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Arts & Culture

Despite Personal Heartbreak, 'Zuzu' Still Believes "It's A Wonderful Life"

Her line is one of the most iconic in all of film history: “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.”

Karolyn Grimes was six years old when she spoke those words to Jimmy Stewart at the end of “It’s A Wonderful Life,” the perennial holiday favorite that will be screened at the Palace Theater in Seguin on Friday, December 6. Grimes will be at the theater to introduce the film and meet fans, and will return the following day for a screening of “The Bishop’s Wife,” another holiday movie she played in, that time opposite Cary Grant.

Grimes was handpicked by director Frank Capra for the part of young Zuzu, whose flower petals play a pivotal role in bringing Stewart’s character back to reality in “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Working with the legendary actor was easy, she says.

“He was a very gentle and kind man,” Grimes says. “He was very patient… and he was also really tall!"

"I was just a little girl. He developed the chemistry between us by taking time to get to know me, and chatting with me a little bit.”

Amazingly enough, after the film wrapped, Grimes didn’t see it for nearly 35 years. In that stretch of time, she had her share of heartbreak. When Grimes was 14, her mother died from illness, and her father died a year later. Following that, she was sent from Los Angeles to a small town to live with her uncle and his “mean wife,” as she says.

“I felt like my world had ended. Everything was gone,” Grimes says. “But the [small] town rallied around me, [and] I never wanted to go back to that artificial, superficial town of Hollywood.”

Grimes raised seven children of her own, but misfortune seemed to follow her. Her first husband died in a hunting accident, and her youngest son committed suicide.

Then, one day in 1980, a reporter knocked on her door in Kansas and asked if she was “Zuzu.” Grimes led him to her collection of archive material from the film, and the resulting story led to a swell of publicity. “It went into all the newspapers, and I started getting fan mail. I was blown away,” Grimes says. “That’s when I realized there’s something about this movie that’s touched people.”

Sharing her personal story has also helped others, Grimes adds. “Sometimes I think [the fans] feel some comfort to know that someone else has been in their shoes, and has felt the pain that they’re feeling.”

Despite the fact that Grimes has seen the movie scores of times now, she still notices little things. “Every time you see the blackbird fly in on Uncle Billy, that means Mr. Potter is bearing down on the Bailey Building & Loan. There’s a lot of symbolism in the film,” she says.

And the movie is “chock full of wonderful little pieces of information that can help you get through life.”

Nowadays, Grimes spends time making appearances at screenings like the one taking place in Seguin this Friday, traveling as far as the United Kingdom and Hong Kong. She says that audiences always express joy at seeing the movie on the big screen, and meeting Grimes, who also answers to “Zuzu.”

“That’s where my reward comes in. There’s so much love from people who watch this movie…that’s where I really get blessed.”

“It’s A Wonderful Life” screens at 7:00 this Friday night at the Palace Theater in Seguin. The following afternoon at 2:00, Grimes will appear at a screening of “The Bishop’s Wife.” Tickets are available at seguintheatres.com.