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The Month Ahead: TV

What to read, watch and listen to in December

Karolyn Grimes, age 6, with Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life (RKO/PHOTOFEST NYC)

More than 60 years have passed since the release of Frank Capra’s holiday classic, but for one of the film’s stars it may as well have been yesterday

KAROLYN GRIMES WAS 6 when she played Zuzu Bailey, the girl who lost her petals in It’s a Wonderful Life. The 1946 Frank Capra fantasy, possibly the most popular Christmas movie ever made, wasn’t such a big deal at first—certainly not for Grimes.

Now 72, Grimes says she didn’t even see It’s a Wonderful Life until 33 years after its release. “I was orphaned at the age of 15 and sent out of Hollywood to live in the Midwest,” she explains. “I was in a home where movies were ‘sinful.’ My former life in movies was never mentioned.”

Grimes had seven kids by the time she realized, in the early 1980s, that her part in Capra’s film represented more than a memory. “Someone interviewed me in the little town where I lived,” she says. “The story was picked up by other papers, and I started getting fan mail. I thought, ‘Good grief. I’d better see what all this is about.'”

Today, being Zuzu is a full-time job. When Grimes isn’t serving as an “ambassador” for IAWL, she’s writing books about it—she just finished her third—or updating the website zuzu.net. She has seen the movie more than 300 times, blurring the line between her real-life persona and her onscreen character.

“I am Zuzu and Karolyn,” she says. “My life has become that little girl that people hold fondly in their hearts.”

Grimes calls herself “a survivor of life,” and not without reason. In addition to the early loss of her parents, the father of her first two children died in a hunting accident, another husband died of cancer, and a son committed suicide at age 18. Zuzu has helped Grimes make sense of it all. “I believe I had to suffer so I could have compassion for others,” she says. “As Zuzu, I have an opportunity to touch people’s lives.” —CHRIS WRIGHT


Former child actress Karolyn Grimes on …

Being on the set: “Gosh, it was fun—kids to play with, fake snow. The snow was packed around the house on the stage. It was just beautiful. I had never seen snow before.”

Lionel Barrymore (a.k.a. the horrible Mr. Potter): “He was kind of crotchety, a bit cranky, if you will. He really was in a wheelchair and suffered from severe arthritis, so I think he was in a lot of pain.”

Capra’s continuity issues: “When George carries the Christmas wreath into Bailey Building and Loan, he has it on his arm and he throws it on the desk. In the next frame he has the wreath on his arm again, talking to Harry on the phone.”

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