The Celebrity Collector

Karolyn Grimes, Zuzu from It’s A Wonderful Life 

By Mike McLeod
Posted December 2008

Born on the 4th of July in 1940, Karolyn Grimes began acting at the age of four. In January of 1947, she appeared in It’s A Wonderful Life with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reid, playing their ailing daughter, Zuzu. Although her role was small, it was pivotal to the movie because Zuzu gave some flower petals to her father George. He hid them in a pocket, and later—after miraculously experiencing what life would be like if he had never been born—those petals testified that he was alive again and that he had his beloved family back.

Today, Karolyn is Zuzu 365 days a year, being called upon to make personal appearances and speak at corporate and private functions all across the United States. Karolyn is on a mission to share the hope of Zuzu with all those who face trials in life, which is everybody.

Unfortunately, Karolyn’s life was not so wonderful a few years later. Her film career came to an end with the untimely death of her mother from Alzheimer’s disease and the death of her father in a car accident the following year. Tragedy followed years later with the death of her first husband in a hunting accident after their divorce and the death of her second husband from lung cancer.

But Karolyn has not let these experiences negatively influence her life. All of these events, “…conditioned me for having an inner compass and for identifying with people who have pain in their lives. I have been in their shoes.”

Karolyn has always had an inner guide that kept her positive and on track. She always looks for good in a bad situation. “You have to look for it. When you experience something bad, it has some good in it.”

From the time she was eight or nine years old, Karolyn visualized each night what she wanted that would make her happy. She still practices that today, and it has given her strength to go through her trials.

Continuing in the spirit of Zuzu has opened the door for Karolyn to travel and talk about her values and the message of the movie. She makes appearances, both public and private, and she is booked solid October through December.

Karolyn is also a collector. She has flow blue plates and cups and Wedgwood from about 1885.

“Not only do I do the antique circuit as Zuzu—I set up a booth and the whole deal—I am the ‘antique’ in the booth and sell my autograph on movie memorabilia. I personally collect flow blue, Wedgwood jasperware (England only), angels, bells, unicorns and early hand-painted plates. I have cups with no handles and no saucer, but a matching bowl for pouring the drink into it to cool, and then you drink from the bowl and not the cup.”

Karolyn began collecting English Wedgwood jasperware in the 1970s. But she laments, “You can’t get it here now; all that’s available is not old or damaged.”

Karolyn’s collecting taste ranges far and wide. She is now collecting enamelware from France, and she collects salts, pitchers and lunchboxes. She is after Asian artifacts, like netsuke, horn tea carriers, and mini-teapots which make less than one cup of tea and were “…used on the road to just give you a taste.”

“The best I have is an It's a Wonderful Life museum. It is full of original and new memorabilia from the movies I was in, but most of all, it is items from the film, It's a Wonderful Life.”

Right now, Karolyn’s private museum is located in her oversized garage, and it is filled up. Her mother kept more Wonderful Life memorabilia for her than any other movie. There are scripts and a wealth of autographs in the museum because in the early days, the mothers of child actors got their kids to ask the stars for autographs, knowing they would rarely be turned down.

In her collection, Karolyn has many replicas of Bedford Falls and Pottersville, the two towns in the movie. “Twenty or thirty companies made towns.”

Karolyn continues to collect today. “I recently found original Italian and Mexican lobby cards [from It’s A Wonderful Life], a whole set of lobby cards from 1956, and a French one-sheet.”

From the movie, Karolyn has Zuzu ads and a straw doll premium, a female clown. She also has 73 covers for VHS tapes of the movie, all made before 1994, and a collection of keys to cities given to her by mayors. Karolyn reports she has drawers full of memorabilia that she has no room to display in her museum.

All of this fame and notoriety began for Karolyn when her mother decided to get her into movies. 

“It was during the war [WWII], and my mother was afraid that my father would get drafted. She didn’t think she could live on Army pay, and she didn’t want to work, so she put me to work. She got me an agent. Most of the kids in Hollywood were in the business in the ‘40s.”

Karolyn began acting in That Night With You where she played an orphan in an uncredited role. She even has memories from that first experience.

“You remember when you are laying in somebody’s lap, and they are singing you a song as you go to sleep, and they have bad breath. I also remember breaking an ornament on the Christmas tree, and all the kids in the movie thought we were going to get in trouble.”

Karolyn followed up with Pardon My Past with Fred MacMurray, a comedy. “Most of the kids were in movies. I had no clue I was working with super stars. I didn’t even know what a star was then. I would eat lunch in the commissary with my mother, and we would see all these stars like Clark Gable. I didn’t know they were stars. They were just my friends, and it was probably better that way.”

Karolyn wasn’t under contract to anyone at the time; she was a day player, but she made good money—$75 per day. “If they were shooting at a movie ranch, a limo would pick me up at 5 am or so. It was a long day. I would get home at 7 pm or 8 pm, and my face would be sore from all the heavy pancake make-up. But it was just a way of life. I had lots of fun with the other kids on the set.”

Even though she was just a child at the time and didn’t know what a star was, Karolyn grew fond of many of her “costars”: Danny Kaye, Cary Grant, John Wayne, Loretta Young, Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Gary Cooper, Randolph Scott and Buster Keaton.

“Cary Grant was to die for! He loved kids. He’d play with me. He was just the best. In The Bishop’s Wife, they had a skating rink on the set. Cary Grant practiced his skating on it—he really skated in the movie—and he would come get me and pull me around on a sled.

“John Wayne was really nice. I had a special experience with him. He threw a birthday party for me when I turned 10. We were in Moab, Utah, at the time. We shot Rio Grande there, and the scenery was fabulous. The Korean Conflict had just broken out, and the government had commandeered most of the supplies and transportation. John somehow got $300 worth of fireworks delivered to us in Moab. He made a big cake, and we all went out to a bluff on the Colorado River for the cake and fireworks. I had the best time!”

The part of a lifetime for Karolyn came a few years before Rio Grande, and it was not made to be a Christmas movie, as most believe.

“When the studio’s Sinbad movie wasn’t ready, they ordered It’s A Wonderful Life released,” Karolyn remembered. “Capra wanted to release it in March.”

As most know, this cinematic treasure was a box office disappointment—it made money, but not the $6-million goal that was set for it. (It cost $3.7 million to make—in 1940’s dollars.) It earned five Academy Award nominations (it won none) and finished the year just ahead of Miracle on 34th Street in box office receipts. Even so, it was considered by Hollywood to be a flop.

“Its release was right after WWII. The Best Years of Our Lives won the Academy Award, about soldiers coming home from the war and adjusting to life. It’s A Wonderful Life was a movie you had to think about, and the audience just wanted to be entertained. It was marketed as a romantic comedy, but it actually had a dark side. Plus, at that time in the movies, the good guy was rewarded, and the bad guy was punished. In this movie, Potter never gets punished. Capra left it up to the audience to decide.”

So the movie sat on the shelf for 20 years. It was resurrected in the 1970s, but not because its copyright expired as many believe. The copyright was not renewed properly due to a clerical error. It lapsed, and many TV stations aired it, but they still paid royalties to do so. That clerical error breathed new life into It’s A Wonderful Life, and it was a hit.

“The movie was started from a Christmas card called ‘The Greatest Gift’ written by Philip Van Doren Stern. The next year, he made it into a booklet and sold it for $10,000. Frank Capra hired three screenwriters to write scripts for it, and then he bought them all and made his own script from them. One of the writers was Clifford Odets. He chose the name ‘Zuzu’ from the early 1900s Zuzu’s Ginger Snaps, made by the National Biscuit Company, which today is Nabisco. In the movie, George addresses me as, ‘Zuzu, my little ginger snap.’”

Despite her young age at the time, Karolyn has vivid memories from filming the movie. “The set was gigantic, four acres and 75 stores and buildings. Main Street was like 300 yards long. It was 90 degrees when we were filming the bridge scene. It was hot. We had to do a lot of night shooting, and we used fake snow, but we still used 3,000 tons of shaved ice in the movie. Before, fake snow was made of cornflakes painted white for movies, but Capra didn’t want to have to redub the dialog because of the crunching sound when it was walked on. He had a degree in engineering, so he made silent snow from foamide and Ivory Soap.”

Even though Jimmy Stewart was, “nothing special; an everyday guy” on the set who didn’t expect special treatment, Karolyn remembers him as a nice guy who worked to build a chemistry between them. He also had a prankster side: “He and Capra played a lot of practical jokes on each other.”

Jimmy Stewart was a bit shy, however, about one particular scene in the movie. “In the phone scene, both Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reid were very nervous about kissing. They kept putting the scene off until they had to shoot it. They decided to do it without a rehearsal, and the resulting scene was later criticized as being too racy. They [the editors] ended up leaving out about two pages of script, and the entire shot had to be cut because the kissing went on so long.”

Now, looking back over a lifetime, just how has life turned out for Karolyn Grimes?

“Life is whatever you want to make it. You have a choice about how you react to adversity. I make it a wonderful life,” answered Karolyn/Zuzu.

Karolyn Grimes lives in Falls City, Washington, east of Seattle. Fans may contact her at zuzu@zuzu.net. She answers all her considerable email, even though it may take her several months to get to it. 

 

Karolyn Grimes

It’s A Wonderful Life with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reid, playing their ailing daughter, Zuzu.

Karolyn with part of her collection of Wedgwood and flow blue.

 

One section of movie memorabilia in Karolyn’s museum.

 

Angels, spoons, snow globes, bells, ornaments—memorabilia from the movie that wasn’t about Christmas.

Karolyn’s character was named after Zuzu's Ginger Snaps.

A wall of movie posters and stills in Karolyn’s museum.

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