Zorro at Disneyland

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

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, the fox so cunning and free.
Zorro, who makes the sign of the “Z”.

For a certain generation, that Zorro theme song still stirs the blood and conjures up images of Halloween past when children dressed up as their hero (Ben Cooper costumes in 1958 announced that their Zorro costume was outselling all others by a ratio of three to one), but today’s youth is hopelessly unfamiliar with Disney’s interpretation of the classic character.

Somewhere in a corner of my storage unit in a forgotten box are some fading color slides of me as a child of 8 dressed up as Zorro for Halloween with my itchy black mask snapping against my face and my black plastic cape draping inelegantly down my back. I seem to recall my plastic sword doing a good deal of damage before it broke in two parts, thanks to my vigorous thrusts in the name of justice. This past Halloween, my 4-year-old nephew had a similar experience with his light saber when he was dressed up as Luke Skywalker.

Walt considered many actors for the role of Zorro/Don Diego and the main antagonist in the first 13 episodes, Captain Enrique Sanchez Monastario. Dozens of actors including Hugh O’Brian, John Lupton, Jack Kelly, Dennis Weaver, David Janssen, Henry Darrow and others were tested until it came down to Guy Williams and Britt Lomond.

Walt reportedly wanted Lomond for the part of Zorro since he had more theatrical experience, but writer-director Norman Foster preferred Williams in the role because he showed a greater flexibility and cast Lomond as the villain.

Henry Calvin (as Sergeant Garcia) and Gene Sheldon (as the mute servant Bernardo) garnered almost as much affection for their roles as the two leads.

Today, the fabled Disney backlot where Zorro fought for justice (and Walt locked up Ken Murray’s two daughters in a jail cell for their father to rescue them on Murray’s home movies) is a parking garage.

The complete series of these popular Zorro episodes has just been released as the latest in the Disney Treasures Wave, but only in an edition of 30,000 copies, the smallest release of any Disney Treasures Wave, as if to guarantee that the infamous Disney “accounteers” can show the-powers-that-be that this series “only” sold 30,000 in comparison with past releases and kill any future waves.

Walt was known for doing cross promotions like having the Mousekeeters and Fess Parker (as Davy Crockett) appear at Disneyland. As the half-hour Zorro ABC adventure show became a success, Walt had the cast appear at Disneyland for special appearances dubbed “Zorro Days” and publicized it with large local newspaper advertisements. Williams, Lomond, Calvin and Sheldon were announced. Missing from those announcements was Buddy Van Horn.

Stuntman Wayne “Buddy” Van Horn was hired primarily as Guy Williams’ double. Wisely, at the urging of Britt Lomond, Van Horn practiced with Fred Cavens, who choreographed the fencing scenes (just as he had done with Douglas Fairbanks Sr., Errol Flynn, Tyrone Power and Basil Rathbone in many classic films) and coached the actors. Van Horn was also the stunt coordinator for any action other than fencing.

It is Van Horn who often doubled in the horseback riding scenes and any dangerous leaping off of walls, running across rooftops or swinging on ropes. While Williams was athletic and capable of doing much of this action, if he had been accidentally injured it would have delayed shooting and been a costly postponement. Ironically, the studio released some publicity stills of Van Horn dressed as Zorro, assuming the audience wouldn’t know the difference between him and Williams, promptly someone to joke to Williams that he had better be careful because Disney could put anybody in the costume.

It was Van Horn, attired as Zorro, who did some of the daring stunts at the Disneyland shows like dashing over the rooftops of the Golden Horseshoe Revue. Later personal appearances had Van Horn accompany Williams for fencing demonstrations, taking on the role of the villain, and sometimes Van Horn performing as Zorro himself when Williams was unavailable (like a Disney family night at the Hollywood Bowl in the Summer of 1958).

Fortunately, Van Horn does appear in one of the extras on the Treasures discs.

In the early years at Disneyland, there were five major Zorro appearances at Disneyland: April 26-27,1958 ; May 30-June 1, 1958; November 27-30, 1958; November 26-29, 1959; and, finally November, 11-13, 1960.

Lomond did not appear at the November 1958 appearance because of a conflict, but Williams appeared by himself for personal appearances at Disneyland in Christmas 1958. The Zorro cast appeared on a float for the June 15, 1959 parade Kodak Presents Disneyland ‘59 television special.

As Lomond remembered, “Personal appearances for all the principal actors in the Zorro cast were always very important to Walt and to the other executives at the studio. They all felt that it was very important for the cast to always stay in contact with their admiring viewers. This was included in every star’s contract and many of the featured player’s contracts on the shows as well.”

During “Zorro Days,” the actors appeared in the parades each day and also performed in Frontierland for four shows daily. Three of the shows were a running battle between Zorro and Monastario over the rooftops of Frontierland, usually with a sword fight aboard the Mark Twain and some of Zorro’s foes ending up in the Rivers of America.

The fourth show was in Magnolia Park, generally for autographs or sometimes an impromptu fencing match with guest volunteers. Williams and Lomond would again cross swords for the enjoyment of the guests, and Calvin and Sheldon would amuse the crowds with comedy and magic.

“I suggested we invite anyone from the audience the opportunity to fence, or ‘sword fight’ as we called it, with Zorro," said publicist John Ormond. "We always had two or three ‘takers’ at each show who wanted to take Guy on. This is a piece of audience participation that worked well at Disneyland whenever Zorro appeared. And by the way, we were using real swords. At Disneyland, we had a security and screening process so things couldn’t get out of hand.“

Lomond recalled:

“Disney always liked the casts of his shows to make appearances at Disneyland. It was great for attendance at the park and a lot of Zorro products were sold at the same time. Things like little Zorro costumes, play swords, puzzles, games and dozens of other items relating to the series. Money would pour into the Disney coffers. These personal appearances were a great moneymaker for the studio and Walt knew it certainly helped in the ratings which made ABC a very happy puppy.

“The Disney Studio’s Production Coordinator, Lou Debney, set all the details of the appearance. The program Lou had for Guy and I at Disneyland was a very good one. There was a replica of a Mississippi steam boat called the Mark Twain. We were to perform in costume one of our spectacular fencing routines on the upper deck of the paddle-wheeler, at the end of which, I would be disarmed and go into my usual Monastario fist clenching and facial grimaces. Guy meanwhile would laugh at the commandant’s disgrace and run down the gangplank to his trusty black stallion, leap onto the saddle, wave to the adoring crowd and ride off into the sunset (or the usual California smog). Every one of us would then join in a parade down the Main Street of Disneyland. Henry Calvin and Gene Sheldon would sit in a car behind Guy and I riding on our respective black and white horses. We would wave to the adoring crowds that lined either side of the street, cheering us as we passed by them.

“Everything sounded great—both Guy and I were very pleased with the program that Lou had presented. We practiced one of our fencing routines for the series for several days in the large back yard of my house in Studio City. My house was easier to work at because Guy still lived in an apartment in Hollywood.

“Finally the day came of our first personal appearance at Disneyland. Everything went perfectly smooth…almost. Guy and I did our fencing routine on the deck of the Mark Twain, ending with my sword sailing into the air, as Guy disarmed me. He then strutted down the gangplank and ran to his black stallion where he was to leap into the saddle, lifting his sword in victory and ride off. Great! However, when we tried this routine for the first time at Disneyland, Guy missed the horse’s saddle and sailed completely over him, landing on the pavement and sliding into a pool of muddy water on the other side. A bit humiliating! The audience and I laughed uncontrollably. I’m sorry but we just could not help it. The picture of Guy’s expression and the mud still dripping off his nose was too much for everyone. I quickly raised my arm in victory and bowed graciously to the applauding crowd. This was the Commandante’s one and only victory over his nemesis, Zorro.”

To be fair, others don’t necessarily remember that incident (or at least as colorfully as Lomond recounted it).

Of course, none of this information appears in the supplementary features on the Zorro Treasures, even though there were a host of other public appearances of Guy Williams as Zorro, including the Pasadena Rose Parade in 1958 and 1959. When there was litigation with ABC over the rights to Zorro, Guy Williams might be on the road for up to three weeks at a time doing personal appearances at state fairs, shopping centers and riding in parades. He often made $2,500 an appearance, which was much more than the salary he was getting at Disney.

However, for those readers who would like to catch a glimpse of what “Zorro Days” looked like, I would suggest visiting these stories (link) and (link).

If you want to see color film footage of “Zorro Days,” again do not look at the Treasures set, but search out a DVD titled The Original Disneyland—The 1950s from Window to the Magic where, through estate sales, eBay and more, more than 50 home movies taken at Disneyland during the 1050s were purchased and edited into an outstanding, unique glimpse of Walt’s original park. Besides footage of “Zorro Days” on the Mark Twain, there is even color footage of Snow Hill before it evolved into the Matterhorn and many other surprises.

And to supplement all the other information missing from the Zorro Treasures, I strongly recommend visiting this site (link), or ordering a copy of The Zorro Television Companion by Gerry Dooley (link)

After the final four hour-long episodes ran on the Disneyland television program (even though six episodes had been originally announced), Guy Williams temporarily put away his mask.

“The show has been a great experience, but Zorro is a role I both love and hate. It wasn’t what I prepared for as an actor. I’m not worried about being typed as Zorro because the whole thing has had so many pleasant aspects to it. Besides, such typecasting buys a lot of groceries…” Williams said with a laugh.