September 10, 1901 – September 24, 1971
My personal obsession with Schlitzie (my preferred spelling) began when I first saw the film Freaks. I meant no disrespect when I saw people different than myself. I just found people that were born different, fascinating.
At first Schlitzie horrified me, but then seemed as harmless as a puppy (although Tiny Doll, one of the legendary Doll Family Midgets claimed that Schlitzie could be “ferocious.” I have found that little people can frighten easily and have different concerns than others. One of my best friends is a little person.)
I am also a huge fan of The Ramones – having seen them live dozens of times. Heaven. One of their most famous songs, “Pinhead” – starts with the Freaks chant,
“Gabba Gabba We Accept You! We Accept You! One of Us!”
Their mascot was a Pinhead. Love.
I have always wanted to add Schlitzie to Findadeath – but getting real information has proved difficult. When my friend C.C. turned me on to a Wikipedia page, I found his grave, met Verne Langdon online, and here we are. So Verne, thank you for your hard work and loaning your expertise to Findadeath.com. It’s a richer place for it.
Take it away, Verne:
Shlitze the Pinhead has endeared himself over the decades to sideshow and moviegoers alike, and etched a name – “Schlitzie”, “Shlitze”, or “Slitzy” – for himself in spite of the fact he had no press agents and, in the beginning, no name. Intensely researching him over a period of six months or longer, a myriad of misinformation is readily accessible, but hard facts also exist if you dig deep enough. We’re still digging!
He suffered from microcephalus, or smaller than normal cranium (his mental age was said to be that of a 3-year-old). To help create the effect and in traditional pinhead fashion, Shlitze’s head was completely shaved, except for a small tuft of hair allowed to grow out the top emphasizing his coconut-size skull.
His talents included dancing, singing, and counting to ten, although according to witnesses he generally omitted the number 7 from his count. According to many, he didn’t have the capacity to carry on intelligible conversations, but possessed the innate gift to mimic people.
Dressed in one-piece costumes or muu-muus over the years, Pinhead Shlitze was forever displayed as a female, receiving various billings as Shlitze The Pinhead, Schlitzie, Last Of The Aztecs, Last Of The Incas, Slitzy The Monkey Girl, and Julius The Missing Link.
Legend has it he and his “sister” Athelia (also purported to be a “pinhead”) were children from a very well-to-do Santa Fe, New Mexico family, but it is doubtful Athelia, a similar sideshow attraction, was a relative. Shlitze’s Certificate Of Death states his place of birth as New York (The Bronx, probably), and this much has been researched and found to be true.
In-depth research indicates Shlitze was working in carnivals, sideshows and amusement parks as far back as 1928 (New York’s Coney Island and San Francisco’s Playland At The Beach.)
Shlitze became established as one of the most famous 10-in-1 (sideshow) performers of the era, touring with such large traveling circus and carnival midways of the day as the Clyde Beatty Circus, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Cole Bros. Circus, Foley & Burke Combined Shows (the only fifteen car railroad carnival show on the West Coast), Crafts 20 Big Shows, and West Coast Shows.
Film History books tell us Shlitze made his film debut in 1928 in a silent “The Sideshow” for director Erle C. Kenton, and of course Tod Browning hired him for the cult classic Freaks in 1932, the dark film about carnival life produced and directed by the former circus-contortionist-turned-producer-director Browning; this film also featured Koo Koo the Bird Girl and Harry Doll, with whom Shlitze had already appeared in Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus in New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1924 and again in 1925.
Cinema buffs of the genre insist Shlitze played an additional role as a furry manimal in Island Of Lost Souls with Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi, directed by Sideshow’s Erle C. Kenton for Paramount Pictures, but this is doubtful – still photo studies indicate a different albeit diminutive and unique actor.
Shlitze was attractive to the movie business, as well as the carnival sideshow business, and appeared as pinhead “Princess Betsy” in Columbia Picture’s Meet Boston Blackie (1941).
A cameo in Tomorrow’s Children, produced and released on the States’ Rights market by Bryan Foy, and directed by Crane Wilbur (1934), has been credited to Shlitze, but closeup photo clips from these films clearly seem to disprove these claims.
Around 1950 Schlitzie appeared on Pete Kortes’s 10-in-1 at Belmont Park in Montreal, as did another pinhead who received billing as his sister, Athelia. In 1960 Shlitze appeared in the sideshow for the E.K. Hernandez Circus in Hawaii, and in 1961 and 1962 Shlitze, still under the supervision of his “legal guardian” George Surtees, appeared for the top west coast sideshow, Vanteen & Lee.
Shlitze was featured on the 1968 Hall & Christ World of Wonders sideshow for the brief Dobritch International Circus held at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, one of his last major appearances.
In 1963 Dolores Surtees, who with her husband George presented Shlitze in sideshows everywhere, passed away, and in 1965 her husband and Shlitze’s “legal guardian” George Surtees succumbed.
Shlitze was then cared for by carnival and sideshow performer friends of the Surteeses who lived in an apartment near MacArthur Park Lake in downtown Los Angeles.
Shlitze occasionally came out of retirement to appear on small independent shows, and was even visible as a locally-favored street attraction around Hollywood and Los Angeles, his caretakers hawking his stock carnival souvenir pictures.
In his declining years, Shlitze lived in an apartment in this building.
His guardians would take Shlitze out to the lake and they would sit on one of the benches, feeding the pigeons and ducks, and pitching his carnival souvenir photos to people as they passed by. Affectionately known among the Hispanic locals as Ratoncito (little mouse), Shlitze was once more playing to the local crowds, which entertained and amused him until the time of his death in 1971 at the recorded age of 71. This age is listed on his Certificate Of Death but is most likely incorrect; his age was related by one of his guardians as being 83, but he could have been 84 or 85 at the time of his death. Other timeline information indicates he could have been as young as 64.
Shlitze’s cause of death is listed as being Bronchio Pneumonia, brought on by Medullary Depression. As his Certificate Of Death was signed by a physician, it is likely this is the legitimate cause of his death. During the preceding period of time Shlitze had been turned over to LAC USC Medical Center as an out-patient ward of the State.
He passed away under supervisory care offered at Fountain View Convalescent Home in Los Angeles, California.
Shlitze Surtees’s earthly remains were interred October 7, 1971 in an unmarked grave at Queen Of Heaven Cemetery in Rowland Heights, California.
I visited recently and paid my respects. This is me, sporting my too.
UPDATE! October 7, 2008:
The Findadeath message board was formed by myself and my friend Nick, a year ago this week. Since then, with no real pushing, it has grown to over 3500 members. If there is anything you want to know about any dead celebrity, log in and have a gander.
Death Hag Cynthia started a thread/discussion back in July, questioning if something could be done to get Schlitzie’s grave marked. Death Hag Shelley (Colicky) took matters into her own hands, and contacted the cemetery. She was told that there was an outstanding balance of a couple of hundred dollars needed to get Schlitzie a tombstone. Shelley started a drive, quickly raised the funds from several generous donors, and I am very proud to announce that Schlitzie is now marked. Thanks to Death Hags.
UPDATED February 2009:
We celebrated Schlitzie with a memorial.
I have to admit, I got a bit choked up when I arrived at the cemetery and saw that spanking new marker. I stopped by a costume shop to make sure that Schlitzie got his big hat with the loooooooooooong feather. Death Hags, you did good. I’m happy to have been a small rung on the ladder that got this magnificent feat accomplished.
Death Hags are seriously very cool. I love you guys. This is beyond awesome.
Trivia: Years later, Shlitze the Pinhead became immortalized as the subject of widespread merchandising, serving (albeit too late for any profits) as inspiration for cartoonist Bill Griffith’s famous Zippy the Pinhead comic strip, the Sideshow Company’s Model Resin Figure Kits, and even a custom-made Shlitze The Pinhead collector doll, which was offered on eBay for $1,400.00, plus various other kitschy Shlitze items including hats, clocks, snow globes, masks, T-shirts, belt buckles, wristwatches, and a ventriloquil dummy.
This is my own meager collection of Shlitze like goods.
His Official Certificate Of Death calls him “Shlitze Surtees”, but that’s only because his “Legal Guardian” at the time was one George Surtees, a chimp handler and barker of carnival standing for many years, who also appeared with a trained chimp act for Ted Metz on the Tom Mix circus during Shlitze’s time there. The Tom Mix Circus is where George Surtees and Shlitze met, and at the time Shlitze was most likely under the guardianship of Ted Metz who managed the sideshow, hence the “Shlitze Metz” moniker. It is doubtful “Metz” was Shlitze’s surname any more than “Surtees”, but for show traveling purposes in the day, it was more convenient to get a ward with the same surname as the show’s owner or owners past customs, state authorities, etc.
So if neither Metz nor Surtees was Shlitze’s surname, what was it? Strong possibilities exist that perhaps Shlitze’s surname could have been either Sibley (Walter K. Sibley created the 10-in-1 format in Toronto, Canada in 1904) or Mills (the Mills family exhibited attractions). Exhaustive research indicates Mills is the surname over Sibley, but final proof has yet to be discovered.
“…Schlitzie – he had no choice. As I grew older I had a choice. I could stay in show business if I wanted to. He had no choice, so – I don’t know how to express it about him but he – he just wasn’t able to do anything else. Quite often you would get a crowd that thought they were funny, that they were funny and they would torment him or something like that but usually there were some roustabouts around that would see that that was broken up in a hurry and they were not allowed to torment him.”
– Jeanie Tomaini, the half-girl, in “Freaks Uncensored’
In 1873 California passed a little known state law that forbids the exhibition of deformed persons for money. Other states since that time have initiated a similar law, and today you find very few sideshows or Ten-In-One shows traveling the country. Defects are more often than not corrected shortly after birth now, preventing certain show entrepreneurs from using “Elephant Man” showmanship practices.
– Biography by Verne Langdon, with Micah Harris, Jaime D’Arcy-Garcia, and Tom Hernandez
Rest in Peace Verne 1/1/11
Trivia sent to me 4 years ago:
I totally love the movie Freaks!!
Does anyone else see a resemblance between Schlitzie and Beetlejuice from the Howard Stern show? Same odd-shaped head; both are short; both tend to talk incoherently.
Here’s some Freaks trivia from various websites, you may already know most of it.
Schlitzie didn’t have complete control of his bodily functions, so he was given dresses to wear, which made the “clean-up” easier for his caregiver/manager. The name “Schlitzie” came about as the result of a beer-ad campaign, but he was also billed as the “Last of the Incas” earlier in his career.
While Freaks was in production, the entire cast ate lunch in the MGM commissary, where everyone who worked at the studio ate. The sight of the freaks grossed-out the other commissary patrons, so the freaks were kept on the set during lunch, with the commissary delivering the freaks’ meals to the set.
Schlitzie totally adored the child-actor Jackie Cooper and would run up and hug him, which terrified poor Cooper.
Jean Harlow was considered for the role played by Leila Hyams.
MGM was the studio that prided itself on its “glamour” and “wholesome family films”, looking down on the horror genre for the most part as low-brow. MGM quickly changed its mind and made Freaks when it smelled all the money that Universal Studios made on Tod Browning’s Dracula. (Another notable horror film made by MGM was Mask of Fu Manchu – it had lots of very stylish art-deco sets. “Mask” had a homo-erotic scene where hunky hero Charles Starrett was clad in nothing but a skimpy diaper-like garment and strapped down to a table with Fu Manchu (Karloff) stroking Starrett’s torso with his claw-like fingers. Karloff gave Starrett a poison so the latter would get horny for Fu Manchu’s daughter, played by Myrna Loy.)
Finally, look REAL close during the scene where the freaks attack Hercules during the rainstorm. One of the freaks crawling on the ground appears to be a dress-wearing midget whose face is entirely covered in dark hair. Where was this person up to this point in the film? He/she appears in no earlier scene as far as I can tell.
Love your website, keep up the great work !
Trivia: Shlitze was part of the inspiration for Zippy the Pinhead.