[HOLLYWOOD] Embracing the Role of "Zuzu" (It's a Wonderful Life)
- Embracing the role of Zuzu and the lessons of the film
Life has been hard for Karolyn Grimes, but she refuses to be 'the
grumpy old Mr. Potter.'
By Michael Hill, Associated Press
SENECA FALLS, N.Y. Zuzu has a cold again. She sniffles and sucks on
a cold pill as she signs autographs for fans lined up to the door in
a coffee shop.
Karolyn Grimes jokes that she left her coat open, like her character
Zuzu Bailey in "It's a Wonderful Life." But a more likely culprit is
the holiday crunch of appearances by the former child actress from
a Victorian festival in Puyallup, Wash., to the Colorado Country
Christmas Show and now to Seneca Falls, which claims to be the
inspiration for director Frank Capra's mythical Bedford Falls
(although without any definitive evidence to prove it).
Around Christmas, this Finger Lakes village is gussied up like the
snowy movie town with white lights and wreaths strung across the main
street. And the 66-year-old Grimes has come for a weekend
Everyone who saw the movie remembers Zuzu. She gets to say, "Every
time a bell rings an angel gets his wings." And the petals from
Zuzu's rose stuffed into a pants pocket by Jimmy Stewart's George
Bailey as he comforts his sickly daughter become a symbol of life.
Grimes laughs about the petals getting more screen time than she did.
But she has parlayed her six minutes in the beloved 1946 film into a
late-life career. After enduring heartaches that make George Bailey's
troubles look small, she has become a feel-good ambassador for the
film and one of its last living links.
"I'm that little girl and I stand for something those people love,"
she says. " For some reason or other, that little girl embodies the
image, or maybe the power to make them happy."
People tell her as much all afternoon at the Zuzu Cafe, where she
sits with a Sharpie at a table laid out with "It's a Wonderful Life"
stuff: DVDs, ceramic ornaments, memory books, her own "Zuzu Bailey's
It's a Wonderful Life Cookbook" and scattered rose petals.
"Do you know what a thrill this is?"
"This is my favorite movie!"
"Thank you for giving us so much joy!"
For each person, Grimes neatly signs her name with "Zuzu" in quotes
and a little doodle of a bell. She usually adds a message
like, "Enjoy life, it's wonderful."
Grimes lives near Seattle, but retains a Midwestern cheeriness. She
holds her smile for hours and laughs as she pops up for snapshots.
She has a gold "Z" pinned to her blue velveteen jacket.
She lost her nest egg in the 2001 economic downturn and relies on
these appearances. As she signs, her husband sits beside her and
asks, "Cash or credit card?" It's a job, but she clearly loves being
Zuzu. After signing autographs all afternoon, she bumps into a fan at
a diner who talks on her cellphone to her father.
Grimes happily accepts the phone.
"Do you know who you're talking to?" she says to the woman's
father. "You're talking to Zuzu!"
Grimes had already worked with Bing Crosby and Fred MacMurray when
she appeared in "It's a Wonderful Life." She grew up in Hollywood and
was nudged into the business by her mother. Capra picked her to play
Grimes retains kid-centric memories of the movie: Capra kindly
squatted to give her directions. "Mr. Stewart" held her in his arms,
take after take, for the end scene and always put her down gently.
She loved the Baileys' big Christmas tree.
At the time though, even to a 5-year-old, "it was just another job."
Grimes' movie career waned as her mother became ill. She lost her at
age 14. Her father died in a car accident a year later. A court
shipped the teenage orphan to Osceola, Mo., to live in a "bad home"
with an aunt and uncle.
Still, she liked meeting people outside Hollywood. She went to
college, married, raised kids, became a medical technologist. Zuzu
was the past; the movie hadn't been a hit when it came out in 1946.
Her box of clips and pictures stayed in the basement until 1980, when
a reporter came to her door in Stilwell, Kan., and asked her a
question: "Did you play that little girl in the movie, 'It's a
After that story, Grimes did local Zuzu events in the '80s and
branched out by the '90s.
This was a difficult stretch personally; she knows angels don't
always save people. Her 18-year-old son killed himself in 1989 and
her second husband died of cancer in 1994 (her first husband was
killed in a hunting accident). She kept on.
"You have a choice," she says. "You can drown in your sorrows, be the
grumpy old Mr. Potter and be hurt and be in pain but I think you
need to put that behind you because, my gosh, life is a wonderful
Grimes says she's had troubled souls approach her sobbing at her
appearances. She inspires smiles when she passes out a rose petal.
"I really feel like Zuzu is kind of a mission maybe, I don't know,"
Grimes says. "I think that there is a higher power at work and that I
had to go through a lot of adverse situations in my life to
understand other people's pain."