Thursday, January 27, 2011

Schlitzie the Pinhead (Circus Sideshow Performer) - Strange but True

Schlitzie the Pinhead (Circus Sideshow Performer) - Strange but True

“Schlitzie” was born Simon Metz on September 10, 1890 in the Bronx. From birth Schlitzie looked like any other baby boy but as the years progressed, it became apparent that he suffered from microcephaly, a condition where the face grows at a normal rate but the head does not. Microcephaly bestows upon the person the an abnormally small head (often only half the size of a normal head) and sloping forehead. Known as “chaus”, “rat people” or “pinheads”, the condition almost always results in mental retardation and diminished brain capacity. The cause of the condition varies. Sometimes it can be caused when a child’s mother consumes excessive alcohol. There is no cure.

As one of the greatest circus sideshow performers in history, it is odd that many details of Schlitzie’s early life are unclear. Stories passed down from his circus owners indicate that Schlitzie was born in Sante Fe, New Mexico (some say he was bon in Yucatan, Mexico) to a very wealthy family. He had a sister named Atheila who also suffered from microcephaly. The parents were ashamed of the children and kept them hidden away. As was common in the early 1900’s, when the opportunity presented itself, the family sold Schlitize and his sister to the travelling circus where he began his life as a sideshow freak.

A circus sideshow owner named Pete Kortes kept Athteila to himself and passed Schlitzie to his brother George Kortes. In the course of his career Schlitzie was employed by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Clyde Beatty Circus, Tom Mix Circus, Crafts 20 Big Shows, Foley & Burke Carnival, West Coast Shows, Vanteen & Lee Circus Sideshow, and the Dobritsch International Circus (circus freaks were often traded around and “lent” to other circuses). Schlitzie was billed as “What is it?”, “pinhead”, and “the last of the Aztecs”. He was often billed as a female only because his caretakers found it easier to change his diaper when he was dressed in a lady’s gown. Schlitzie has the mental capacity of a 3-4 year old.

Schlitzie’s mental capacity offered one advantage - it made him a favorite with the fans and his caretakers. Like a 3-year-old frozen in time, each day brought new wonders to Schlitzie. His childlike exuberance, boyish innocence, and unconditional love for everyone he met, endeared him to everyone he came into contact with.

In addition to sideshow work, Schlitzie made appearances in several movies. In 1932, Schlitzie was given a part in the cult classic movie, Freaks. He also made an appearance later in the year in the Island of Lost Souls (as a “manimal”) opposite Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi. He also appeared in the 1928 movie, The Sideshow (bit role), the 1934 Tomorrow’s Children (as a vasectomy patient), and the 1941 Meet Boston Blackie).

Schlitzie the Pinhead (Circus Sideshow Performer) - Strange but True

In 1936, while travelling with the Tom Mix Circus Sideshow, a chimpanzee trainer named George Surtees became Schlitzie’s legal guardian (his California Certificate of Death even lists his name as Shilze Surtees). When George’ passed away in the 1960’s, ownership of Schlitzie went to George’s daughter who declined to care for him. He was institutionalized in the Los Angeles County Hospital. Schlitzie spent many years in the hospital.

By an odd stroke of luck, a circus sword swallower, Bill Unks, was working part time in the hospital during the off season when he recognized a sad, depressed Schlitzie. Convincing the hospital that allowing Schlitzie to be a part of the circuses sideshow world would do Schlitzie a world of good, the hospital agreed and consigned Schlitzie to Sam Kortes, Unks’ employer.

Schlitzie spent his finals days living with performer friends near MacArthur Park in Los Angeles. He passed away at the age of 81 at Fountain View Convalescent Home in Los Angeles from bronchial pneumonia. Schlitzie was interred at Queen Of Heaven Cemetery, Rowland Heights, California, Plot: Grave 69 - Tier 21 - Section E. The grave went unmarked for several years until members of the internet message board community at Find a Death raised funds to have the grave appropriately marked.

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