HE’S THE MASTER OF ALL THINGS ZORRO The famous character is the domain of Berkeley’s John Gertz

Ohn Gertz owns Senor Zorro, lock, stock, body and sword.

From his office in the Berkeley marina, Gertz oversees Zorro Productions Inc., which has licensed the night horseman’s likeness around the world for the past 15 years. Comic books, television shows, cartoon series, stage productions, merchandise, endorsements, children’s books a Web site (www.zorro.com) and, of course, film, with the latest TriStar incarnation starring Antonio Banderas and Anthony Hopkins.

“One morning, I’m working on a Broadway musical, ” says Gertz. “The next morning, I’m working on a bubble-gum deal in Brazil or a computer game.” Gertz, who is the co-producer for “The Mask of Zorro, ” says that the most fervent fans of the Mexican hero otherwise known as Don Diego de la Vega are the French. “He’s a national hero in France, ” Gertz says.

Actually, Zorro (which means “Fox” in Spanish) comes from American roots. He first appeared in “The Curse of Capistrano” for the pulp All-Story Weekly. Illinois-born Johnston McCulley wrote about his Mexican hero for pulp fiction magazines from 1919 to 1959 in tales like “Zorro Saves a Friend, ” “Zorro Hunts a Jackal, ” “Zorro Plucks a Pigeon” and “Zorro’s Hot Tortillas.”

Gertz and his twin sister Nancy inherited the masked avenger from their father Mitchell, who died in 1961 when they were 10 years old. McCulley had gradually sold the rights to Hollywood agent Mitchell Gertz in the late 1940s and 1950s, but nobody quite knows why.

“Honestly, ” Gertz says, “it was always a mystery to us as to the true nature of that transaction.” By then Zorro spanned magazines, comic books and films. McCulley’s creation had swashbuckled onto the silver screen with Douglas Fairbanks Sr. (“Mark of Zorro” in 1920 and “Don Q., Son of Zorro” in 1925). Two more Zorro features followed in the ’30s, starring Robert Livingstone and the virile Tyrone Power.

“My father may have represented him or something, ” John Gertz says. “They both were certainly in Hollywood.” The deal, he says, appeared perfectly legal, and the two remained good friends.

Mitchell Gertz then sold Zorro to Walt Disney, who created the enormously popular television series (1957-1959) starring Guy Williams. The show added to the Zorro delirium. “The well-accoutered young man would have had Zorro sunglasses, Zorro ties, Zorro cufflinks, Zorro hat, ” Gertz recounts. “He would have ridden around on a Zorro pogo stick or on Zorro roller skates.”

After the series ended and interest waned, the rights reverted to the estate. “I received a letter from Disney that said it’s not worth (the annual) $3,500, ” recalls Gertz, who was 17 at the time. He also remembers his reaction: “Damn, what happened to my $3,500?’ That was a fortune.”

Zorro languished for the next few years, as the twins went on with their lives. “There was nothing much we could do about it. Neither one of us had any idea Zorro was worth anything.”

In 1981, Gertz became a “starving graduate student” at UC San Francisco majoring in chronobiology, the study of the relationship between time and behavioral and body functions (jet lag, menstrual cycles, brain waves, dream cycles, etc.). He had always regarded his inheritance with diffidence, but began looking at this property as a way to work through school. “We revived Zorro. Our first project was Zorro: The Gay Blade, ‘” the 1980 parody starring George Hamilton.

“Gradually I began to realize my long-term fate is probably not in academia so much as it is in entertainment, ” he says. He took a leave of absence as the projects mushroomed and eventually picked Zorro over his dissertation.

Although his sister isn’t involved in the current business, his wife, Sandy Curtis, works as vice president and creative director. An author of children’s, academic and history books and an early Zorro aficionado, she just published the avenger’s history, “Zorro Unmasked: The Official History” (Hyperion Press, $14.95).

In addition to his Zorro duties, Gertz also serves as president of the board for the Berkeley-Jewish Community Center. Since the man who owns Zorro can pull a few strings, the Bay Area will get an early premiere this Sunday (The film opens wide on Friday). The showing benefits innovative teen programs offered by East Bay charities such as the Volunteer Action Center, Jewish Family and Children’s Services of the East Bay, Berkeley-Richmond Jewish Community Center and Center for Jewish Living and Learning. The $36 or $72 tickets can be purchased at the Jack London 9 Cinemas box office, 100 Washington St., Oakland; or by telephone (510-433-1320). The film begins at 4:45 p.m.; the $72 ticket gets you into a 7:30 p.m. tapas party and salsa extravaganza featuring live music, a salsa floor show and sword fighting.

Upcoming ventures include “Zorro: The Musical” scheduled for Broadway in the fall of 1999 and a Culture Clash production at the Berkeley Repertory season for the 1999-2000 season. As for the movie, Gertz loves it, but admits he’s biased. He did take his 12-year-old daughter, Michelle, who is “nonchalant about the whole fact that her father owns Zorro, to a screening. After viewing it, she exclaimed, “Daddy, that’s incredible. That’s great. It’s even better than Titanic’!'”

High praise indeed.

This article originally appeared in the Contra Costa Times