ZaSu Pitts

ZaSu Pitts (Jan. 3, 1894– Jun. 7, 1963) was an American movie actress. She was one of the more popular stars of the early motion picture era. A classic comedienne, ZaSu Pitts was known for her timid, forlorn blue eyes and trademark woebegone vocal pattern and fidgety hands.


Name and birth date
Her unusual first name was coined from parts of the names "Eliza" and "Susan", female relatives who both wanted Pitts's mother to name the child after them. In many film credits and articles, her name was rendered as Zazu Pitts or Zasu Pitts. Though her name is commonly mispronounced as "Zazz-oo", in her 1930s film shorts with Thelma Todd (see below) it is clearly pronounced on-screen (by Todd) as "ZAY-sue;" her name was also consistently pronounced "ZAY-sue" during her recurrent guest appearances on Fibber McGee and Molly's show in 1939.

There is some disagreement as to her birth date: some online biographies claim Pitts was born January 3, 1894, but the Internet Broadway Database gives her birth date as January 3, 1898. Her California death record claims she was born January 3, 1901, and making matters more confusing, the Social Security Death Record reflects a birthdate of January 3, 1900. The 1900 Federal Census for Parsons, Kansas lists the family, giving her an age of 6, with a birth month and year of March, 1894 (Ancestry.Com).

Born in Parsons, Kansas to Rulandus and Nellie (Shay) Pitts, ZaSu was the third of four children. Her aged New York-native father, who lost a leg back in the Civil War times, had settled the family in Kansas by the time ZaSu was born, but relocated to Santa Cruz, California when she was 9, seeking a warmer climate and better job opportunities. She attended Santa Cruz High School and somehow rose above her excessively shy demeanor to join the school's drama department. She went on to cultivate what was once deemed her negative qualities by making a career out of her unglamorous looks and wallflower tendencies in scores and scores of screwball comedy treasures.

Pitts made her stage debut in 1915 and was discovered two years later for films by pioneer screenwriter Frances Marion and made her debut in the silent film The Little Princess (1917), starring Mary Pickford. Pitts became a leading lady in Erich von Stroheim's masterpiece Greed (1924); based on this performance, von Stroheim labelled Pitts "the greatest dramatic actress". Von Stroheim also featured her in his films The Wedding March (1928) and Walking Down Broadway (1933), which was re-edited by Alfred L. Werker and released as Hello Sister.

Pitts grew in popularity following a series of Universal one-reeler comedies and earned her first feature-length lead in King Vidor's Better Times (1919). She met and married potential matinée idol Tom Gallery in 1920 and paired up with him in several films, including Bright Eyes (1921), Heart of Twenty (1920), Patsy (1921) and A Daughter of Luxury (1922). Their daughter Ann was born in 1922.

In 1924, the actress, now a reputable comedy farceur, was given the greatest tragic role of her career in Erich von Stroheim epic classic Greed (1924), an over four-hour picture edited to less than two. The surprise casting initially shocked Hollywood but pointed out that she could draw tears and pathos with her patented doleful demeanor as well as laughs. The movie has grown tremendously in respect over time, having failed initially at the box office due to its extensive cutting.

Pitts enjoyed her greatest fame, however, in the 1930s, often starring in B movies and comedy shorts, often teamed with Thelma Todd. She also 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 that were popular, and co-starred in a series of feature-length comedies with Slim Summerville. Her brief stint in the Hildegarde Withers mystery series was not well received, however; by this time Pitts was so established as a comedienne that audiences didn't accept her as a brainy sleuth.

Trading off between comedy shorts and features, she earned additional kudos in such heavy dramas as Sins of the Fathers (1928), The Wedding March (1928), also helmed by von Stroheim, and War Nurse (1930). Still, by the advent of sound, which was an easy transition for Pitts, she was fully secured in comedy. One bitter and huge disappointment for her was when she was replaced in the war classic All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) by Beryl Mercer after her initial appearance in previews drew unintentional laughs. She decided, however, to make the most of a not-so-bad situation. She had them rolling in the aisles in such wonderful and wacky entertainment as The Dummy (1929), Finn and Hattie (1931), The Guardsman (1931), Blondie of the Follies (1932), Sing and Like It (1934) and Ruggles of Red Gap (1935). She also excelled deliciously in her comedy partnerships with stunning blonde comedienne Thelma Todd (in short films) and comedian Slim Summerville (in features).

Breezing through the 1940s in assorted films, she found work in vaudeville and on radio as well, trading quivery banter with Bing Crosby, Al Jolson, and Rudy Vallee among others. She also tackled Broadway, making her debut in the mystery Ramshackle Inn in 1944. The play, which was written especially for her, faired quite well, and, as a result, took the show on the road frequently in later years. Post-war films continued to give Pitts the chance to play comic snoops and flighty relatives in such quality fare as Life with Father (1947), but into the 1950s she started focusing on TV. This culminated in her best known series role playing second banana to cruiseline social director Gale Storm in The Gale Storm Show (1956) [a.k.a. Oh, Susannah] as Nugie, the shipboard beautician.

Pitts' last role, shortly before her death, was as a voice actress (switchboard operator) in the Stanley Kramer comedy It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World(1963).

John E. Woodall (8 October 1933 - 7 June 1963) (her death)

Tom Gallery (23 July 1920 - 2 May 1933) (divorced); two children (one adopted): a daughter, Ann Gallery, and a son, Don Gallery (né Marvin Carville La Marr), whom they adopted after the 1926 death of his mother, silent film actress Barbara La Marr.

Sadly, ill health dominated Pitts' later years when she was diagnosed with cancer in the mid-1950s. She continued to work until the very end, making brief appearances in The Thrill of It All (1963) and the all-star comedy epic It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963). She died at age 69 in Hollywood, California leaving behind a gallery of scene-stealing worryworts for all to enjoy.

She was interred at Holy Cross Cemetery.

She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and in 1994, she was honored with her image on a United States postage stamp designed by caricaturist Al Hirschfeld.

Was an excellent cook and a collector of candy recipes, which culminated into a cook book entitled "Candy Hits by ZaSu Pitts", which was published posthumously in 1963.

When Hollywood switched to talkies Pitts, who had a distinctive nasal voice with a wavering vibrato, switched from dramas to comedy roles.

Mae Questel caricatured Pitts's voice for the character Olive Oyl for the Fleischer Studios animated cartoon version of the comic strip Popeye.

From the 1940s through the early 1960s, Pitts also made numerous television appearances, including her role in The Gale Storm Show|Oh! Susanna]] (1956-1960), with Gale Storm. As Nugie, the shipboard beautician and partner-in-crime, she made the most of her timid, twitchy mannerisms.

She was on radio, appearing several times on the earliest Fibber McGee and Molly show. Her character was a somewhat dipsy dame who was constantly looking for a husband.

Referred to sadistic gossip columnist Hedda Hopper as a "ferret".

Conservative both politically and financially, she left her lucrative job with Thelma Todd over a money dispute with Hal Roach, and often complained about taxes.

In Parsons, Kansas, there is a star tile at the Parsons Theatre to remember her by. It is placed at the entrance for movie-goers to see.

Many of these pages have used information from Wikipedia as their basis. Other information has been added by site owners as it is found and as time permits . We also invite users to submit info to be added to the site.
Copyright Genuine Kansas 2007