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.
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 celebration.
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 screentime 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.
Economic necessityShe 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 cell phone to her father.
Grimes happily accepts the phone.
“Do you know who you’re talking to?” she says to 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 Zuzu.
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 hyper-competitive Hollywood. She went to college, married, raised kids, became a medical technologist. Zuzu was the past. Her box of clips and pics 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 Wonderful Life?”’
Now Grimes stands watching herself on a big-screen TV as a curly-haired pixie from 60 years ago. The little girl asks her dad to fix her flower, and he sneaks the wilted petals into his pocket.
“What do you think? Did I see it?” she asks the audience. Grimes is giving a crowd at the community center a tour of the movie with bits of trivia.
Zuzu’s name was inspired by an old brand of ginger snaps, she says. The snow coating Bedford Falls was made of soap flakes and chemicals; that’s why it looks sudsy sometimes. Reviewing the flower scene, she suggests Zuzu saw through her father’s heartfelt ruse and loves him all the more for it.
“I think what Frank Capra is trying to say is she knows her father isn’t perfect,” she said.
The film about a suicidal, small-town money lender was a bit of a dud after its December 1946 release. “Wonderful Life” got a second life in the mid-’70s when a lapsed copyright allowed television stations to show the movie for free. The movie gathered iconic status through constant showings.
After the reporter’s 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 gift.”
Grimes, one of about seven surviving actors from the movie, says she’s had troubled souls approach her sobbing at her appearances. She inspires smiles when she passes out a rose petal.
Zuzu's mission“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.”
If it sounds like a corny sentiment out of a Capra movie, consider that after a day of “It’s a Wonderful Life” autographs and interviews she becomes excited — really excited — by a small cutout of a bell stuck to a linoleum floor by her chair.
It has meaning, she explains as she walks out to the snowy sidewalks of Seneca Falls, past the decorated windows, the old-fashioned street lights and the wreaths hanging overhead.
“I really feel at home here,” she says.
People here argue about the Bedford Falls connection, though it’s a circumstantial case. Both places have a “Falls” suffix, and characters in the film mention nearby cities like Rochester and Elmira. Both places have classic American main streets, and the bridge here resembles the one where George Bailey pondered his mortality.
Capra, whose movie village was a set built near Los Angeles, left no evidence to rule out other candidates, like Bedford, N.Y.
And yet the director could have passed through Seneca Falls while visiting an aunt in nearby Auburn. Retired local barber Tommy Bellissima even claims he cut Capra’s hair before the movie came out. Bellissima recalls a friendly guy whose name stuck in his head: capra means goat in Italian.
“Sometimes Christmas is what you believe,” says county tourism director Maureen Koch at the Zuzu Cafe, “and don’t make me prove it.”