'Life' touches Zuzu's own life Anniversary: The movie's littke girl is all grown up and intown to celebrate a half century of Capra's Christmas classic.

December 09, 1996|By Chris Kridler | Chris Kridler,SUN STAFF

When James Stewart tried to glue her flower back together in Frank Capra's classic "It's a Wonderful Life," adorable little Zuzu wasn't thinking about how enchanting the movie was. "It was just a job," says Karolyn Grimes, who was 6 at the time.

Now, 50 years later, the magic of the film that has touched so many lives has enveloped Grimes, too. Everywhere she goes, fans want to tell her their stories, to forge some connection with the little girl who said, "Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings!"

"I love it, it's fabulous," she says warmly. "I love the people, that's what I like. ... It's like we're already kinship because we both see what this movie is and share a love for it."

Fans can meet Grimes -- officially Karolyn Grimes Wilkerson -- on Wednesday, when the Senator Theatre holds a 50th anniversary screening of the film and unveils a new sidewalk block to mark the occasion. Frank Capra Jr., the director's son, will be there, too.

The movie didn't do well at the box office when it was released. But unlike the sugary Christmas flicks that come and go every year, "Life" -- which tells of the suicidal despair of frustrated dreamer George Bailey, who realizes how valuable his life is when an angel shows him a world in which he never existed -- has an enduring and endearing resonance that its frivolous rivals lack.

For Grimes, whose life in many ways has been less than wonderful -- her second husband died of cancer, and one of her children committed suicide -- the film has had a deeply personal effect.

"For one thing, it gave me my life back, from birth to 15, which had been taken away from me," she says. During that time, she appeared in about 16 films, including "The Bishop's Wife" and "Rio Grande." Then, suddenly, her charmed life was over.

"My mother died when I was 14, and my father was killed in a car accident when I was 15," she says. " ... I came to live with my father's brother and his wife [in Missouri], and they did not approve of -- well, they just didn't want me to have any connection with anyone I had known in California. I just cut all ties ... so I just lost 15 years of my life right there."

When the popularity of "Life" began to grow years after its release, it gave her a second chance to connect with the friends of her childhood: "The publicity from it eventually caused people to contact me and get ahold of me."

If given the opportunity to return to the "It's a Wonderful Life" set, the first person she would want to see wouldn't be the young Jimmy Stewart or the radiant Donna Reed. "I'd want to talk to my mother," Grimes says quietly. "If that was really offered to me, that's what I'd want to do."

Despite her share of tragedy, she is never cynical about the movie's positive message.

"Every time I see it, I find more in it. I see something I hadn't seen before. Or it reaffirms something I'm kind of thinking about," such as "family values, priorities -- you remember when Mr. Potter offered George a salary of $20,000? That's a pretty big carrot, wouldn't you say? ... I always remembered that. You couldn't put a price tag on his virtues and values and priorities, and he knew it was the wrong thing to do."

If there were a sequel, Grimes wouldn't want to be in it.

"I think it would taint it. ... Don't fix it unless it's broke, you know? nTC The whole movie is George Bailey, and George Bailey is Jimmy Stewart. You cannot change that, so why try?"

Still, she appreciates a good parody -- even MTV's "Beavis and Butt-head" version, in which an angel tries to convince Butt-head that he should kill himself by showing him the world as it would be if he had never been born.

"I thought the one with Beavis and Butt-head was real cuckoo ... I think it's funnier than anything!" she laughs.

It seems the movie's influence is everywhere. There's a rock band called Zuzu's Petals that once played near her Kansas home ("I didn't get over to hear them, thank God"). And even Muppets Bert and Ernie in "Sesame Street" are named for the cop and the cabbie in the film. "It was Jim Henson's favorite movie," she says.

And, of course, there are the fans. "They usually want to share their stories with me, and I'll listen forever. Because it's usually something wonderful, and sometimes I'll learn from them."

Among the stories they have told her: One couple watched "Life" during the delivery of their baby. Psychiatrists have recommended it to their depressed patients. And one woman met a man who said, "See, I've got a pocket right here for Zuzu's petals," and she knew she loved him.

Fan letters addressed merely to "Zuzu" make their way to her (Box 225, Stillwell, Kan. 66085); others send her angels or keep in touch through her newsletter or her Web page: http: //www.lehigh.net/ wonderful/ is the address.

Fans can learn more about her in "Every Time a Bell Rings: The Wonderful Life of Karolyn Grimes," a biography by Clay Eals. Meanwhile, she makes a little money from a Zuzu doll and "Zuzu Bailey's 'It's a Wonderful Life' Cookbook."

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