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By Jan Siegel
The year 2020 has many events that are celebrating a 100th anniversary. These events have all had a profound effect on San Juan Capistrano. Throughout the year, these events will be highlighted.
The song “When the Swallows Return to Capistrano” was written by Leon Rene in 1939 and first recorded in 1940. Popular artists such as Xavier Cugat, the Ink Spots, Glen Miller, Gene Krupa, Gene Autry, Tony Martin, Pat Boone and Elvis Presley helped put San Juan Capistrano on the world map. But 20 years before the song, there were a series of cliff-hanging stories by Johnston McCulley that already had made San Juan Capistrano a household name.
In 1919, The All-Story Weekly pulp magazine published a series of stories by McCulley titled “The Curse of Capistrano” and introduced the public to the Zorro character. Zorro was the first super hero. He set up the stories of Superman, the Shadow, Spider Man, the Green Hornet, Captain Marvel, Batman, Wonder Woman and many more. In 1920, the silent movie was renamed the “The Mark of Zorro” and was made with Douglas Fairbanks as the title character. The short stories of McCulley were turned into a novel with the movie name. Years later, a TV series would also become popular, and more movies would follow.
The original story line was divided into 39 short chapters, each one ending with a cliff-hanging question to make the reader want to buy the next installment of the magazine. Although called The Curse of Capistrano, the hero does not spend a great deal of time here. His stay is mentioned only once in episode 17. It states, “He (Zorro) will ride around Reina de Los Angeles and take the trail to San Luis Rey. He will rest for a time, no doubt, to throw off all pursuit, and then will continue to the vicinity of San Juan Capistrano. That is where he began this wild life of his, and for that reason, the Curse of Capistrano he is called. Yes, he will go to Capistrano.”
Very little is actually known about Johnston McCulley. His life is one of contradiction, speculation and mystery. One thing we do know is that between 1944 and 1951, he wrote 53 more Zorro stories for West Magazine, another pulp publication. After the magazine folded, two more Zorro stories were published, one in 1954 and one in 1959, one year after McCulley’s death.
You can spend a Moment In Time either checking out The Curse of Capistrano at the library or watching episodes of the TV show on YouTube. But because of Johnston McCulley and Leon Rene, you can be sure that when you say you are from San Juan Capistrano, people have heard of our small village.
Jan Siegel was a 33-year resident of San Juan Capistrano and now resides in the neighboring town of Rancho Mission Viejo. She served on the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission for 13 years, has been a volunteer guide for the San Juan Capistrano Friends of the Library’s architectural walking tour for 26 years and is currently the museum curator for the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society. She was named Woman of the Year by the Chamber of Commerce in 2005, Volunteer of the Year in 2011 and was inducted into the city’s Wall of Recognition in 2007.