Old Mission San Luis Rey de Francia: Where Hollywood filmed early movies, TV shows

Old Mission San Luis Rey de Francia: Where Hollywood filmed early movies, TV shows
Guy Williams played the title character in the popular television series, "Zorro" which aired in 1957. Photo via Facebook

OCEANSIDE — If you thought Antonio Banderas was the first actor to play the black-masked hero Zorro (“Mask of Zorro,” 1998,) guess again. Quite a few before him yielded the mighty sword.

For instance, in 1957, actor Guy Williams starred in the popular 1950s TV series “Zorro,” which had portions filmed at the famous Old Mission San Luis Rey de Francia in Oceanside. Prior to the series, in 1920, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. starred in the silent film “The Mask of Zorro,” filmed at the Mission San Juan Capistrano.

Over the years, there have been many movies, TV series and productions about the famed character, and too many to list here.

Founded in 1798, Old Mission San Luis Rey de Francia, known as the King of the Missions, is a National Historic Landmark. The largest of all the 21 California missions, it is home to a community of Franciscan Friars and is open daily to the public.

The Zorro character was first created in 1919 by novelist Johnston McCully in his book “The Curse of Capistrano,” which centered on the swordsman named Zorro aka The Fox. This character later became a classic hero of early California when Disney created the TV series starring Williams.

The Zorro tales were a myth and showcased images of “white-washed adobes walls, chivalrous Dons, beautiful senoritas, ‘ubiquitous padres,’ and the simple, loyal Indians,” according to the book “The Real World of Mission San Luis Rey” by the late Jim Downs, edited by Iris Engstrand, PhD, a professor of history emerita at the University of San Diego and published by Old Mission San Luis Rey Historic Foundation.

Disney takes charge

As for the action-adventure Western series starring Williams, it was produced by Walt Disney Productions. It was based on the Zorro character created by McCulley, and the series premiered on Oct. 10, 1957, on ABC and ended July 2, 1959. Seventy-eight episodes were produced, and four hourlong specials were aired on the Walt Disney anthology series between Oct. 30, 1960 and April 2, 1961.

And according to the mission’s archives, as well as those who work there like Executive Director Kathleen Flanagan, Disney Productions filmed some early episodes starring Williams on-site. In fact, after it wrapped up filming, Disney left behind props that are still viewable at the Mission.

For example, there is a set of cemetery gates it created because the gates already installed at the cemetery on-site weren’t what they wanted.

According to Christie Sahhar, the mission’s museum director, episodes 2, 3, 4, and 12, were all filmed at the Mission. She added the front of the Mission, the cemetery, arcade, Bell Tower, colonnade area and inside the church are all areas that appeared. Also in the cemetery is a commemoration plaque dedicated to Williams.

“Zorro definitely scaled our Bell Tower in one scene,” Sahhar said. “The cemetery gates are on display in our museum and they are pretty neat.”

“It is fun to share our movie history with others. It is one more dimension of the Mission, along with our retreats, events and active cemetery, that many people don’t know about,” Flanagan said.

Downs’ book said with the emergence of the Hollywood movie industry after the turn of the century, Missions like Rey were used occasionally as scenic backdrop for several films and TV series such as “Zorro.”

“Alfred Hitchock Presents” filmed an episode at the famous Oceanside mission, according to Mission archives. Photo via Facebook

Feature films

In addition to the “Zorro” TV series, the mission has also been used in several feature films.

The Downs book also mentioned the film 1946 series “The Vigilantes are Coming,” which was produced and much of it filmed at the mission. Other films partially filmed at the Rey included the “Unpardonable Sin” in 1918.

Also filmed at the mission was the Western classic of the late 1950s “Have Gun Will Travel.” It followed the adventures of Paladin, a gentleman gunfighter who preferred to settle problems without violence yet when forced, excelled in fighting. When working, he dressed in black, carried a derringer, and used a now-famous calling card with a chess knight emblem.

More recently, in 1988, the full-length movie “A Time of Destiny” featuring Mission San Luis Rey is a story of love and revenge set during World War I in Italy and San Diego. It is said to be loosely based on Verdi’s opera “La Forza del Destino” and tells the story of two young lovers forbidden to see each other, who run off to elope. When the bride’s father pursues them, tragedy strikes. The movie stars William Hurt and Timothy Hutton as two friends who become enemies because of these events.

Last, but certainly not least, even the great Alfred Hitchcock featured the mission in an episode of the “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” series (1955-1962) “The Diplomatic Corpse” in 1957, according to Mission archives.

Residents get a thrill

Even some of the locals of Oceanside back in the day got a thrill when they were cast in the series “Vigilantes” according to the Oceanside News article dated April 23, 1936:

“Many Oceanside residents today become motion picture actors with the shooting of scenes for the picture, “Vigilantes,” by the Republic Production company, with the King of the missions, San Luis Rey being used as a background.

“The plot of the story centers around early California history, just before the ‘gold rush of ‘49,” when the Fathers were having a struggle to keep the missions free from corruption, and invasion by the Indians and the greedy Spanish soldiers. Eagle, who is portrayed by George Narbeth, seeks to avenge the wrongs done the Indians and in so doing whips the captain of a group of invaders seeking gold. Seeing their leader beaten the thieves retreat, leaving the mission after much destruction … ”

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