Launched on October 10, 1957, Zorro was that dashing, masked doer of good when the law wasn’t up to it, who carved a “Z” with his sword in the clothes of the bad guys, so they would never forget him.
Played by Guy Williams and created by Walt Disney Productions, Zorro ran for 78 episodes, until July 2, 1959.
How could a television show that lasted little more than a year-and-a-half be so memorable?
The protagonists were mild-mannered university student, Don Diego de la Vega, recalled from Spain to his father’s ranch in the then-Spanish-controlled Los Angeles, California.
He pretends he is poor with the sword, though he had won awards for his fencing in Spain and the opening episode shows him practicing swordplay with the Captain of the ship taking him home to California.
But, once home, when he realizes the situation with California’s corrupt colonial rulers, swordplay becomes reserved for his night-time adventures, fighting the injustice of the local military ruler, Captain Monasterio.
Diego’s father is Don Alejandro, a cattle baron with a highly-developed sense of fair play.
Bernardo, Zorro’s confidant and co-conspirator, though mute, who signs to communicate, pretends to be deaf as well so he can listen in on the evil guys plotting.
The part was played by a pantomimist, Gene Sheldon, son of a magician.
Before Zorro, he’d had various roles, as a seal trainer, clown, genie and banjo player.
The original Zorro story was created in 1919 by a pulp-fiction writer, Johnston McCulley, nearly 100 years after the time California was a Spanish territory, when the story is set.
Though the U.S. had bought Florida from Spain in 1819 and settled on a border from Lousiana to the Pacific Ocean, Lousianans didn’t agree with this interpretation of the Louisiana purchase and continued to settle in what had been disputed territory.
But, with the treaty sealing this interpretation signed in 1821, Mexico was freed from Spain and California became part of Mexico.
In 1847, Mexico ceded control over California to the U.S. as part of the settlement of the Mexican-American War.
Zorro’s character is recognizable in the Disney television series – a man masked and dressed in black who, by day, is a California nobleman, and by night humiliates the Spanish colonial masters of California to try to blunt their injustices against the people of the surrounding villages.
Some say he was partly based on the Mexican Joaquin Murrieta, who was attacked when he struck gold in California by local, jealous miners.
He became an outlaw and eventually killed many of the men who’d attacked him and his wife.
Another inspiration may have been the “Irish Zorro”, nicknamed El Zorro, after his time in Mexico, William Lamport, who lived in Mexico in the 17th century. His life was sensationalized in a fictional book.
After some years as a sailor, then a pirate, he found himself in Mexico to spy for the Spanish court sometime between 1633 and 1642.
But, he found himself sympathizing with the local Indian slaves and wrote the first documents promoting independence, land reform, racial equality and an elected monarch.
He was arrested for plotting a war against Spain and executed in 1659.
Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford picked the story for the first movie they produced, The Mark of Zorro, in 1920. Fairbanks starred as Zorro.
Remember the opening music? “Zorro, ‘the Fox,’ so cunning and free…”
Remember Zorro rearing up on his black horse, Toronado, sword flung high?
You can hear the lead-in song by clicking here, “Zorro, who makes the sign of the ‘Z’.”
And, click on Zorro, First Episode, to watch the whole first episode, set in Spanish California, 1820.
What was your favorite episode?
Carol Covin, Granny-Guru