Embracing the role of Zuzu and the lessons of the film

Associated Press

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 (although without any definitive evidence to prove it).

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 screen time 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.

She 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 cellphone to her father.

Grimes happily accepts the phone.

"Do you know who you're talking to?" she says to the 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 Hollywood. She went to college, married, raised kids, became a medical technologist. Zuzu was the past; the movie hadn't been a hit when it came out in 1946. Her box of clips and pictures 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'?"

After that 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 says she's had troubled souls approach her sobbing at her appearances. She inspires smiles when she passes out a rose petal.

"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."

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