Sometimes it’s hard to find that heroic balance. Make him too tough, and he’s too scary for the kids. Make him too nice, and nobody takes him seriously. Make him too ugly, and you lose the romance. Make him into a pretty boy, and once more, nobody takes him seriously. But every once in a while, somebody gets it exactly right. Such was the case of Zorro, the handsome and heroic man in black.
Created by Johnston McCulley in 1919, Zorro starred in dozens of magazine stories and novels, becoming an international smash. Douglas Fairbanks had brought “the fox” to the silver screen in 1920’s The Mark of Zorro, and subsequent sequels and remakes found John Carroll, George Turner and Tyrone Power taking up the mask in cinematic adventures. Walt Disney took notice of the Zorro hoopla, and in the early 1950’s, he took control of the rights to the famed character. When extra funds were needed to boost the Disneyland theme park, Disney brought the man in black out for his first television series.
TV’s Zorro told the story of Spanish nobleman Don Diego de la Vega, son of Don Alejandro de la Vega. The elder Don lived in the Los Angeles area of 1820’s California, and when ruthless Spanish armies started making trouble in town, Don Alejandro called Don Diego back home to defend the common man. To Don Alejandro’s dismay, Don Diego didn’t seem to care, adopting a cowardly attitude toward his persecutors. But what the father didn’t know was that by night, Don Diego rode into action on his trusty black mount, Tornado, fighting the forces of evil as Zorro (so named for the ‘Z’ sign he made with three sword strokes).
Always at Zorro’s side was his trusty manservant Bernardo, a mute who pretended to be deaf in order to listen in on conversations for his master. Together, the two opposed the rule of army commandant Captain Monastario and other heartless officers. Somewhere in the middle was the exotically plump Sergeant Garcia, a comic relief character whose love of food and strong drink often made him an accidental ally of Zorro’s.
In his first season on television, Zorro didn’t have much time for love—there were too many swordfights to be swordfought, after all—but Disney eventually rewarded the masked swordsman with a lady love in Anna Marie Verdugo. Wanted political activist Nacho Torres and his daughter Elena figured heavily into many second-season episodes as well, but Zorro stuck primarily with his one-man vigilante show.
Zorro was an absolute smash on television, thanks in part to the large sums Disney lavished on sets and other production design. The show was one of the more expensive programs on television in the mid-50’s, but the gamble paid off. Not only was Zorro a success, it also led to a Davy Crockett-sized cornucopia of merchandise: toys, playsuits, games, swords, lunchboxes and so on. The show’s theme song was another hit, reaching the Top-20 with a version by The Chordettes. And in a less appreciated sign of the program’s popularity, kids carved large Z’s into anything that stood still long enough to be tagged.
Unfortunately for The Fox’s many young fans, the show was cut short by business and legal problems. Arguments between Disney and ABC over ownership of both Zorro and the Disneyland TV program escalated in 1959, and Zorro was taken off the air. Disney planned to return the character to full-time action once the fracas settled, but four one-hour specials were all Zorro fans got. The character lived on in books, cartoons, movies, toys and future television series, but in the minds of 50’s kids, there was only one true man in black, and he had one swell theme song.
“Out of the night, when the full moon is bright,
Comes the horseman known as Zorro,
This bold renegade carves a ‘Z’ with his blade,
A ‘Z’ that stands for Zorro…”
“Zorro, Zorro, the fox so cunning and free,
Zorro, Zorro, who makes the sign of the Z…”
USA / ABC – Walt Disney / 70×25 minute episodes / Broadcast 10 October 1957 – 24 September 1959
Creator: Johnston McCulley / Producer: William H. Anderson / Executive Producer: Walt Disney / Theme Music: Norman Foster, George Bruns
GUY WILLIAMS as Don Diego de la Vega/Zorro
GENE SHELDON as Bernado
HENRY CALVIN as Sgt Demetrio Lopez Garcia
BRITT LOMOND as Captain Monastario (1958-58)
JOLENE BRAND as Anna Maria Verdugo (1958-59)
GEORGE J. LEWIS as Don Alejandro
JAN ARVAN as Don Ignacio Torres (1957)
VINTON HAYWORTH as Magistrate Carlos Galindo (1958)
ROMNEY BRENT as Padre Felipe (1957)
DON DIAMOND as Cpl Reyes (1958-59)