|Born||Unknown, possibly Simon Metz
September 10, 1901 (disputed)
The Bronx, New York City, US
|Died||September 24, 1971
Los Angeles, US
Schlitzie (alternatively spelled "Schlitze" or "Shlitze"; September 10, 1901– September 24, 1971), possibly born Simon Metz, and legally Schlitze Surtees, was an American sideshow performer and occasional actor, best known for his role in the 1932 movie Freaks and his lifelong career on the outdoor entertainment circuit as a major sideshow attraction with Barnum and Bailey, among others.
Schlitzie's true birth date, name, and location are unknown; it is commonly accepted, at least by what was inscribed on his death certificate and gravesite, that he was born on September 10, 1901, in The Bronx, New York, though some sources have claimed that he was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Claims that he was born in Yucatán, Mexico, are mistaken reflections of Schlitzie's occasional fanciful billing as "The Last of the Aztecs". Schlitzie's identity may never be known, the information having been lost as he was handed off to various carnivals in a long line of mostly informal guardianships throughout his career.
Schlitzie was born with microcephaly, a neurodevelopmental disorder that left him with an unusually small brain and skull, a small stature (he stood about four feet tall (122 cm)), myopia, and moderate to severe mental retardation. It was said Schlitzie had the cognizance of a three-year-old: he was unable to fully care for himself and he could only speak in monosyllabic words and form a few simple phrases. However, he was able to perform simple tasks and it is believed that he could understand most of what was said to him, as he had a very quick reaction time and the ability to mimic. Those who knew Schlitzie described him as an affectionate, exuberant, sociable person who loved dancing, singing, and being the center of attention, performing for anyone he could stop and talk to.
In accordance with the common practices of the carnival business of the time, it can be assumed that Schlitzie was either given to or purchased by a sideshow from his (thus far unknown or unidentified) birth parents. His guardians were usually his employers, sometimes by law and sometimes simply de facto. Responsibility for him tended to change hands as shows traded attractions. Most accounts tell that he was widely known, well cared for and treated affectionately throughout his carnival years.
On the sideshow circuit, microcephalics were usually promoted as "pinheads" or "missing links", and Schlitzie was billed under such titles as "The Last of the Aztecs", "The Monkey Girl", and "What Is It?". In some sideshows, he was paired with another microcephalic.
Schlitzie was often dressed in a muumuu and either presented as female or androgynous to add to the mystique of his unusual appearance. Those who knew him alternately used masculine and feminine pronouns. Most sources[examples needed] say that his urinary incontinence, which obligated him to wear diapers, made dresses practical for his care needs. Some[who?] who knew him report that he did not develop incontinence until later in life.
The sideshow circuit was a tremendous success for Schlitzie; throughout the 1920s and 1930s he was employed by many upscale circuses, including Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Clyde Beatty Circus, Tom Mix Circus, Crafts 20 Big Shows, and Foley & Burke Carnival. In 1928, Schlitzie made his film debut in The Sideshow, a drama set in a circus, and which featured a variety of actual sideshow performers.
Freaks and later work
Schlitzie landed his most-known role as an actor in Tod Browning's 1932 iconic horror film, Freaks. Like The Sideshow, Freaks takes place at a carnival, and features a number of genuine sideshow performers: conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, "The Living Torso" Prince Randian, and dwarf siblings Harry and Daisy Earles among them. Schlitzie has a scene of (unintelligible) dialogue with actor Wallace Ford. Two other "pinheads" also appear in the film. When referring to Schlitzie, other actors use feminine pronouns.
When Freaks premiered in 1932, cinema audiences were scandalized by the appearance of sideshow performers. The United Kingdom banned the film for 30 years. The film was a financial failure, and Browning was never hired by a major studio again.
Schlitzie appeared in bit roles in various movies, and is credited with a role in the 1934 exploitation film Tomorrow's Children, as a mentally-defective criminal who undergoes forced sterilization. He is often widely cited as appearing in 1932's Island of Lost Souls, in a seconds-long role as "Furry Mammal", However, there has been some debate about whether the performer in these films is Schlitzie or a lookalike.
While Schlitzie was performing with the Tom Mix Circus in 1935, George Surtees, a chimpanzee trainer with a trained-chimp act in the show, adopted him, becoming his legal guardian. In 1941, Schlitzie appeared in his final film role as "Princess Bibi", a sideshow attraction, in Meet Boston Blackie.
Under Surtees' care, Schlitzie continued performing the sideshow circuit; after Surtees' death in 1965, his daughter, who was not in show business, committed Schlitzie to a Los Angeles county hospital.
Schlitzie remained hospitalized for some time until he was recognized by sword swallower Bill Unks, who happened to be working at the hospital during the off-season. According to Unks, Schlitzie seemed to miss the carnival dearly, and being away from the public eye had made him very depressed. Hospital authorities determined that the best care for Schlitzie would be to make him a ward of Unks' employer, showman Sam Alexander, and return him to the sideshow where he remained until 1968.
In his later years, Schlitzie lived in Los Angeles, occasionally performing on various sideshow circuits both locally and internationally (he frequently performed in Hawaii and London, and his last major appearance was at the 1968 Dobritch International Circus held at the Los Angeles Sports Arena). Schlitzie also became a notable attraction performing on the streets of Hollywood, his caretakers selling his stock carnival souvenir pictures. Schlitzie spent time in his final days living on Santa Monica Boulevard in MacArthur Park where he would visit the lake with his guardian, feeding the pigeons and ducks and performing for passersby.
On September 24, 1971, at age 70, Schlitzie died from bronchial pneumonia at Fountain View Convalescent Home. His death certificate listed his official name as "Shlitze Surtees" and his birth date as 1901.
In the 1960s, Freaks was rediscovered and enjoyed a long run as one of the first midnight movies, becoming a cult classic, and in 1994, it was selected by the National Film Registry as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". The film became the public's major exposure to Schlitzie, who remains one of the more memorable characters in the film.
Schlitzie's iconic image has lent itself to many products, including masks, hats, shirts, models, clocks, snow globes and dolls. Additionally, Schlitzie has been cited as the inspiration for Bill Griffith's comic strip Zippy the Pinhead.
- Hartzman, M. (2006). American sideshow: An encyclopedia of history's most wondrous and curiously strange performers. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin. p. 210. ISBN 1585425303. Google books, retrieved 2013-01-16.
- Hernandez, Tom. Schlitzie: Origins. www.quasi-modo.net/
- "Schlitzie FAQ". Quasi-modo.net. Retrieved 2009-10-24.
- "'Schlitzie Biography'". Quasi-modo.net. Retrieved 2009-10-24.
- "Schlitzie the Pinhead". Thehumanmarvels.com. Retrieved 2009-10-24.
- "Schlitzie". Altered Dimensions. Retrieved 2009-10-24.
- "Island of Lost Souls". Quasi-modo.net. 1932-10-01. Retrieved 2009-10-24.
- "Is This Schlitzie?". Quasi-modo.net. Retrieved 2009-10-24.
- "Meet Boston Blackie". Quasi-modo.net. Retrieved 2009-10-24.
- Bill Griffith. "Still asking, "Are we having fun yet?"". English.ufl.edu. Retrieved 2009-10-24.
- "Reminisces of Jaime D'Arcy-Garcia". Quasi-modo.net. 1971-09-24. Retrieved 2009-10-24.
- Schlitzie at the Internet Movie Database
- Portrait (2009) of Schlitzie by noted illustrator Drew Friedman
- Schlitzie's big scene from 'Freaks' on YouTube
- 'There's Something About Schlitzie': A comprehensive website devoted to Schlitzie
- The Human Marvels Biography
- Schlitzie on Find-A-Grave
- The discussion that led to Schlitzie's new gravestone on the Find-A-Death forums
- Schlitze the Pinhead: One of Us! One of Us Pop Culture Addict Proflie on Schlitze
- Schlitze's remains are interred in a now-marked grave