Taste of Fame
Karolyn Grimes’ Wonderful Life…
She was a little girl and it was a small part in the movie, but that turn as Zuzu in “It’s a Wonderful Life” was very big for North State resident Karolyn Grimes. “It was divine destiny, I think,” says Grimes, 80, from her home in Lake Shastina. “I was really privileged and honored to get picked for that part. It’s a mantle I’ve enjoyed for many years now.”
The joy, she says, comes from promoting the holiday classic and sharing the film’s life-affirming messages. “I’m the unofficial ambassador of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ and until COVID-19 hit, I would travel around the world for the movie, and I will start doing that as soon as the beast is driven away.” Grimes was 6 when she was cast as George Bailey’s cute-as-a-button daughter and given the memorable line, “Look Daddy! Teacher says whenever a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.” She had already appeared in four other films and would appear in 11 more.
For the young Hollywood native, rubbing elbows with stars like John Wayne, Cary Grant, Bing Crosby and Fred MacMurray was not a big deal. “Mom and Dad protected me from thinking these people were special. That was just the way I was raised.”
Her opinion changed some four decades later when Jimmy Stewart had his secretary track down Grimes, and the two former cast members renewed their friendship. “I realized what a great man he was,” she says. “He was a war hero and he touched many lives. He made a difference in our lives, but growing up, I didn’t know Jimmy Stewart from the neighbor next door.”
Grimes got a pleasant reminder in 2016 when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences celebrated the 70th anniversary of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” During the festivities, a home movie from the film’s wrap party was screened “and the first thing you see is I’m on Jimmy Stewart’s shoulders. I have a little sun suit on. It was the coolest thing,” Grimes says.
Sadly, the young actor’s early life was anything but wonderful. By the time she was a teen, Grimes’ acting career was finished. Her mother died of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease and her father was killed a year later in an automobile accident. A judge sent the adolescent orphan to live with her aunt and uncle in Osceola, Mo. “It’s a Wonderful Life” had faded into the background and Grimes was effectively cut off from her friends and film acquaintances.
Her first marriage, at age 18, produced two children and ended in divorce eight years later, after which her ex-husband died in a hunting accident. She married a successful contractor and had two more children while welcoming in three kids from her husband’s previous marriage. Tragedy struck when her youngest child took his life at age 18 and, not long after, it was compounded when cancer claimed her husband, ending a 25-year marriage.
As if guided by her own guardian angel, Grimes was rescued from her despair as interest in “It’s a Wonderful Life” began to pick up and she soon found herself in demand as a living link to what has become a Christmas classic.
She learned firsthand of the movie’s effect when the Target department store chain organized a Christmastime reunion of the Bailey children, and Grimes had a chance to visit one-on-one with fans. “I realized how much this movie had touched their lives. For many, it’s a tradition. Maybe they used to watch it with their grandmother and they feel they are sharing that time with lost loved ones,” she says.
“Others have been on the bridge themselves and watched the film, and the message – that we all make a difference, each of us matters – they got that message. I’ve heard so many stories over and over. One man said it was his wife’s favorite and they watched it 15 days straight until she got her wings. At the service, they all rang bells in memory of her. It’s all about guardian angels and hope. There’s so much there. We all matter and that movie just accentuates it.”
These days, Grimes delights in celebrating the film with fans and promoting all things Zuzu. When she’s not on the road making appearances and hosting screenings, she operates an online store that features ornaments, souvenir bells, autographed photos, her cookbooks and more.
She met her husband, Christopher Brunell, in the late 1990s at a conference in Memphis, Tenn. Brunell, a clinical psychologist and a specialist in suicide issues, had been invited to speak at the conference. The couple relocated from the Seattle area to Lake Shastina two years ago when Brunell started work at the Anav Tribal Health Clinic on the Quartz Valley Indian Reservation in Fort Jones.
Promoting the movie and its messages continues as her life’s work. One of the highlights is the “It’s a Wonderful Life” festival held each December in Seneca Falls, N.Y. The village in upstate New York considers itself the inspiration for the movie’s fictitious Bedford Falls and is home to the “It’s a Wonderful Life” museum that Grimes helped establish.
COVID-19 turned last year’s festival into a virtual event, but this year’s festival has been expanded to five days with extra events added to help celebrate the film’s 75th anniversary. “It’s a great celebration and a super-duper time,” Grimes says.
Has there ever been a desire to return to acting? “No. No, no, no. A thousand times no. That’s just not a world I’m comfortable in. I was just a fortunate little girl.”