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'It's a Wonderful Life' actress shares the film's uplifting message

Karolyn Grimes played little Zuzu Bailey in the classic 1946 movie. Today, she travels the country talking about its message of hope and healing – and sometimes her own story, too.

Gail Wood
'The message is from the movie. It's not me. I'm just a conduit. It's what I represent,' says Karolyn Grimes about the classic movie "It's a Wonderful Life." Ms. Grimes played 6-year-old Zuzu in the film. Today she tours the country speaking about the movie, it's message, and her own life of overcoming struggles.

So often it's a sublime moment, an emotional encounter filled with tears and smiles.

For the eager fans who've come to see Karolyn Grimes, the encounter – a hug and a thank you – is cathartic. Finally, they've met Zuzu, George Bailey’s darling little daughter in the iconic movie “It's a Wonderful Life.”

“I feel like it's a mission,” Ms. Grimes says about meeting fans of the movie. “If you could see people's faces light up and the tears come. They get so emotional.”

Grimes was just 6 years old when she played the role of Zuzu in the 1946 Christmas classic with its message that says everyone's life is important and meaningful – and that gratitude can overcome despair.

Now speaking about "A Wonderful Life" is Grimes' life, what she considers a calling. For three or four months around Christmas she travels on weekends across the country, as well as a couple of times a month the rest of the year, appearing at events and talking about the iconic movie. 

Sometimes, when she feels led, Grimes will share her life story, a heartbreaking ordeal. Both her parents died before she was 16. Her first two husbands died, one from a hunting accident and another from illness.

But typically, Grimes talks about the classic Christmas movie. She feels it's Zuzu they've come to see, not Karolyn Grimes.

"The message is from the movie. It's not me," Grimes says. "I'm just a conduit. It's what I represent. It's that message. That feeling, the emotions they get when they watch that film. That's what it's about. And it changed their lives.”

For many who watch the movie, directed by Hollywood legend Frank Capra and starring Jimmy Stewart, it's a reason for hope. Grimes receives mail almost daily from people who thank her for helping them get through their own despair.

“If they're down and in depression, they watch the film, and it brings them right back up again,” says Grimes, who lives near Port Orchard, Wash. “I've seen it over and over again. People share their stories with me and how it's changed their lives. It's an incredible, incredible thing.”

In one of the most quoted lines from the movie, Zuzu Bailey says, “Look Daddy. Teacher says every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings.” In a letter Grimes recently received, a thankful woman wrote, “You still make me cry when I hear your famous line at the end of the movie.”

As with “It's a Wonderful Life,” Grimes' life has a message of overcoming and persevering.

“What I've noticed the most is that they feel that she's been there,” says Chris Brunell, Grimes' husband. “She knows what they're going through. I think that means a great deal to a lot of people.”

It was Grimes' empathy, her ability to connect with people, that first attracted Mr. Brunell. Grimes and Brunell met in 1997 when she was speaking at a conference on suicide prevention. Brunell, a clinical psychologist, hadn't seen the movie, but he was attracted to Grimes' own story. They talked late into the evening.

“That's how it started,” he says. “I felt I should be part of the mission she had and that was touching people's lives. We've been doing that going on the last 19 years now.”      

Grimes says her resilience is part her inner strength and part her faith in God. Her message is about enduring and overcoming challenges.

“You're tested your whole life,” she says. “Everyone is. If you just learn to go with it – go with the flow and make the best of it. If you look at the bad, there's always something that comes out of it.”

Grimes has become the unofficial spokesman for “It's a Wonderful Life.” As she travels the country with her husband to talk about the movie, she always brings along memorabilia from the movie to sell. She also makes sure she brings one more thing – boxes of tissues.

“A lot of people come up after a show or during an intermission sobbing,” Brunell says.

Grimes will give them a big, consoling hug.

“It's beautiful to see,” Brunell says. “It happens all the time. We need to have Kleenex on hand. There's a lot of tears.”

And then lots of smiles.

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