ZaSu Pitts

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ZaSu Pitts
ZaSu Pitts in Tish trailer.jpg
Pitts in trailer for the film Tish (1942)
Born Eliza Susan Pitts
(1894-01-03)January 3, 1894
Parsons, Labette County
Kansas, USA
Died June 7, 1963(1963-06-07) (aged 69)
Hollywood, California, U.S.
Cause of death
Cancer
Resting place
Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California
Education Santa Cruz High School
Occupation Actress
Years active 1917–1963
Spouse(s) Tom Gallery (m. 1920-1933; divorced)
John E. Woodall (m. 1933-1963; her death)
Children 2

ZaSu Pitts (/ˈsz ˈpɪts/;[1] née Eliza Susan Pitts; January 3, 1894 – June 7, 1963)[2] was an American actress who starred in many silent dramas and comedies, transitioning to comedy sound films.

Early life[edit]

Eliza Susan Pitts[3] was born in Parsons, Kansas to Rulandus and Nelly (née Shay) Pitts; she was the third of four children. Her father, who had lost a leg while serving in the 76th New York Infantry Regiment in the Civil War, had settled the family in Kansas by the time ZaSu was born.[4]

The names of her father's sisters, Eliza and Susan, were purportedly the basis for the nickname "ZaSu", i.e. to satisfy competing family interests. She later adopted the nickname professionally and legally. It has been (incorrectly) spelled as Zazu Pitts in some film credits and news articles. Although the name is commonly mispronounced /ˈzæz/ ZAZ-oo or /ˈzs/ ZAY-soo, or /ˈzz/ ZAY-zoo, in her 1963 book Candy Hits (p. 15), Pitts herself gives the correct pronunciation as "Say Zoo" /ˈsz/, recounting that Mary Pickford had predicted, "[M]any will mispronounce it", and adding, "How right [she] was." In 1903, when she was nine years old, her family moved to Santa Cruz, California, to seek a warmer climate and better job opportunities. Her childhood home at 208 Lincoln Street still stands. She attended Santa Cruz High School, where she participated in school theatricals.[5]

Career[edit]

ca. 1920

Pitts made her stage debut in 1914–15 doing school and local community theater in Santa Cruz. Going to Los Angeles in 1916, at the age of twenty-two, she spent many months seeking work as a film extra. Finally she was discovered for substantive roles in films by screenwriter Frances Marion. Marion cast Pitts as an orphaned slavey (child of work) in the silent film, The Little Princess (1917), starring Pickford. Years later, she was the leading lady in Erich von Stroheim's Greed (1924). Based on her performance, von Stroheim labeled Pitts "the greatest dramatic actress". He also featured her in his films The Honeymoon (1928), The Wedding March (1928), War Nurse (1930) and Walking Down Broadway, which was re-edited by Alfred L. Werker and released as Hello, Sister! (1933).

David Butler and Zasu Pitts look lovingly at each other while Jack McDonald glares in a scene still for the 1919 silent drama "Better Times."

Pitts' popularity grew following a series of Universal one-reeler comedies and earned her first feature-length lead in King Vidor's Better Times (1919). The following year she married her first husband, Tom Gallery, with whom she was paired in several films, including Bright Eyes (1921), Heart of Twenty (1920), Patsy (1921) and A Daughter of Luxury (1922). In 1924, the actress, now a reputable comedy farceuse, was given the greatest tragic role of her career in Erich von Stroheim's 9½ hour epic Greed (1924). The surprise casting initially shocked Hollywood, but showed that Pitts could draw tears with her doleful demeanor as well as laughs. Having been extensively edited prior to release—the final theatrical cut ran just over two hours—the movie failed initially at the box office, but has since been restored to over four hours and is considered one of the greatest films ever made.[citation needed]

Pitts enjoyed her greatest fame in the 1930s, often starring in B movies and comedy shorts, teamed with Thelma Todd. She played secondary parts in many films. Her stock persona (a fretful, flustered, worrisome spinster) made her instantly recognizable and was often imitated in cartoons and other films. She starred in a number of Hal Roach shorts and features, and co-starred in a series of feature-length comedies with Slim Summerville. Switching between comedy shorts and features, by the advent of sound, she was relegated to comedy roles. A bitter disappointment was when she was replaced in the classic war drama All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) by Beryl Mercer after her initial appearance in previews drew unintentional laughs, despite her intense performance. She had viewers rolling in the aisles in Finn and Hattie (1931), The Guardsman (1931), Blondie of the Follies (1932), Sing and Like It (1934) and Ruggles of Red Gap (1935). In the 1940s, she found work in vaudeville and on radio, trading banter with Bing Crosby, Al Jolson, and Rudy Vallee, among others. She appeared several times on the earliest Fibber McGee and Molly show, playing a dizzy dame constantly looking for a husband. Her brief stint in the Hildegarde Withers mystery series, succeeding Edna May Oliver, was unsuccessful, however.

In 1944, Pitts tackled Broadway, making her debut in the mystery, Ramshackle Inn. The play, written expressly for her, fared well, and she took the show on the road in later years. Post-war films continued to give Pitts the chance to play comic snoops and flighty relatives in such fare as Life with Father (1947), but in the 1950s she started focusing on television. This culminated in her best known series role, playing second banana to Gale Storm on CBS's The Gale Storm Show (1956) (also known as Oh, Susannah) in the role of Elvira Nugent ("Nugie"), the shipboard beautician. In 1961, Pitts was cast opposite Earle Hodgins in the episode "Lonesome's Gal" on the ABC sitcom, Guestward, Ho!, set on a dude ranch in New Mexico. In 1962, Pitts appeared in an episode of CBS's Perry Mason, "The Case of the Absent Artist". Her last role was a switchboard operator in the madcap Stanley Kramer comedy It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963).

Personal life[edit]

Pitts was married to Thomas Sarsfield Gallery from 1920 to 1933. Gallery, an actor, became a well-known Los Angeles boxing promoter and later a TV executive. The couple had two children: Ann Gallery (born 1922) and Donald Michael "Sonny" Gallery (né Marvin Carville La Marr), whom they adopted and renamed after the 1926 death of his mother and Pitts' friend, silent film actress Barbara La Marr. In 1933, she married John Edward "Eddie" Woodall, with whom she remained until her death.

Later years and death[edit]

Declining health dominated Pitts' later years, particularly after she was diagnosed with cancer in the mid-1950s. However, she continued to work until the very end – making brief appearances in The Thrill of It All (1963) with Doris Day and James Garner, and as a cameo switchboard operator in the "Santa Rosita Police Department" 's office in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. She died June 7, 1963, aged 69, in Hollywood and was interred at Holy Cross Cemetery, Culver City.[6] Pitts wrote a book of candy recipes, Candy Hits by ZaSu Pitts, which was published posthumously in 1963.

Legacy[edit]

Zasu Pitts was inducted into the Hollywood Walk of Fame on February 8, 1960.[7] Her star can be found on the south side of the 6500 block of Hollywood Boulevard.[8] In 1994 her place in the pantheon on silent film stars was affirmed when she was honored with her image on a United States postage stamp[9] along with luminaries Rudolph Valentino, Clara Bow, Charlie Chaplin, Lon Chaney, John Gilbert,Harold Lloyd, the Keystone Cops, Theda Bara, and Buster Keaton as part of The Silent Screen Stars stamp set as designed by caricaturist Al Hirschfeld.[5] In Parsons, Kansas, there is a star tile at the entrance to the Parsons Theatre to commemorate her.[10]

Actress Mae Questel, who performed character voices in Max Fleischer's Popeye the Sailor cartoons, reportedly based the fluttering utterances of Olive Oyl on Zasu Pitts, but added her own touches.[11]

Partial filmography[edit]

Year Film title Role Notes
1917 Little Princess, TheThe Little Princess Becky
1918 How Could You Jean? Oscar's Sweetheart
1918 Talk of the Town, TheThe Talk of the Town
1919 Better Times Nancy Scroggs
1919 Other Half, TheThe Other Half Jennie Jones, The Jazz Kid
1919 Poor Relations Daisy Perkins
1920 Seeing It Through Betty Lawrence
1921 Patsy Patsy
1922 Youth to Youth Emily
1923 Souls for Sale Herself Cameo role
1923 Three Wise Fools Mickey
1923 Hollywood Herself Cameo role
1924 West of the Water Tower Dessie Arnhalt
1924 Daughters of Today Lorena
1924 Triumph A Factory Girl
1924 Changing Husbands Delia
1924 Greed Trina
1925 Great Divide, TheThe Great Divide Polly Jordan
1925 Pretty Ladies Maggie Keenan
1925 Great Love, TheThe Great Love Nancy
1926 Monte Carlo Hope Durant
1926 Sunny Side Up Evelyn
1927 Casey at the Bat Camille
1928 The Honeymoon Caecilia sequel to The Wedding March. Released only in Europe; lost
1928 Wedding March, TheThe Wedding March Cecelia Schweisser
1928 Sins of the Fathers Mother Spengler
1929 Paris Harriet
1929 Locked Door, TheThe Locked Door Telephone Girl
1929 The Squall Lena
1929 Her Private Life Timmins
1929 This Thing Called Love Clara Bertrand
1930 No, No, Nanette Pauline Hastings
1930 Devil's Holiday, TheThe Devil's Holiday Ethel
1930 Monte Carlo Bertha
1930 Passion Flower Mrs. Harney
1930 Free Love Ada
1931 Bad Sister, TheThe Bad Sister Minnie
1931 Seed Jennie
1931 A Woman of Experience Katie
1931 Penrod and Sam Mrs. Bassett Alternative title: The Adventures of Penrod and Sam
1931 Guardsman, TheThe Guardsman Liesl, the Maid
1931 On the Loose Zasu Short subject.
1931 Beyond Victory Mademoiselle Fritzi
1932 Broken Lullaby Anna, Holderlin's Maid
1932 Shopworn Aunt Dot
1932 Destry Rides Again Temperance Worker Alternative title: Justice Rides Again
1932 Westward Passage Mrs. Truesdale
1932 Back Street Mrs. Dole
1932 Blondie of the Follies Gertie
1932 Crooked Circle, TheThe Crooked Circle Nora Rafferty
1932 Make Me a Star Mrs. Scudder
1932 Strangers of the Evening Sybil
1933 They Just Had to Get Married Molly Hull
1933 Hello, Sister! Millie
1933 Meet the Baron Zasu
1933 Mr. Skitch Maddie Skitch
1933 Professional Sweetheart Elmerada de Leon
1934 Sing and Like It Annie Snodgrass
1934 Dames Matilda Ounce Hemingway
1934 Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch Miss Hazy
1934 Gay Bride, TheThe Gay Bride Mirabelle
1935 Ruggles of Red Gap Prunella Judson
1935 Going Highbrow
1936 Thirteen Hours by Air Miss Harkins
1936 The Plot Thickens Hildegarde Withers
1937 Forty Naughty Girls Hildegarde Withers
1939 Lady's from Kentucky, TheThe Lady's from Kentucky Dulcey Lee
1939 Eternally Yours Mrs. Bingham
1939 Naughty but Nice Aunt Penelope Hardwick
1940 It All Came True Miss Flint
1940 No, No Nanette Pauline Hastings
1941 Broadway Limited Myra
1941 Niagara Falls Emmy Sawyer
1942 Bashful Bachelor, TheThe Bashful Bachelor Geraldine
1942 So's Your Aunt Emma Aunt Emma Alternative title: Meet the Mob
1943 Let's Face It! Cornelia Figeson
1946 Breakfast in Hollywood Elvira Spriggens
1947 Life with Father Cousin Cora Cartwright
1950 Francis Nurse Valerie Humpert
1952 Denver and Rio Grande Jane Dwyer
1954 Francis Joins the WACS Lt. Valerie Humpert
1957 This Could Be the Night Mrs. Katie Shea
1961 Teenage Millionaire, TheThe Teenage Millionaire Aunt Theodora
1963 Thrill of It All, TheThe Thrill of It All Olivia
1963 It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World Gertie–Switchboard Operator
Television
Year Title Role Notes
1954 Best of Broadway, TheThe Best of Broadway Miss Preen Episode: "The Man Who Came to Dinner"
1955 Screen Directors Playhouse Selma Episode: "The Silent Partner"
1956 20th Century Fox Hour, TheThe 20th Century Fox Hour Miss Appleton Episode: "Mr. Belvedere"
1956–
1960
Gale Storm Show, TheThe Gale Storm Show Elvira Nugent 91 episodes
1957 Private Secretary Aunt Martha Episode: "Not Quite Paradise"
1960 Dennis O'Keefe Show, TheThe Dennis O'Keefe Show Loretta Kimball Episode: "Dimples"
1961 Guestward, Ho! Episode: "Lonesome's Gal"
1961 Perry Mason Daphne Whilom Episode: "The Case of the Absent Artist"
1963 Burke's Law Mrs. Bowie Episode: "Who Killed Holly Howard?"

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Candy Hits by ZaSu Pitts; Duell, Sloan and Pearce; 1963; p. 15
  2. ^ Concerning Pitts' year of birth, about which the actress often dissembled, some sources cite 1894 (IMDB: Zasu Pitts, Find-a-Grave, Golden Silents, Who2, and InfoPlease), while other sources cite 1898 (Halliwell's Filmgoer's Companion, 12th edition, HarperCollins, 1997, ISBN 0-00-255798-3 and TCM:Biography) or even 1900 (Allmovie:Overview and New York Times obituary (June 8, 1963))
  3. ^ As per 1900 United States Federal Census & Voter Lists, ZaSu's name is given as Yazan Pitts, an apparent mistranscription of "Eliza Susan"
    Age: 6
    Birth Date: [Mar - sic] 1894
    Birthplace: Kansas
    Home in 1900: Parsons Ward 1, Labette, Kansas
    Race: White
    Gender: Female
    Relation to Head of House: Daughter
    Marital Status: Single
    Father's Name: Rulandus Pitts
    Father's Birthplace: New York
    Mother's Name: Nelly Pitts
    Mother's Birthplace: New York
  4. ^ "Rulandus Pitts biography on 76th NY Regiment site". Bpmlegal.com. Retrieved June 7, 2010. 
  5. ^ a b Barbara Giffen. "ZaSu Pitts: Actress 1898–1963". Santa Cruz Public Library. Retrieved June 7, 2010. 
  6. ^ Stumpf, Charles (2010). ZaSu Pitts: The Life and Career. McFarland. pp. 103–104. ISBN 0-786-44620-X. 
  7. ^ "Hollywood Walk of Fame, Zasu Pitts". Retrieved Sep 28, 2014. 
  8. ^ Christopher Smith. "Hollywood Star Walk ZaSu Pitts". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved March 3, 2010. 
  9. ^ "Arago—People, Postage & the Post: Silent Screen Stars". 
  10. ^ "Kansapedia, Kansas Historical Society: Zasu Pitts". 
  11. ^ "Mae Questel". Encyclopedia of World Biography. 

External links[edit]