Karolyn Grimes Wilkerson Fondly Remembers Her Role in a Hollywood Christmas Classic

Note: This blog first ran on December 17, 2013. Colonial Theatre will once again be showing It's a Wonderful Life this year on December 21.

As a childhood actress, by the time she was six years old, Karolyn Grimes Wilkerson had already worked with the likes of Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. But in 1946, she earned a permanent place in holiday movie history when she was cast by director Frank Capra in It's a Wonderful Life. She is fondly remembered as Zuzu Bailey, speaker of the immortal line: "Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings."

Now 73, Wilkerson remembers the shoot with amazing clarity from her home near Seattle, Washington: "I was at RKO Radio Pictures, Stage 14, in what is now Culver City, for two weeks. And it was all just so much fun. There were other kids. And I really remember the snow. Even though it wasn't real, I loved it. It was a wonderful experience."

She also can clearly bring to mind the first time she saw the finished film, in which her broken rose petals play a vital part in her onscreen father's redemption. She was 40 years old when she finally watched the movie through to the end credits. She did attend the original premier, but admittedly fell asleep. And in the interim, real life - kids and a career as a medical technician - simply got in the way.

It wasn't until the 1970s, when the Capra classic started to run continually on television, that Wilkerson fully discovered the powerful story of a man who wishes he had never been born. "Someone knocked on my door when I was living in Kansas and asked if I was the little girl who played Zuzu in the movie It's a Wonderful Life. And I said, Yeah, I am. So they said, Can we have an interview? And I said, Sure. So I went into the basement and drug up all my memorabilia. And the next week, the same thing happened. The following week, it happened again. Then I started getting fan mail. So I thought, Oh, wow, I think I better sit down and watch this movie."

Part of that memorabilia, Wilkerson admits, is an ornament from the original tree in the Bailey living room.

Karolyn Grimes Wilkerson

Prior to this interview, The Pursuit offered its Facebook friends the opportunity to ask questions regarding her recollections:

  • Sharon Van Hecke wanted to know if Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey was "...as nice a person in real life as he came across in his on-screen persona?"

Wilkerson doesn't hesitate: "That's a big fat yes," she chuckles. "He was just so nice. I remember him being very tall." She also has fond recollections of Thomas Mitchell as her Uncle Billy and Donna Reed as a luminous Mary Bailey, her mother.

  • Online, Barbara Belgie Stitt asks: "What is it like knowing you this movie is such a special part of so many peoples' lives?"

"I don't take it for granted," Wilkerson responds solemnly. "I feel like it's a responsibility. The little girl in that film touched a lot of lives. Because the movie touches a lot of lives. So when people come to me with tears and they share their stories about how the movie has affected them, I feel it a privilege that they open their hearts and share with me and share their Christmas traditions and celebrations with me." Wilkerson is one of five remaining cast members still living. "We say that we haven't received our wings yet," she explains.

The conversation turned to the announced sequel. Wilkerson is expected to reprise her role of Zuzu - updated as an angel - in the 2015 release.

She is adamant about its tone: "It isn't a remake by any stretch of the imagination; I hope people understand that. There's no way you could remake It's a Wonderful Life. Just can't be done."

She continues: "It's a totally different story. It's the story of Petey Bailey's son, George Bailey's grandson, and the continuation of what happens to him. The folks who are putting it together have integrity, and they're going to be very careful with it.

Wilkerson says the project reminds her of the current Stephen King novel Doctor Sleep, a novel she just finished reading. "It's a sequel to The Shining," she says, "the story of Danny Torrance having grown up. Our sequel of It's a Wonderful Life is in the same vein."

Wilkerson is a self-professed King fan, with her "...favorite book in the whole world being The Stand." And if the thought of little Zuzu Bailey being into Stephen King is surprising, consider this: Each holiday season, when she is finished with the personal appearances related to her most famous role, Wilkerson nestles in to watch her favorite Christmas movies.

One is The Bishop's Wife (1947), a classic in which Wilkerson worked with Cary Grant.

The other?

National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation.

"I love that movie!" she laughs.

If you would like to enjoy It's a Wonderful Life on the big screen, you've got three opportunities at The Colonial Theater to have your heartstrings pulled: December 21, 22 and 24 (Christmas Eve itself).

Colonial Theatre

It's a Wonderful Life is a story of family togetherness and the value of one's loved ones. Why not be an angel and treat those closest to you to a getaway weekend? Try a recommendation from our website.