The television version of Zorro, like its previous movie incarnations, was based on stories written by Johnston McCulley. These stories recounted exploits of the swashbuckling alter-ego of Don Diego de la Vega in colonial California.
The most popular and recognizable TV version of Zorro was the Disney Studios production for ABC. The two organizations had entered into a joint production agreement in 1954, an agreement which bore immediate fruit with Disneyland and The Mickey Mouse Club. Walt Disney had purchased the rights to the Zorro stories in the early 1950s but pilot production stalled while Walt focused on construction of his Disneyland theme park. Zorro went into production in 1957 and enjoyed immense popularity on ABC for two years, from October 1957 to September 1959.
Guy Williams played Zorro, the mysterious hero who righted wrongs perpetrated on the common people by the evil Captain Monastario (Britt Lomond), commandant of the Fortress de Los Angeles. Don Diego's father, Don Alejandro (George J. Lewis), persuaded his son to return to California from Spain and do his utmost to foil Monastario and his dimwitted underling, Sergeant Garcia (Henry Calvin). Zorro's true identity was known only to his deaf-mute servant Bernardo (Gene Sheldon). Depending on the situation Zorro rode one of two trusty mounts, one black (Tornado) and one white (Phantom). Each episode began with Zorro sticking a message on the Commandant's door, "My sword is a flame to right every wrong, so heed well my name--Zorro."
Though it used almost all Caucasian actors, the story of Zorro stands out in the television landscape of 1957 for featuring an Hispanic hero figure. Roles and role models for Hispanic-Americans were absent from the television productions of the era and this acknowledgement of the Hispanic culture and the heroism of many of its constituents was considered a forward step.
Yet the characters were broadly drawn and often stereotypical. The conflict in Zorro was a simple distillation: a decadent, militaristic monarchy which exercised a corrupt, greedy rule over simple, God-loving folk versus the mysterious, altruistic defender of honesty and virtue. The archetypal characters of Monastario, Garcia, and Zorro provided easy markers of good and evil for the children of Zorro's target audience. Evil was effeminate, devious, slovenly, and doltish. Good was decisive and (in the words of another Disney Studios product), "brave, truthful, and unselfish." Even as the prime-time western genre was approaching the end of its cycle by reinventing itself as "adult," the western genre for children remained a comfortable and predictable haven of values championed by Walt Disney and, in turn, the middle class.
By the late 1950s and early 1960s, the relationship between ABC and the Disney Studios had soured. The Mickey Mouse Club was dropped after its fourth season. Though the network claimed this was due to flagging sponsorship, Walt Disney believed it was because of excessive commercial minutes. Zorro, still quite popular, was also cancelled. ABC now owned enough shows to make the purchase of programs from independent producers less necessary. To make matter worse, ABC forbade the Disney Studios from selling its product to a competing network, and while legal wrestling changed that restriction, it was clear that The Disney Studios had become a casualty of the fledgling network's success.
But Zorro also serves as an early example of what can happen to the popularity of a show when it is extensively merchandised. Because it was a Disney Studios product, Zorro had the benefit of the studio's massive merchandising machinery. During the run of the show, and for many years thereafter, Zorro spawned a huge number of items--hats, knives, masks, capes, pencil and lunch boxes--sold with the Zorro logo. The original theme was recorded for the opening of the show by Henry Calvin, who played Sergeant Garcia, and made into a popular hit record by the musical group called the Chordettes. During the two years that Zorro ran on ABC, the Disney merchandising juggernaut generated millions in additional income and kept the profile of the program high, especially with children. Even years after the popularity of the Disney Studios and ABC's Zorro had waned, the merchandising continued. When Zorro became a children's cartoon in the 1970s, a PEZ dispenser capped with Zorro's masked visage enjoyed healthy sales.
In some ways, Zorro serves as a model for much that is right and much that is wrong with children's television. It often propounded positive values and altruistic behavior, but it was ultimately one of the first of a long line of productions used solely to deliver a huge number of children to advertisers.
The image of Zorro remains prevalent today. From McCulley's original stories, through the movie with Tyrone Power and the serial with Clayton Moore, the Disney version for ABC, the Saturday morning cartoon, and the cable remake on the Family Channel in 1988, Zorro still has appeal. Even today, colorized versions of the original black-and-white episodes shot by Disney are cablecast on the Disney Channel, introducing the next wave of children to "a horseman known as Zorro."
Hollis, Richard. The Disney Studio Story. London: Octopus Books, 1989.