SI Vault
Jerry Kirshenbaum
August 17, 1970
The voice of Tarzan is still heard in the land, but there are days when Johnny Weissmuller prefers a quiet drink to yodeling at elephants
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
August 17, 1970


The voice of Tarzan is still heard in the land, but there are days when Johnny Weissmuller prefers a quiet drink to yodeling at elephants

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

In plugging the massage chairs, Weissmuller was doing what he came to Chattanooga to do. The chairs, sold in the southeastern U.S. under the name Johnny Weissmuller's American Massage Products, are one of several product lines and services—others include health foods, swimming pools and mail-order vitamin pills—to which he lends his name. The idea behind Weissmuller's appearance at the Home Show was that he would draw visitors into the booth by his presence, while Lorne Cameron, the Florida-based entrepreneur who distributes the massage chairs, would handle the actual selling.

In his pitch to potential customers, Cameron emphasized that the massage chairs help increase circulation, which was no minor selling point since, as he assured them, "circulation is life and stagnation is death." Helping him get the message across was his sales force of one, a rotund man named Red Willever, a veteran carnival barker, weight guesser and pitchman whose selling experience hitherto had been pretty much confined to knife sharpeners, food sheers and ironing-board covers.

"Johnny's a beautiful guy," Willever had enthused on Saturday morning while munching the first of the half-dozen 3 Musketeers bars he consumes daily. "He's down to earth, and that's what makes him great." What diluted that endorsement was that Willever volunteered it while waiting for Weissmuller to arrive in Chattanooga, before the two men had ever met.

Under his arrangement with Cameron, Weissmuller gets a piece of the action. Since Cameron had gone into the massage-chair business just a few months before, there had been very little action so far. Weissmuller seemed aware of the need for patience, but his two colleagues, working the booth, were restless. For Willever, it was a case of adjusting from the low-cost "impulse items" he had previously dealt in to expensive furniture—the price tag on a typical massage chair was $579. "With furniture everybody's a lot slower to buy," he complained. "I can't stand it when people walk away with my money in their pockets."

What irked Cameron was one couple in particular who walked away, a young man in a shiny green suit and his red-haired wife. Trying to sell the couple a massage chair Saturday night, Cameron had brought them to that critical moment when the customer teeters tantalizingly on the verge of a decision to buy. Crouched between the two massage chairs in which they were sitting, Cameron, order book in hand, made an inspired move to push them over the brink.

"Ask Johnny what he thinks," he urged the couple. "Go ahead."

Weissmuller, signing autographs a few feet away, caught his cue. As Cameron waited, Weissmuller gave the green-suited man an embarrassed look. "Boy, you won't regret it," he said softly.

Whether those words were responsible is impossible to say, but the couple not only decided then and there to buy but, what is more, agreed to pay cash. Pity that the deal could not be closed on the spot. Since they did not have the necessary $500-plus on them, they told Cameron they would have to go home for the money and then return Sunday, which they never did.

Waiting for the plane at the Chattanooga airport, Weissmuller could not get his mind off the article that Saga magazine published five years ago. He had been so upset at the time that he filed a $2 million libel suit, but he dropped it later. The article, which dealt harshly with his personal life, was subtitled Fate, Fat and Too Many Janes Make a Monkey of the Greatest Ape Man.

Later, seated inside the first-class cabin, Weissmuller brought up the subject of the Saga piece to the reporter accompanying him, then issued an admonition that was half plea and half command: "Don't mess with my legend."

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9