Author, illustrator and Flintoid Tom Pohrt remembers the day pulp writer Johnston McCulley's creation walked the streets of Vehicle City.
“A friend of the people, El Zorro!”
1958: Unemployment in the U.S. was at 7% and a gallon of gas was 25 cents; Sputnik burned up re-entering earth’s atmosphere in early January and Nikita Khrushchev became Premier of the Soviet Union; Joao Gilberto introduced the cooled down samba sound of Bossa Nova in Rio while Fidel Castro’s revolutionary army was advancing on Havana; Ted Williams signed with the Red Sox; the right wing John Birch Society was founded; Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial novel “Lolita” is published in the U.S. and the first International House of Pancakes opened in Toluca Lake, California.
And Zorro came to Flint. It was a heady year.
The Zorro TV show was co-sponsored by AC Spark Plugs and this was the reason why he was visiting Flint. Our father held a white collar job at AC, giving us entree to the factory lot where Guy Williams and Henry Calvin appeared to tour the plant and sign autographs. Henry Calvin played the overweight Sergeant Demetrio Lopez Garcia, Zorro’s comic foil.
In August of 1958, when I was five years old, Zorro did come to Flint, Michigan. Zorro, aka Don Diego de la Vega, was played by a second generation Italian-American actor named Guy Williams, whose Christian name was Armando Catalano. My brothers and I were glued to the TV each week to watch Zorro on The Wonderful World of Disney. El Zorro was a friend of the people and an enemy of injustice to three young boys brought up in post war Flint. He wore a black mask, cape and hat and wielded a wicked sword, each week whipping a capital Z across some Spanish villain’s pants or shirt. Zorro had an Errol Flynn mustache and matinee idol good looks. In short, Diego de la Vega was the essence of '50s cool. Google Williams’ screen test for the role he later played on Lost In Space. The guy knew how to light a cigarette.
Here is a photograph of my brothers Karl and Dick getting Sergeant Garcia’s autograph. I’m standing there in short pants, my hand reaching up but with no paper or pencil for a signature. I remember that rather awkward moment. I recall that Henry Calvin shook my hand. I do remember I was a bit afraid of Guy Williams. He was tall at 6’3 and just too cool to approach. I came across these images while going through and organizing some family photographs. The photo of my brothers and I with Henry Calvin looks like it might have been a publicity shot for AC.
There is another small group of photos that my father took of Calvin and Williams signing autographs along with several of the AC beauty queens, from Flint and Milwaukee. I also came across another group of snap shots showing a parade held later in downtown Flint, celebrating GM’s Golden Milestone. They show a military parade with numerous floats, including one with Zorro and Sergeant Garcia in costume. They appear to be acting out their roles for the entertainment of the crowd.
Here's a clipping I found from an AC newsletter titled: WARM WELCOME LEAVES MARK ON ZORRO! Hard not to feel a certain innocence-lost looking back on these images, when in fact this took place during the heart of the Cold War era.
Originally published September 3, 2010.