Karolyn Grimes with Jimmy Stewart in  It's a Wonderful Life.

Karolyn Grimes with Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life.

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 character George Bailey who is given a chance to reevaluate the impact his life has had on others (see www.zuzu.net).

“He was a wonderful, gentle man,” recalled Grimes, who says he was patient if she got her lines wrong.

But by 1952, after another ten 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 explained. “That’s when interest in the film took off.”

Cary Grant and Karolyn Grimes in The Bishop's Wife

Cary Grant and Karolyn Grimes in The Bishop’s Wife

Largely ignored for decades after its release in 1946, TV stations began playing the film during Thanksgiving/Christmas holiday seasons after it fell into the public domain in 1974.

The film’s popularity also 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.

Jimmy and Karolyn reconnect in 1990.

Jimmy and Karolyn reconnect in 1990.

“We started a museum in Seneca Falls, NY, which is thought to be the town Frank Capra modeled the film after,” she said. “Now other collectors want to loan items for display. We currently occupy four rooms in the town’s old movie theater and have started a fund raiser to buy the building and dedicate it to a museum for the film.” (See www.indiegogo.com/projects/wish-i-had-a-million-dollars-hot-dog).

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.

Current pieces on display include original posters, lobby cards, letters, contracts, and many other items. Unfortunately, few props from the film remain.

However, 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.”

The vehicle, a 1919 Dodge Brothers touring car is the one George Bailey drives into a tree. It had been fully restored to mint condition, but failed to sell at the auction.

While mostly recognized for her role in “It’s a Wonderful Life” and her memorable line to Stewart – “every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings” – Grimes worked with other greats including Randolph Scott, Glenn Ford, John Wayne, and Cary Grant.

“One of my favorite films was ‘The Bishop’s Wife’ with Cary Grant,” she said. “He was just wonderful and loved kids. I sat on his lap, he told me stories, and would take me to lunch every day at noon.  There was an ice-skating rink on the set for scenes in the film and he would pull me around on a sled to practice his skating.”

One of her last films was “Rio Grande” in 1950 with John Wayne.

“We were in Moab, Utah, for 3 weeks and I had a blast riding on a covered wagon being chased by Indians on horseback,” she recalled.  “My birthday is the July 4th and somehow John Wayne managed to get $300 worth of fireworks for the day – a lot of fireworks back then! He had a big cake made for me and we had a lot of fun celebrating.”

Grimes may invest in fireworks to celebrate if her dream of a new museum is realized by the film’s 70th anniversary.

Karolyn Grimes today with album of childhood photos.

Karolyn Grimes today with album of childhood photos.

“I want to see it become a living memorial to the film,” she said. “Like George Bailey, we may not always fulfill our dreams, but this movie gives us the opportunity to think about what we have and what’s important, and how wonderful life really is.”

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