beamjockey (beamjockey) wrote,

The Dark Secret of Chillicothe

These days we have been making many trips back and forth to repair the house of my late mother-in-law. It's in the vicinity of Henry, about two hours from where we live. We go on to stay with family in Peoria, about 45 minutes beyond that.

As a consequence, we find ourselves driving, as we often have, through Chillicothe, Illinois, population 6000.

A few weeks ago, a new sign appeared.


The sign whizzed by. Synapses fired in the next few hundred milliseconds. Zorro? Why would a historical society have a Zorro exhibit? Wait, wasn't the author who created Zorro a guy with a name something like McCulley?

By the time we got where we were going, I was bursting with curiosity, but also out of range of my cellphone network. I had to wait for hours before I could google.

Sure enough, Zorro, the masked swordsman of old California, sprang from the pen of Johnston McCulley. The Chillicothe Historical Society recently became aware that McCulley grew up in their town, graduating from Chillicothe High in 1901. They've decided they ought to celebrate him. An exhibit opened earlier this summer.

I didn't know much about Zorro. His name came up in my studies of pulp fiction and comics. I had seen a few Zorro movies and a few episodes of a TV show. But I loved the idea that an ordinary-looking town could secretly be connected to a legendary swashbuckling hero.

Last week, a new sign appeared.

A life-size figure of Zorro himself now adorns Chillicothe's Fourth Street (which I think of as Route 29).

Zorro, Johnston McCulley's masked hero, greets the world outside the Chillicothe Historical Society on Illinois Route 29.

The magnificent Zorro sign. He may be a two-dimensional character, but his popularity has endured for nearly a century.

The signature of artist and Zorro maven Peter Poplaski may be seen along Z's boot.

The sign was designed by Peter Poplaski, a comics artist and scholar who is a thoroughly devoted Zorro enthusiast. He provided the museum with some of its memorabilia, and with an impressive portrait of McCulley which now hangs there.

Here's a video clip of Mr. Poplaski discussing how Zorro was distinct from other adventure heroes of the time (after a commercial rolls).

Read The Curse of Capistrano, the 1919 story in which McCulley introduced Zorro. Or download the book version, retitled The Mark of Zorro.

Almost immediately, Hollywood embraced the mysterious black-clad crusader. You can watch the 1920 silent film The Mark of Zorro, starring Douglas Fairbanks and directed by Fred Niblo.

Here's a 1958 Life spread on the TV incarnation, including plenty of masked children with swords and mustaches.

Further talkies, radio shows, movie serials, extremely corny clips of Walt Disney plugging Zorro to the Mouseketeers, comics, audiobooks, and cartoons I will leave as an exercise for the googler.

So far, I have not found myself in Chillicothe on a Wednesday, a Saturday, or a Sunday between 1 and 4. Therefore I have not yet seen the McCulley exhibit.

But I will one day. I feel it is my destiny.
Tags: comics, history, movies, never pass a fiberglass mascot, television

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