"It’s a blessing to have an impact on people, to make people smile. It just washes over me and makes me feel wonderful."
othing completes the holiday experience more than an extra serving—to go with the booze and candied yams—of Frank Capra’s yule-tide yarn, It’s A Wonderful Life. It’s a picture that can melt even the iciest of hearts and for those of us grown-ups with no self-worth (or money) in December, there’s just something downright conciliatory about it. So, it’s no mistake that we’re irresistibly drawn to make offerings at the altar of George Bailey every year. Even if you take all that Capra-esque humanity away it’s still a really good flick about time travel and guardian angels.
But for Karolyn Grimes, who played little Zuzu Bailey it has become a wonderful full-time job, crisscrossing the country as the film’s unofficial ambassador and greeting devotees of the classic at events every holiday season for nearly 20 years. Fortunately, she made time between gigs to speak to us.
W2C: You’re best known for portraying Zuzu but by the time you were 13 you already had quite the filmography.
In all I was in 16 movies including The Bishop’s Wife with Cary Grant, Loretta Young, and David Niven; I was in Rio Grande with John Wayne, Albuquerque with Randall Scott, Blue Skies with Bing Crosby, and Hans Christian Anderson with Danny Kaye.
You left Hollywood when you were a teenager but did you ever want to be an actress again?
I never wanted to return to Hollywood because Hollywood people and the fakeness—very artificial and not dear to my heart. After I lived in the Midwest and I learned what sincere, real people were all about I never wanted to go back.
Tell us about your life before motion pictures.
I grew up in Hollywood during WWII and my mother was afraid that my father was going to be drafted because she didn’t think we were going to be able to live on army pay. She didn’t want to have to get a job so she decided to put me to work and that’s how I got started in the movies.
How did a kid get started in 1940s Hollywood?
My mother took me to see an agent and during those days all of the kid actors had the same agent. Her name was Lola Moore and she took care of all of us. Well, the agent liked me, sent me on interviews and bingo dingo I was in.
What do you remember most about the making of It’s A Wonderful Life?
I remember that Jimmy Stewart was a very tall man, six-feet-four and that I was always on his back or in his arms. And I remember the snow—which was fake but I liked it.
Did watching It’s A Wonderful Life later in life through adult eyes provide a different experience for you than when you saw it as a child?
Yes, but I didn’t see the movie until 1980.
Are you kidding?
I hate to admit that but it’s true. I wasn’t a big TV watcher and I was raising a lot of kids at the time. And the only reason I did eventually get to it was to see what all of the hoopla was all about.
Didn’t they invite you to the premiere in 1946?
I did go to the premiere but I went to sleep during it (laughs).
Well, was it worth the 35 years you waited to check it out?
I loved every minute because it was something I could identify with.
Because it was just so real. I was orphaned at 14 and sent to live with relatives in Osceola, MO where I experienced that Bedford Falls-like community. I was living in a home with an aunt and uncle which wasn’t happy or nice. [The town] knew I was under a lot of pressure--we’re talking merchants, teachers, my friends—and they all came together as a community and rallied me during those difficult years. I will always be grateful for the love, understanding, and compassion they gave me. I relive that every time I view the film.
Have you had moments of reflection, like George in the film, when you thought you hadn’t done enough for yourself even if you knew it was benefiting other people?
No, I don’t ever think that. George makes this choice and does what is better for other people rather than honor what he wants for himself. His core values are about doing for others and I have drawn greatly from that.
How did you come to be this ambassador for the film and travel around?
I started with the Target Company in 1993 when their Christmas theme that year was It’s A Wonderful Life and they reunited the actors who played the Bailey kids. So we went all over and really had a blast getting the love from all of the fans and thought, ‘Whoopdi doo there’s something going on here.’ After that I started making appearances around the United States and England as well.
It’s a blessing to have an impact on people, to make people smile. It just washes over me and makes me feel wonderful.
Did you ever reunite with Jimmy Stewart in later years?
Oh yes, he found me. When the movie went bonkers in the ‘80s people wrote to him and asked, ‘what ever happened to Zuzu?’ so he found me in the middle of Kansas, we communicated, and became friends after that. We also made appearances together at events.
For a listing of Karolyn Grimes’ appearances this holiday season, visit her website.