On a recent snowy day as winter was finally winding down, I found myself passing through Chillicothe (as I often do for work and travel). While there, I figured I would finally check out Waxwing Books, stop for lunch at my favorite place in town (Castaways Bar and Grill) and even breezed past a local “landmark” where I saw many movies in my youth—the Town Theatre.
I also sallied towards the Chillicothe Historical Society in hopes of finally seeing something I’d only read and heard about—as is often the case with heroes and legends…
The legend in question is not the mysterious Grey Ghost of Illinois Valley, but one that leapt from the mind of writer Johnston McCulley, born in Ottawa, IL in 1883 but raised in Chillicothe.
Graduating high school in 1901, McCulley was known in his youth as a great speaker and storyteller. He worked as a reporter for Peoria Star, Peoria Journal, The Police Gazette, and served as an Army public affairs officer during World War I. He traveled extensively, and moved quite frequently (Southern California was a favorite location).
McCulley went on to write pulp magazines, hundreds of stories, fifty novels, and numerous screenplays and teleplays (many written under pseudonyms). He created many heroic characters, but is best remembered as the creator of the world’s most recognized pulp hero…
Out of the night,
When the full moon is bright,
Comes the horseman known…as Zorro!
A bold renegade carving “Zs” with his blade, Zorro was a character inspired largely by the Scarlet Pimpernel that first leapt onto the page from McCulley’s mind in 1919 with "The Curse of Capistrano", a story serialized in the pulp magazine All-Story Weekly. According to artist and author Peter Poplaski, McCulley is responsible for setting the standard in which all dual-identity heroes are based with Zorro, who of course maintained the alternate identity of Californio nobleman Don Diego de la Vega.
The Journal Star and other publications have written about McCulley’s connection to Chillicothe and I’ve read most (if not all) of it, eager to learn more about this story, which has never really been a secret but also is not very widely known. More light was shed when Popalski (a lifelong Zorro aficionado and collector) rode into town in 2012 to visit the hometown of his favorite hero’s creator.
Upon visiting the town and discovering that basically nothing had been done to memorialize the great writer, Popalski and the Chillicothe Historical Society came together to create the “Chillicothe’s Master Storyteller” exhibit dedicated in June of 2013 and now housed in the museum. Popalski (who divides his time between Green Bay, WI and Europe) donated his extensive collection of Zorro memorabilia to be displayed in honor of the legendary masked man and his creator. Popalski even painted the Zorro sign that now stands outside.
Since learning of this relatively new Zorro exhibit, I’ve been determined to get over there to check it out, but it never seems to be open. On this snowy day however, I lucked out!
At least the sign said it was open, but it sure didn’t look like it from the outside...
Inside however, I found the place quite charming and was greeted by Dianne Colwell, president of the Chillicothe Historical Society. The one room display was filled to the brim with Zorro memorabilia, and since I was the only visitor that day, Dianne was able to show me around and give me the full story on things.
The collection housed right on Fourth St. is remarkably thorough. By reading the history found along the walls and displays, I was able to learn more about “the fox so cunning and free” which I admittedly knew best by a few movies from the 90s and late night Disney Channel programming in the 80’s.
Zorro made his first of many appearances onscreen in the 1920 film The Mark of Zorro starring Douglas Fairbanks, which was an adaptation of “Capistrano” and the first film made by United Artists, the company founded by Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and DW Griffith. (Fun trivia: this is also the film that the young Bruce Wayne attended with his parents the night they were gunned down in the original Batman comics.) McCulley intended Zorror to be a “one-off” character, but the success of the film increased interest and demand for more Zorro stories. Like any creative property, Zorro’s popularity ebbed and flowed often through the earlier decades in the 20th century.
Hollywood re-boots as it turns out, are not a new trend-The Mark of Zorro was re-made with Tyrone Power in 1940, and the character saw his next surge in popularity.
Zorro appeared in four novels, and McCulley also made an arrangement with the pulp publication West Magazine to produce new Zorro stories for each issue. The first of these stories appeared in July 1944 and the last one appeared in the publication’s final issue in July 1951, bringing the total of Zorro stories found in its pages to fifty-three.
The exhibit carried a sizable collection of novels, comics, and other literature in many languages, appropriate as Zorro got his start on the page and appealed to such a huge worldwide audience.
Much of the memorabilia found at the Zorro exhibit of course came from the Zorro television series, which ran from 1957-59 (with subsequent television specials) and is probably the most enduring portrayal of the character, thanks in no little part I’m sure to the marketing/merchandising bonanza that the Disney company was even in those days.
If you walk around Disneyland today, you can meet Mary Poppins and Jack Sparrow, but is it actually Julie Andrews or Johnny Depp playing the characters they made famous on film? Of course not. In the magical black and white 1950’s however, Guy Williams (the actual Zorro everyone saw on television) made many appearances in character at Uncle Walt’s newly opened park, even crossing swords with “bad guys” and scaling the rooftops of Frontierland’s fiberglass haciendas for admiring audiences below.
Disney marketing and synergy worked its magic with Zorro, who became quite a popular character for children’s dress-up play and Halloween costumes.
In addition to masks and play swords, many toys and other items with the Zorro logo were created, and the Chillicothe exhibit houses many of them in this display case. Some were quite popular items and common expectations, like lunchboxes and PEZ dispensers…
And some were a little strange. Imagine a swarm of children in masks like this. Terrifying.
One of my favorites was this plastic Zorro figure, pregnant with ancient chocolate eggs (because...why not?)
There was no shortage of other campy fun to the place either. This little display greets you in one corner of the room, a tribute to the popularity that Zorro once had with children, not unlike the way Harry Potter does now (they’re still into Harry Potter right? The only thing I can really be sure of with kids these days is that they seem to be allergic to everything and own cell phones at eight years old).
Even practical items, like this filing cabinet they had no other place for, are themed and painted to fit into the room.
Of course, there are many posters on display from the various international Zorro movies, made mostly in Europe in the 60’s and 70’s at a time where Zorro was very popular overseas.
Dianne even showed me a stack of large posters that weren’t put out for display yet—space is somewhat limited there, and they had not found room for them.
Also in the stack was this gem from a Zorro film starring George Hamilton. I chuckled at it, and Dianne said “looks like this one’s from The Gay Blade.” I thought she was cracking jokes, until I realized it really is from 1981’s Zorro The Gay Blade...
In my opinion, this was the best item in the whole place: An epee sword actually used onscreen in the Disney Zorro series.
Zorro saw another surge of popularity in the ‘90’s with the release of several new movies, so of course no Zorro collection would be complete without a life-size cardboard version of cinema’s most recent incarnation, Antonio “How Do You Say…Ah, Yes!” Banderas.
The final Zorro story by Johnston McCulley appeared in Short Story Magazine in April 1959, a few months after his November 1958 death in Los Angeles, where he is also buried. At the time, television’s Zorro was at the height of its popularity.
It seems as though McCulley had little to do with the community of Chillicothe after leaving his wife and skipping town with a mistress in early 1909. The rest of his life was spent traveling extensively and relocating often, citing that to be a writer, you could live anywhere, and all you needed was access to a mailbox.
Regardless of his disassociation with the community, McCulley was posthumously given a Distinguished Alumni Award by the IVC School District 321 last year.
Dianne told me the Historical Society would love to continue doing more to capitalize on the town’s connection to McCulley, but lack of funds are currently preventing ideas like an annual Zorro Festival or even a local kids fan club (much like the ones that used to spring up) from coming to fruition. Such activities would not only shine more light on the famous writer’s connection to the area but also be great economic opportunities for the community.
With the recent buzz that soon Hollywood will reboot Zorro once again, perhaps one of cinema’s most dashing masked men will once again see another wave of popularity that would give Chillicothe the means necessary to do more.
But in the meantime, if you can manage to catch it during its limited hours of operation, stop in to see the enjoyable “Johnston McCulley: Chillicothe’s Master Storyteller” exhibit for a brush with a Master Hero—EL ZORRO!
Bonus Video From The Brazilionaires!
A couple of weeks ago we went and saw The Brazilioniares at Noir Bar Tapas & Rendezvous Lounge. Well, they have a brand new video out and Rico sent me a link to it. Check it out, the song is called, “Lullaby To The Sun,” and it features Rico and Dove in postcards from around the world. It’s a great song and a fun video, check it out and thanks to Rico for sending the video to us!
A Zorro Makeover From Jaws The Cabbie!
Jaws the Cabbie gave Zorro a makeover and he looks like he's ready to occupy Wall Street! Thanks, Jaws!