Hasn’t everyone watched “It’s A Wonderful Life” a dozen or more times by now?
Karolyn Grimes said she was 40 when she saw the holiday classic for the first time.
Why did she wait so long? Priorities. She was busy raising seven children.
“I lived in the kitchen and the laundry room and in the car because I was taking them somewhere all the time,” Grimes said.
“That was my life. And maybe at 10 o’clock at night I would get to settle down and watch Johnny Carson or something like that.”
Finally, she decided to see what all the fuss was about. She sat down in front of a TV long enough to watch “It’s A Wonderful Life” and, of course, she saw herself.
George (Jimmy Stewart) and Mary Bailey (Donna Reed) had four children in the movie. Grimes played the youngest daughter, Zuzu, who, near the end of the film, says “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.”
Grimes was 6 when the movie was released in 1946. Didn’t she watch it then?
“I went to the opening,” she said during a recent phone interview. “But I fell asleep.”
If the question is, whatever happened to Zuzu? The answer is Grimes makes public appearances all over the country as an ambassador for the beloved movie.
She lives on the West Coast, but middle America was home for 40 years, and she spent high school years in Osceola, Missouri. (about a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Tulsa).
In the decades between “It’s A Wonderful Life” and now, real life wasn’t happily ever after. In many instances, it was downright tragic.
Grimes was orphaned at age 15. Her mother battled early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Her father died in a car crash. She lost more than her parents.
“I lost my home, my friends, my school,” she said. “I lost everything. My dog. My life.”
Grimes said there were 900 kids in her class when she attended school in California. Then she moved to a Missouri town with a population of about 800.
“There were 36 kids in my high school class,” she said. “And these are farmer kids, so I had never been exposed to that kind of life before, and the boys would do chores before they would come to school. They would all kind of stink like cow poop. I tell you, it was a different life. But the people, they were wonderful. Those kids were wonderful. They never even looked back. They took me under their wing. I was their friend. I can never repay them for what they gave to me.”
Grimes said the people of Osceola showed her what real love and caring and genuine people were all about. She needed their support because home life was “horrible.” After her parents died, she said she was sent to live in Osceola with an uncle (her father’s brother) and a “mean” aunt.
“I just prayed to God to get me through each day,” she said. “And every night, I would go to bed and I would visualize in my mind what would make me happy. And that was a practice that I did for years and years and years — and it worked.”
Grimes said she prayed she would leave the home and earn a career and be self-supportive and never have to be dependent on her aunt and uncle. She attended Central Missouri State and became a medical technician and found a husband.
“I kind of married him so I could get away from my aunt, so it wasn’t really an ideal situation, so we got divorced, and a couple of years later, he was killed deer hunting,” Grimes said.
Grimes had two daughters with her first husband. She remarried and became the mother of five more kids, including three from her new husband’s previous marriage. The union lasted 25 years. Her second husband died of lung cancer.
But the most difficult blow Grimes ever absorbed was the loss of a child.
“It doesn’t get much worse than that when you lose a son, especially to suicide,” she said. “That’s a very painful thing. You live with the ‘what ifs’ and ‘why didn’t I?’ and there is a lot of guilt involved.”
Let’s make something clear before we continue: The point of bringing up past heartaches isn’t to deliver a “downer” of a Christmas Eve story. The point is Grimes survived it all, and she might have words to make people feel better about their lives. As a matter of fact, she does: Life is what you make it.
“I could have stayed in the house for the rest of my life after my son died and never come out again, if I had chosen to do that,” she said.
“But I had big help, I think, from above to show me the only way to get out of a situation that is painful and horrible is to help others. I started volunteering, and when you do that, you kind of start to feel good about yourself. And the love from those people (you help) comes over to you. It’s just a really win-win situation when you do that, so that would be the lesson I learned was giving to others changes your life and can make it wonderful. It’s not about money. It’s not about possessions. It’s about people and love, and that’s really what it’s all about.”
Grimes said one of the places she volunteered was her late son’s high school, which was “really difficult,” but it helped. This is a different kind of outreach, but making public appearances (list: zuzu.net) allows her to bring pleasure to people who cherish “It’s A Wonderful Life.” She said some fans named their babies and pets Zuzu.
Grimes has thrown her support behind Zuzu’s House, a teen homeless shelter in Marshfield, Missouri. She and Jimmy Hawkins, another child actor from “It’s A Wonderfield Life,” participated in a program for inmates at Attica Correctional Facility in New York. Grimes described the experience as “pretty incredible.” She said the inmates were challenged to watch “It’s A Wonderful Life” and ask questions. Surely, the movie was meaningful to them?
“It’s about second chances,” Grimes said. “It’s about going and starting over and making a difference and making your life different. That was kind of the avenue we were going after.”
When Grimes was a heartland mom, she had shut the door on her “old” life. “It’s A Wonderful Life” (one of 16 films she appeared in) was not a box-office success when it was released, so who cares about some old movie? But it exploded in popularity because of TV airings during the Christmas season, and one day, someone showed up at her door and asked to interview Zuzu. She obliged.
“The next week, the same thing happened, and it kept happening and pretty soon I started getting fan mail and I thought, ‘What the heck is going on here?’ ” Grimes said. “So I sat down and watched the movie. That’s when I found the magic and this wonderful, wonderful gift to humanity that Frank Capra gave.”
Grimes was asked what she saw when she watched “It’s A Wonderful Life” for the first time.
“Well, I went through the emotional roller coaster that the movie gives you — up, down and all around,” she said.
“You experience a lot of feelings and, in the end, you just feel blessed, and you identify with all the characters and tears spring to your eyes and your heart is full of joy.
“It just makes you realize how fortunate you are and what really matters in life and also how we all touch each others’ lives. We make a difference. Just to know that you have that ability and you can do that, that’s a lot of power. It’s pretty wonderful.”