From the pool to Hollywood stardom

The Baltimore Sun

As Towson-area native Michael Phelps racked up gold medals for swimming at the Olympics in Beijing, I thought it worthwhile to look back at another Olympian, Johnny Weissmuller, who won five gold medals and a bronze at the 1924 and 1928 Olympics.

Weissmuller, who broke 67 world swimming records and won 55 Amateur Athletic Union championships, became one of the most celebrated sports heroes of the Roaring '20s and was hailed by sportswriters as the greatest swimmer of the 20th century.

He joined a glittering pantheon of colorful sports figures of that era that included Babe Ruth, Bobby Jones, Gertrude Ederle, Harold "Red" Grange, Jack Dempsey and "Big Bill" Tilden.

It was a case of polio that got Weissmuller into the water in the first place. He was 9 years old when he was stricken with the disease.

"My doctor said I should take up some sort of exercise to build myself up," Weissmuller said in a newspaper interview years ago. "I got into a swimming pool at the YMCA and liked it. And I found I had a natural flair for it."

After moving with his family to Chicago, Weissmuller continued swimming, and by the time he was 12, he had earned a berth on the YMCA swim team.

When he was 15, he was worked as a Chicago Park District lifeguard at a Lake Michigan beach.

He dropped out of school and while working at the Illinois Athletic Club as an elevator operator and bellboy, Weissmuller came to the attention of swim coach William Bachrach, who took him on.

"Bachrach kept young Weissmuller under wraps for a year, refining his start and stroke. In August 1921, he turned his protege loose to win national championships in the 50-yard and 220-yard distances," reported the Chicago Tribune in a 1984 article. "He never lost a swimming competition after that."

The question of where Weissmuller was born became an issue at the time of the 1924 Olympics, when he applied for an American passport.

Weissmuller gave his birthplace as Tanneryville, Pa., and obituaries for him listed his having been born in Winber, Pa.

Official birth records show that he was born June 2, 1904, in Romania, and seven months later was brought to Winber by his parents, reported Sports Illustrated in a 1984 article.

Weissmuller "first saw the light of day nearer the Danube than the Susquehanna," reported the magazine.

Weissmuller's father claimed that his son was born in Chicago.

"In order to get an American passport, Weissmuller needed to produce legal proof of citizenship. No doubt that was the reason for switching 'birthplaces' from Chicago to Winber, for there, in the baptismal records of St. John Cantilus Catholic Church, was an entry for Johnny's brother, Peter," said the article.

"'Petrus Weissmuller' is written in one hand, with 'John' inserted between the first and last names in distinctly different ink and penmanship. Church officials today aren't sure when or how the record was altered."

Objections were eventually dropped, and Weissmuller received his passport; but the revelation about where he was actually born came out several months after his death in 1984.

Cleared to represent the U.S. in swimming at Paris in the 1924 Games, Weissmuller swam to Olympic history.

He won three gold medals, as well as a bronze as a member of the men's water polo team, and questions surrounding his citizenship quickly dropped from newspaper headlines.

His aquatic feats were nothing short of history-making. He was the first to swim 100 meters in under a minute, and he set three world records in Paris and was decorated with the gold for the 100- and 400-meter freestyle events and the 800-meter freestyle relay.

At the 1928 games in Amsterdam, where he carried the American flag, Weissmuller won two gold medals for the 100-meter freestyle and 800-meter freestyle relay.

In 1930, Weissmuller was in Los Angeles working out at the Hollywood Athletic Club pool when Cyril Hume, a novelist working on a screenplay for a Tarzan movie, based on the jungle novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs, spotted him. Hume noticed the handsome 6-foot-3 200-pounder with his dark hair combed back and solid square jaw, and recommended that he take an MGM screen test.

"I went to the back lot at MGM, they gave me a G-string and said, 'Can you climb a tree? Can you pick up that girl?' I could do all that, and I did all my own swinging because I had been a YMCA champion on the rings," Weissmuller recalled in an interview.

He landed the role of the chest-thumping jungle king and played Tarzan in 12 pictures, beginning in 1930 with Tarzan the Ape Man and concluding with Tarzan and the Mermaids in 1947.

As Tarzan, Weissmuller utters one of the greatest come-on lines in film history, when he sets his sights on the beautiful Jane Porter, an Englishwoman (who in the original Burroughs' Tarzan stories hailed from Baltimore) played by actress Maureen O'Sullivan: "Me Tarzan; you Jane."

In 1932, Weissmuller arrived in Baltimore for a week of appearances at the Century Theater in conjunction with Dive In, an aquatic stage show.

"He will demonstrate his famous crawl stroke and will also tell of his experiences while being made a motion-picture star overnight," reported The Sun.

His arrival here was rather inauspicious. He was pulled over by a traffic policeman while driving his new 16-cylinder automobile on the wrong side of Philadelphia Road. The friendly policeman, who did not recognize the Hollywood star and Olympian, asked him where he was going, gave him directions and sent him on his way.

A half-hour later, he was resting comfortably in a 12th-floor room in the Emerson Hotel.

"What kind of town is this? Are all the cops like that? I wish I'd asked that fellow his name," Weissmuller told an Evening Sun reporter.

Weissmuller broke into his famous Tarzan yell "pianissimo," reported The Evening Sun, when room service failed to deliver sausage with the buckwheat cakes he had ordered.

He was 79 when he died at his Acapulco, Mexico, home, not far from the location of his last Tarzan film, of pulmonary edema in 1984. He had been married six times.

He was buried in the Valley of Light Cemetery in Acapulco, and at his request, a recording of his Tarzan yell was played three times as his coffin was lowered into the ground.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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