Sorry if this is going to come as a shock, but I smell a stunt! No one wants to believe it is a stunt, because we are always prone to hoping, more often than not against the usual flow of hope, that a bit of movie history is alive and well. However, may I be the first to doubt the legend of Cheeta?
The newspapers have been inundated over the last few days with news of the celebration for Cheeta the Chimp’s 75th birthday. Mark it in your diaries for next year; the lovable primates birthday was on April 9th and he had a bash at the primate sanctuary “Creative Habitats and Enrichment for Endangered and Threatened Apes” (CHEETA), in Palm Springs, California. Cheeta has also, apparently, been recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s oldest chimpanzee. The chimp in question is four foot tall and 142 pounds and allegedly starred in 12 Tarzan movies during the 1930s and 40s.
Dan Westfall, who operates the Palm Springs sanctuary in California, adopted Cheetah in 1992 from his uncle Tony Gentry, an animal trainer who worked in Hollywood and obtained Cheetah from Africa in the 1930s. Cheetah now spends his days socializing with other primates and his caregivers. Cheetah’s staple diet consists of fresh fruit, vegetables, and monkey nuts. The sanctuary’s primates are provided with a variety of activities to stimulate their intellect and curiosity. One of the activities is painting, which allows chimpanzees to express their innate inventive behaviour and tool-usage.
Westfall says that Cheeta has become a wonderful abstract artist and has trademarked Cheeta’s creations as “Ape-stract”. “They are pretty,” says Westfall, who gives the art to donors who support the non-profit making sanctuary with a donation of $125 or more. The proceeds go to support the Cheeta Primate Sanctuary.
All this strikes me as a wonderful PR coup for the sanctuary. If the chimp really was the star of the original Tarzan movies of the 1930s and is now considered to be the world’s oldest chimp, outliving the original Tarzan actor Johnny Weissmuller, who can be bothered to quash the story? Cheetah played his role seamlessly in the movies, with no hint that the animal behind the name was not just one chimp but one of several supplied by Hollywood’s talented menagerie. A chimpanzee is not the easiest animal to work with, as Cheetah’s trainer and Jane’s portrayer Maureen O’Sullivan have attested. Although he was most peaceable and friendly on the screen, he was notorious for biting actors and crewmembers.
Nevertheless, can this really be the original chimp? A certain performance artist creating a show based on the myth pitched me that Cheetah the Chimp was actually dead, that he had been taken to Australia to appear in a third rate circus once he was too old to appear in movies. He apparently died shortly after and his bones were given to the anthropology department of the University of Sydney.
Early in the Hollywood studio era, rights for actors were thin on the ground, so animal stars would have had absolutely none. It’s only in the last 40 years that animals have had any real rights. The hijacking of animals for general sale was commonplace. Animal trappers have been in existence for a very long time, making money from selling on animals to circuses or film studios. In early Hollywood, there were certainly many tales about cruelty to animals and huge questions hang over Harry Reichenbach and his disreputable behaviour, often ill treating the creatures he used for his notorious animal stunts. Roland Butler is known to have covered up cruelty stories for the Ringling Bros and the Barnum and Bailey circus, thought to be the greatest circus ever to exist. Therefore, is it really likely that Cheetah the Chimp is spending his twilight years in a safe sanctuary in Palm Springs or has his name been hijacked?
Without doubt, it’s a jungle out there, especially if funds are tight. Every charity needs a totem and Cheetah is certainly one of the greatest but, as all good movie publicists know, you should never let the facts get in the way of a good a story. Personally, I hope the Cheetah myth lives on as it’s possible that the real story of his life is a little harder to relate to.