All the world loves an actor; even more if it’s a pretty child star. Dozens of precocious young things have appeared in countless classics dating from the early Silent pictures. However, while films may live forever, children grow up and have to put their childish memories away. And yet their star often rises again as each succeeding generation discovers the ineffable magic of a bygone era. Three scores years have almost passed since Karolyn Grimes graced the big screen in It s a Wonderful Life. Over fifty years of living life to the full have been enjoyed by Karolyn since she made her last film and yet her roles are probably better known today than during the 1940s. With the advent of video and more recently DVD, coupled with the enormous popularity of autograph collecting, the films Karolyn made in that magical era are now being seen around the world by more and more people seeking the enjoyment that these more romantic times bring people.
Sixteen films in less than seven years is a whole lot of movie making, especially if you re only six years old. Karolyn worked very hard. Born in Hollywood, this lovely girl was virtually a veteran when she appeared in It s Wonderful Life. Though millions of people know this film they may be unaware of many of the other fine films Karolyn made during the late 40s. Great pictures, like The Bishop s Wife, Lust for Gold and Rio Grande. Pictures filled with brilliant stars and excellent storytelling; a combination so often wanting in today s movie world.
Was Karolyn a typical child of World War Two? Perhaps, given that one of the reasons she made films was because of her mother s fear that she could not survive on her husband s Army pay. Martha Grimes did everything she could to help Karolyn become a child star while her daughter provided the sparkling smile and a lot of hard work. Irony being the stuff of Hollywood, Karolyn would not gain her greatest role until after the war had ended. In 1946, she tested in a sweet dress coffee-stained, accidentally by another stage mother and landed the role as Zuzu in the Frank Capra classic.
And yet this newly discovered six-year-old star s career was already at its zenith. The roles kept coming, but their importance declined, even though she played opposite some great actors. The advent of TV and a change in audience s tastes had a negative affect on the making of films using young actors. Despite this, few other people could boast working with the likes of James Stewart, Cary Grant, John Wayne, Glenn Ford, Ida Lupino, Loretta Young and Ida Lupino. Karolyn remained great pals with Jimmy and often saw him in later years and is heavily involved in the Jimmy Stewart Museum.
However, Karolyn left Hollywood in 1952 and never returned content with the happiness she found in her very own Bedford Falls. If you look at the recent photo of Karolyn, I have included, you will spy the same warm smile that you always see in her films. However for all the happiness one person can enjoy in this life, Karolyn has never had it as easy as many may think. It is only her great personal strength and resilience that has kept her above the tragic facts of her life. Shortly after her film career ended, and with her mother finally losing her life after a six year battle with Alzheimer's disease, Karolyn s teenage life was doubly shattered by the loss of her father in a car accident less than twelve months later. Karolyn was farmed out to relatives living in the tiny town of Osceola, Missouri. Here she found happiness. Here she won medals for rifle shooting. Glenn Ford was the fastest gun in Hollywood and during Lust for Gold he had given young Karolyn some pointers that she would later put to good use. Here she married her high school sweetheart and had two children. When they divorced five years later, he was killed in a hunting accident. With a second chance, Karolyn married again, and starting with her two children and his own three, they soon had a family of seven. After twenty-five years of marriage, he succumbed to cancer. And in those intervening years they had buried their eighteen your old son, John. Happiness has always tallied its price from Karolyn.
And all through these years, Karolyn's Hollywood memories had been quietly gathering dust in her basement until the unquenchable thirst of movie lovers and autograph collectors forced Karolyn to finally revisit and finally embrace her own past. Now Karolyn travels the world promoting, It s a Wonderful Life both in personal appearances and with her brilliant website, http://www.zuzu.net or helping to promote Jimmy Stewart s museum at http://www.jimmy.org
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David: Today you re a great ambassador for one of the best loved family films of all time, It s a Wonderful Life. But what feelings can you recall from those early days? Is there a moment in your childhood that you always come back to when think about your time in the movies? Do you think that your view of that time has changed much over the last twenty years?
Karolyn: Not really. Not my view of my time during that wonderful era. However I do think that the current film industry and Hollywood scene has changed tremendously and not necessarily for the better. For me, that time I was involved with the industry was magic. It was a world of make believe and fantasy. I loved dressing in different costumes and role playing different characters.
David: Can you recall the very first time someone asked for your autograph? Were you asked by an adult or another child? What was your reaction?
Karolyn: I can't recall the very first time I was asked for my autograph but I do remember having to sign some specially made postcards that the studios provided, with my picture on them, for hours.... when my friends were outside playing. My favourite was autographing "Story Book Dolls" at appearances for the angel doll from the movie, The Bishop's Wife. That was great fun and I was a little girl who just loved dolls. Today, I autograph for 3 to 7 hours at a time at some of my appearances. I love meeting the people and listening to their stories about how the film has made such a positive a difference in their lives.
David: As I mentioned in my introduction, you acted in films starring some of the biggest names in Hollywood. Did you sign many photos with these actors?
Karolyn: I did not sign photos with these actors except Mr. Stewart, but only in later years. In those days people really did not do much signing.
David: What are your fondest memories of Mr Stewart? And what was the funniest story he ever told you?
Karolyn: I think that riding on his back down those stairs hanging on for dear life was just so much fun. We had to do it many times and he was so gentle with so much patience. He told me the story about winning the academy award. He said the next morning his father called him and said "I hear you won some sort of an award. I think it would be nice to send it back here to the store so we can put it in the window." Jimmy Stewart's Oscar was displayed in his Dad's hardware store for a long time. Right in the front window!
David: During your life do you recall any really funny or bizarre moments when being asked to sign a photo or other item? Have you ever endured any awkward or unpleasant moments?
Karolyn: Oh my, since the media found me in the eighties and I have been going on the road since 1993, I have been asked to sign a lot of weird things.....My lip prints on paper and on rose petals. I have signed people, flowers, candles, and just about everything you can imagine. I have had stalkers and I usually have some form of security present. It's a Wonderful Life fans do not generate unpleasant moments....this I have found out over the years
David: Do you collect autographs yourself and if so what are your personal favourites? Did you have any interesting experiences getting any of these signatures?
Karolyn: I don’t collect autographs. However, I do collect movie memorabilia from the movies I have appeared in. I really have no favourites.....perhaps if any Tom Hanks....
David: As Zuzu you said the now immortal lines, Look, Daddy! Teacher says every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings. How do you feel knowing that every day somewhere on earth someone sees you and listens to you say these lines?
Karolyn: I feel privileged to have been chosen to play the part of Zuzu and to have found a purpose in life. For I feel that being Zuzu, opens doors to enable me to reach out and touch lives in a positive way. The little girl that spoke those words celebrates Christmas with families around the world. I also am able to some how give comfort to people who have tragedy in their lives because they know that I have walked in their shoes and I have a commonality with everyone who has lost someone that they love. I do believe in angels. And ringing bells is also a small comfort in some ways.
David: Although you are best remembered for It s a Wonderful Life what other movie do you hold as your next favourite and what is your favourite scene?
Karolyn: The Bishop's Wife......a great film and the scene where Cary Grant tells me the story of David and Goliath is my favourite.
David: Do you attend many movie conventions during the year? And in closing can you tell your many readers what you best enjoy about the world of movies and what advice you might give to autograph collectors around the world?
Karolyn: No, I don't attend movie conventions very often. I keep busy travelling for IAWL as a speaker. I guess that I haven't changed much since I was a child&. I like the escape of the "make believe" that the world of films gives to all of us.
My advice to autograph collectors is....BEWARE there are many forgeries out there and to really study what you are looking for. A COA means nothing. People make them up themselves and they have no value whatsoever in proving the authenticity of a signature.
David: And for those of you who own a TV, don t forget to celebrate this and every Christmas with Zuzu!
Click the Star
Please Note: The biographical detail was resourced from
Christopher Brunell’s fabulous book on Karolyn:
“Zuzu’s Wonderful Life in the Movies.”
This article is (c) D Priol 2003 and first appeared in the Pen & Quill in Nov/Dec Issue 2004
All photos are copyrighted to their individual owners and used here only to illustrate Karolyn;s fine career.