Friends, the good folks at Abrams Comicarts were kind enough to send me an advanced copy of their latest book – a graphic novel in fact written as well as illustrated by Bill Griffith. Entitled Nobody’s Fool: The Life and Times of Schlitzie the Pinhead, Griffith deep dives into what is known of the extraordinary life of Schlitzie Surtees – better known as Schlitzie the Pinhead. Who is probably known most for his performance in Tod Browning’s 1932 masterpiece Freaks but as Nobody’s Fool clearly points out – the sideshow performer was at one time recognized and celebrated far and wide across the United States. Even creating a boys haircut fad known as the Schlitzie in the San Francisco area!
I just said that Freaks was probably what Surtees was best known for outside of the travelling circuses and the carnivals of the past. I should add that Bill Griffith was the creator of Zippy the Pinhead, the popular underground character that went mainstream thanks to King Features Syndicate publishing it in more than 100 newspapers. The creation of Zippy is owed in no small part to Griffith having caught a revival showing of Freaks although as he points out in his biography for Surtees – it took seven more years for him to fully come up with the character – in addition the character’s name comes from the P.T. Barnum performer “Zip the What-Is-It?”.
With Nobody’s Fool, Griffith has been able to speak with those who actually worked with Schlitzie, such as Ward Hall – who happened to be one of the last managers of a sideshow that Surtees performed for. While Griffith admits that there is sadly much of Schlitzie’s past that no one knows for certain he has done a remarkable job of piecing together old newspaper reviews of Surtees’ performances and visiting archives throughout the country to present a definitive biography. Besides speaking with Ward Hall there is also the likes of Wolf Krakowski, who as a young man was working at Sam Alexander’s sideshow from 1965 to 1967 – the last performing days for Schlitzie. As the graphic novel details it is a reasonable assumption that Schlitzie was born Simon Metz in 1901 in the Bronx – at around the age of eight he was sold to a manager of the sideshow for the Dreamland Circus. Thankfully accepted and protected by the other performers of the ‘freak show’. Throughout the years in his act he was advertised as a Woman and under a myriad of names and origins such as being the last of the Aztecs or Tik-Tak the Aztec girl, etc.
Nobody’s Fool: The Life and Times of Schlitzie the Pinhead gives an honest look back at the popularity of sideshows – the good and bad. Griffith naturally devotes a good section of the 247 page graphic novel to Tod Browning’s Freaks, even detailing the Director’s own background in carnivals and sideshows. It certainly would appear that Browning took a particular shine to Surtees and the man returned the affection to the Director. As you can see from the photo below taken on the set of 1932’s Freaks, with Schlitzie giving Browning a massive hug.
Schlitzie’s surname by the way comes from George and Dodie Surtees, fellow carnival performers with a chimpanzee act who crossed paths with the man in the Tom Mix Circus. The couple adopted Schlitzie in 1936 and took care of him for nearly all of his life – this is another element of Griffith’s book that is worth praising – he has packed so much fascinating history of Hollywood within it. While I most assuredly know of Tom Mix, listening to my Grandparent’s talk about his western films when I was growing up… I had no idea however that he owned and operated a circus!
Griffith’s book goes into detail on not just Surtees life but the history of such performers and what it was like for them during the early 1900’s until recently as the 2000’s. An extremely interesting look behind the curtain of that life – filled with much joy as well as some devastating heartache to be sure. Griffith graces us with an intimate look at Schlitzie himself and it was an absolute delight to be able to review it for the Retroist. The good news is that Nobody’s Fool: The Life and Times of Schlitzie the Pinhead should be available in better book stores right this minute – of course you can always visit Abrams and order your copy today!
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