Zorro to leave his mark at benefit for Jewish teens

Was the legendary Zorro Jewish?

Was he a swashbuckler in Spanish California by day and a reader of Zohar by night?

While much of the lore about the masked swordsman is swathed in mystery, Zorro has an indisputable local Jewish connection.

Just ask John Gertz, president of Berkeley's Zorro Productions, which co-produced "The Mask of Zorro," starring Antonio Banderas and Anthony Hopkins.

"It's quite obvious Zorro is very Jewish," said Gertz, who is also the president of the Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center.

"His family has escaped to the far reaches of the Spanish empire in California. He is interested in matters of justice. He has a hidden identity. He is clearly a Marrano. He is definitely Jewish and ready to come out of the closet at our premiere."

At Sunday's premiere of the film at Oakland's Jack London Cinema, Zorro will become an honorary member of the East Bay Jewish community. Proceeds from the benefit screening and salsa party, hosted by Zorro Productions, will benefit four East Bay Jewish community teen programs.

The black-garbed swordsman has been intriguing filmgoers for several generations. He made his debut in a silent film in 1920. In 1957, Disney revived the character in a popular TV series that spawned Zorro accessories and a song by the Chordettes. Zorro Productions, which owns all copyrights to Zorro, was launched in the late '60s. Before "The Mask of Zorro," the character most recently reappeared in movies in the 1982 spoof, "Zorro, the Gay Blade."

Gertz got involved in the business to support himself while in graduate school. He decided to leave his studies in biology to expand the company into further TV and film opportunities.

Gertz developed the concept for the new Zorro movie in the Berkeley office. "My twin sister wrote the first script. We then came up with a list of the 19 most important Hollywood executives. We set up an auction for the script and 18 scripts were picked up," Gertz said.

It turns out the one person who did not pick up the script then was Steven Spielberg. But once he found out about the movie, he was very interested and ended up choosing to fund the movie.

"When he grew up, he loved Zorro," Gertz remarked. "He said as a 12-year-old kid, `Zorro' played around the corner. Those old Zorro movies taught him how to film cliffhangers, and some of the Indiana Jones stunts are from those Zorro movies."

The production of the movie began in 1991 and originally had cast the late Raoul Julia and Andy Garcia in the lead roles. Gertz's team continued to work on the "high-end creative side," making changes on plot and story structure, and coordinating merchandising around the movie.

In addition to his work as a self-described "minor movie mogul," on July 1, Gertz took over as president of the BRJCC. He looks forward to broadening the financial contributions to the agency and expanding adult education and programming, including work with teens.

Sandy Curtis, creative director at Zorro Productions and Gertz's wife, orchestrated the benefit to raise funds for teen programs at BRJCC as well as the Volunteer Action Center of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay, Jewish Family and Children's Services of the East Bay and Looking Behind the Mask, a youth drama project.

The post-film party will include salsa dancing, fencing demonstrations, tapas and sangria. Zorro Productions will be selling Zorro T-shirts signed by Banderas and Hopkins to benefit the four organizations.

Curtis' recent book, "Zorro Unmasked: The Official History" published by Hyperion, which describes the life of the Zorro character up to the present, will also be on sale.

"We want to create a fiesta feeling to celebrate," Curtis said. "If people want to come in period fiesta costume attire, that is great."