'Wonderful Life' memorabilia amassed

By: NICK THOMAS Special to The Gazette
September 1, 2014 Updated: September 1, 2014 at 9:18 am
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For most adults, early childhood memories generally center on a favorite toy, pet, or family member. For Karolyn Grimes, they also include movie stars.

"I remember my first role in 'That Night with You' from 1945," said Grimes from her home in Port Orchard, a suburb of Seattle. "It starred Susanna Foster, an opera singer, who sang a lullaby to me on her lap."

The following year, 6-year-old Karolyn appeared in the holiday classic, "It's a Wonderful Life," playing Zuzu, the daughter of Jimmy Stewart's George Bailey, who is given a chance to re-evaluate the impact his life has had on others.

"He was a wonderful, gentle man," recalled Grimes, who says Stewart was patient when she got her lines wrong.

But by 1952, after another 10 films, her movie career was over. Orphaned in her early teens, Grimes was sent to live with relatives in the Midwest.

"I later became a medical technologist and sort of forgot about 'It's a Wonderful Life' until a reporter tracked me down around 1979 when I was living in Kansas," she said. "That's when interest in the film took off."

Largely ignored for decades after its release in 1946, TV stations began playing the film during Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons when the Frank Capra film fell into the public domain in 1974.

The film's popularity reconnected her to Jimmy Stewart.

"In 1980, he had his secretary look for me because people were asking him what happened to that little girl in the movie," she said. "We ended up doing some appearances together and he became a really good friend."

Since rediscovering the film, Grimes has amassed an assortment of "It's a Wonderful Life" memorabilia. In 2010, she decided to share her collection with fans of the film.

"We started a museum in Seneca Falls, N.Y., which is thought to be the town Frank Capra modeled the film after," she said. "Now other collectors want to loan items for display."

Grimes estimates the cost of purchasing and renovating the building at about $500,000 and hopes to have it fully operational by 2016, the film's 70th anniversary.

One item Grimes would love to acquire is the car Stewart drove in the film.

"It's owned by a private collector in Colorado. I had the chance to buy it 15 years ago for $60,000 but just didn't have the money," Grimes lamented. "It was up for auction earlier this year and the owner wanted a lot more for it."


Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., with features, columns, and interviews in more than 400 magazines and newspapers.

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