, when the Los Angeles Aqueduct was opened. The land once owned by Otis, a close friend of water mastermind Fred Eaton, only had the water to support a full town once Mullholland’s aqueduct brought water to the Valley. And that, is history.

There would also be a strong local connection between Tarzana and the Tarzan movies, as the most popular of them were made in studios around the Valley. The 1932 movie was shot in Chatsworth, just ten miles from Tarzana. However, it should be noted that the Tarzan TV show was not filmed locally: it was shot in Mexico and Brazil in the late 60s.

I’ve only been to Tarzana once, when I was doing an Adventure in Transit from the Valley to Pasadena. I hopped an Orange Line bus there, because it had the Orange stop closest to the 101, making it the easiest random point for me to be dropped off at by co-workers on our way home from a business trip. And I saw no traces of any ranches, or, for that matter, anything but the suburban sprawl that the ape-raised Lord Greystoke would have detested. But Tarzan does live on, with his latest SoCal location being the re-vamp of the Swiss Family Robinson treehouse into his own, cartoon version at Disneyland. And, as unlikely as it sounds that the neighborhood (not city – Tarzana is part of L.A.) was named for the character, it’s actually true. Mark this urban legend as one that could only happen someplace as enamored with the fictional as Los Angeles.

2 thoughts on “Top L.A. Legends #23: The Origins Of Tarzana”

  1. Most of Harrison Gray Otis’s original ranch has been subdivided and developed, but you can still see a hillside of huge Deodar cedars and other exotic species planted by the General himself just southwest of (where else?) the intersection of Otis Avenue and Tarzana Drive.

    The house at the top of that hill was the Edgar Rice Burroughs residence. Most of the rest of the Burroughs hilltop estate is now taken up by a gated development of luxury homes.

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