ZaSu Pitts

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ZaSu Pitts
ZaSu Pitts in Tish trailer.jpg
Pitts in trailer for the film Tish (1942)
BornEliza Susan Pitts
(1894-01-03)January 3, 1894
Parsons, Labette County
Kansas, USA
DiedJune 7, 1963(1963-06-07) (aged 69)
Hollywood, California, U.S.
Cause of death
Resting place
Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California
EducationSanta Cruz High School
Years active1917–1963
Spouse(s)Tom Gallery (m. 1920-1933; divorced)
John E. Woodall (m. 1933-1963; her death)
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ZaSu Pitts
ZaSu Pitts in Tish trailer.jpg
Pitts in trailer for the film Tish (1942)
BornEliza Susan Pitts
(1894-01-03)January 3, 1894
Parsons, Labette County
Kansas, USA
DiedJune 7, 1963(1963-06-07) (aged 69)
Hollywood, California, U.S.
Cause of death
Resting place
Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California
EducationSanta Cruz High School
Years active1917–1963
Spouse(s)Tom Gallery (m. 1920-1933; divorced)
John E. Woodall (m. 1933-1963; her death)

ZaSu Pitts (/ˈsz ˈpɪts/;[1] née Eliza Susan Pitts; January 3, 1894 – June 7, 1963)[2] was an American actress who starred in many silent dramas and comedies, transitioning to comedy sound films.

Early life[edit]

Eliza Susan Pitts[3] was born in Parsons, Kansas to Rulandus and Nelly (née Shay) Pitts; she was the third of four children. Her father, who had lost a leg while serving in the 76th New York Infantry Regiment in the Civil War, had settled the family in Kansas by the time ZaSu was born.[4]

The names of her father's sisters, Eliza and Susan, were purportedly the basis for the nickname "ZaSu", i.e. to satisfy competing family interests. She later adopted the nickname professionally and legally. It has been (incorrectly) spelled as Zazu Pitts in some film credits and news articles. Although the name is commonly mispronounced /ˈzæz/ ZAZ-oo or /ˈzs/ ZAY-soo, or /ˈzz/ ZAY-zoo, in her 1963 book Candy Hits (p. 15), Pitts herself gives the correct pronunciation as "Say Zoo" /ˈsz/, recounting that Mary Pickford had predicted, "[M]any will mispronounce it", and adding, "How right [she] was." In 1903, when she was nine years old, her family moved to Santa Cruz, California, to seek a warmer climate and better job opportunities. Her childhood home at 208 Lincoln Street still stands. She attended Santa Cruz High School, where she participated in school theatricals.[5]


ca. 1920

Pitts made her stage debut in 1914–15 doing school and local community theater in Santa Cruz. Going to Los Angeles in 1916, at the age of twenty-two, she spent many months seeking work as a film extra. Finally she was discovered for substantive roles in films by screenwriter Frances Marion. Marion cast Pitts as an orphaned slavey (child of work) in the silent film, The Little Princess (1917), starring Pickford. Years later, she was the leading lady in Erich von Stroheim's Greed (1924). Based on her performance, von Stroheim labeled Pitts "the greatest dramatic actress". He also featured her in his films The Honeymoon (1928), The Wedding March (1928), War Nurse (1930) and Walking Down Broadway, which was re-edited by Alfred L. Werker and released as Hello, Sister! (1933).

David Butler and Zasu Pitts look lovingly at each other while Jack McDonald glares in a scene still for the 1919 silent drama "Better Times."

Pitts' popularity grew following a series of Universal one-reeler comedies and earned her first feature-length lead in King Vidor's Better Times (1919). The following year she married her first husband, Tom Gallery, with whom she was paired in several films, including Bright Eyes (1921), Heart of Twenty (1920), Patsy (1921) and A Daughter of Luxury (1922). In 1924, the actress, now a reputable comedy farceuse, was given the greatest tragic role of her career in Erich von Stroheim's 9½ hour epic Greed (1924). The surprise casting initially shocked Hollywood, but showed that Pitts could draw tears with her doleful demeanor as well as laughs. Having been extensively edited prior to release—the final theatrical cut ran just over two hours—the movie failed initially at the box office, but has since been restored to over four hours and is considered one of the greatest films ever made.[citation needed]

Pitts enjoyed her greatest fame in the 1930s, often starring in B movies and comedy shorts, teamed with Thelma Todd. She 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, and co-starred in a series of feature-length comedies with Slim Summerville. Switching between comedy shorts and features, by the advent of sound, she was relegated to comedy roles. A bitter disappointment was when she was replaced in the classic war drama All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) by Beryl Mercer after her initial appearance in previews drew unintentional laughs, despite her intense performance. She had viewers rolling in the aisles in Finn and Hattie (1931), The Guardsman (1931), Blondie of the Follies (1932), Sing and Like It (1934) and Ruggles of Red Gap (1935). In the 1940s, she found work in vaudeville and on radio, trading banter with Bing Crosby, Al Jolson, and Rudy Vallee, among others. She appeared several times on the earliest Fibber McGee and Molly show, playing a dizzy dame constantly looking for a husband. Her brief stint in the Hildegarde Withers mystery series, succeeding Edna May Oliver, was unsuccessful, however.

In 1944, Pitts tackled Broadway, making her debut in the mystery, Ramshackle Inn. The play, written expressly for her, fared well, and she took the show on the road in later years. Post-war films continued to give Pitts the chance to play comic snoops and flighty relatives in such fare as Life with Father (1947), but in the 1950s she started focusing on television. This culminated in her best known series role, playing second banana to Gale Storm on CBS's The Gale Storm Show (1956) (also known as Oh, Susannah) in the role of Elvira Nugent ("Nugie"), the shipboard beautician. In 1961, Pitts was cast opposite Earle Hodgins in the episode "Lonesome's Gal" on the ABC sitcom, Guestward, Ho!, set on a dude ranch in New Mexico. In 1962, Pitts appeared in an episode of CBS's Perry Mason, "The Case of the Absent Artist". Her last role was a switchboard operator in the madcap Stanley Kramer comedy It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963).

Personal life[edit]

Pitts was married to Thomas Sarsfield Gallery from 1920 to 1933. Gallery, an actor, became a well-known Los Angeles boxing promoter and later a TV executive. The couple had two children: Ann Gallery (born 1922) and Donald Michael "Sonny" Gallery (né Marvin Carville La Marr), whom they adopted and renamed after the 1926 death of his mother and Pitts' friend, silent film actress Barbara La Marr. In 1933, she married John Edward "Eddie" Woodall, with whom she remained until her death.

Later years and death[edit]

Declining health dominated Pitts' later years, particularly after she was diagnosed with cancer in the mid-1950s. However, she continued to work until the very end – making brief appearances in The Thrill of It All (1963) with Doris Day and James Garner, and as a cameo switchboard operator in the "Santa Rosita Police Department" 's office in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. She died June 7, 1963, aged 69, in Hollywood and was interred at Holy Cross Cemetery, Culver City.[6] Pitts wrote a book of candy recipes, Candy Hits by ZaSu Pitts, which was published posthumously in 1963.


Zasu Pitts was inducted into the Hollywood Walk of Fame on February 8, 1960.[7] Her star can be found on the south side of the 6500 block of Hollywood Boulevard.[8] In 1994 her place in the pantheon on silent film stars was affirmed when she was honored with her image on a United States postage stamp[9] along with luminaries Rudolph Valentino, Clara Bow, Charlie Chaplin, Lon Chaney, John Gilbert,Harold Lloyd, the Keystone Cops, Theda Bara, and Buster Keaton as part of The Silent Screen Stars stamp set as designed by caricaturist Al Hirschfeld.[5] In Parsons, Kansas, there is a star tile at the entrance to the Parsons Theatre to commemorate her.[10]

Actress Mae Questel, who performed character voices in Max Fleischer's Popeye the Sailor cartoons, reportedly based the fluttering utterances of Olive Oyl on Zasu Pitts, but added her own touches.[11]

Partial filmography[edit]

YearFilm titleRoleNotes
1917Little Princess, TheThe Little PrincessBecky
1918How Could You Jean?Oscar's Sweetheart
1918Talk of the Town, TheThe Talk of the Town
1919Better TimesNancy Scroggs
1919Other Half, TheThe Other HalfJennie Jones, The Jazz Kid
1919Poor RelationsDaisy Perkins
1920Seeing It ThroughBetty Lawrence
1922Youth to YouthEmily
1923Souls for SaleHerselfCameo role
1923Three Wise FoolsMickey
1923HollywoodHerselfCameo role
1924West of the Water TowerDessie Arnhalt
1924Daughters of TodayLorena
1924TriumphA Factory Girl
1924Changing HusbandsDelia
1925Great Divide, TheThe Great DividePolly Jordan
1925Pretty LadiesMaggie Keenan
1925Great Love, TheThe Great LoveNancy
1926Monte CarloHope Durant
1926Sunny Side UpEvelyn
1927Casey at the BatCamille
1928The HoneymoonCaeciliasequel to The Wedding March. Released only in Europe; lost
1928Wedding March, TheThe Wedding MarchCecelia Schweisser
1928Sins of the FathersMother Spengler
1929Locked Door, TheThe Locked DoorTelephone Girl
1929The SquallLena
1929Her Private LifeTimmins
1929This Thing Called LoveClara Bertrand
1930No, No, NanettePauline Hastings
1930Devil's Holiday, TheThe Devil's HolidayEthel
1930Monte CarloBertha
1930Passion FlowerMrs. Harney
1930Free LoveAda
1931Bad Sister, TheThe Bad SisterMinnie
1931A Woman of ExperienceKatie
1931Penrod and SamMrs. BassettAlternative title: The Adventures of Penrod and Sam
1931Guardsman, TheThe GuardsmanLiesl, the Maid
1931On the LooseZasuShort subject.
1931Beyond VictoryMademoiselle Fritzi
1932Broken LullabyAnna, Holderlin's Maid
1932ShopwornAunt Dot
1932Destry Rides AgainTemperance WorkerAlternative title: Justice Rides Again
1932Westward PassageMrs. Truesdale
1932Back StreetMrs. Dole
1932Blondie of the FolliesGertie
1932Crooked Circle, TheThe Crooked CircleNora Rafferty
1932Make Me a StarMrs. Scudder
1932Strangers of the EveningSybil
1933They Just Had to Get MarriedMolly Hull
1933Hello, Sister!Millie
1933Meet the BaronZasu
1933Mr. SkitchMaddie Skitch
1933Professional SweetheartElmerada de Leon
1934Sing and Like ItAnnie Snodgrass
1934DamesMatilda Ounce Hemingway
1934Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage PatchMiss Hazy
1934Gay Bride, TheThe Gay BrideMirabelle
1935Ruggles of Red GapPrunella Judson
1935Going Highbrow
1936Thirteen Hours by AirMiss Harkins
1936The Plot ThickensHildegarde Withers
1937Forty Naughty GirlsHildegarde Withers
1939Lady's from Kentucky, TheThe Lady's from KentuckyDulcey Lee
1939Eternally YoursMrs. Bingham
1939Naughty but NiceAunt Penelope Hardwick
1940It All Came TrueMiss Flint
1940No, No NanettePauline Hastings
1941Broadway LimitedMyra
1941Niagara FallsEmmy Sawyer
1942Bashful Bachelor, TheThe Bashful BachelorGeraldine
1942So's Your Aunt EmmaAunt EmmaAlternative title: Meet the Mob
1943Let's Face It!Cornelia Figeson
1946Breakfast in HollywoodElvira Spriggens
1947Life with FatherCousin Cora Cartwright
1950FrancisNurse Valerie Humpert
1952Denver and Rio GrandeJane Dwyer
1954Francis Joins the WACSLt. Valerie Humpert
1957This Could Be the NightMrs. Katie Shea
1961Teenage Millionaire, TheThe Teenage MillionaireAunt Theodora
1963Thrill of It All, TheThe Thrill of It AllOlivia
1963It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad WorldGertie–Switchboard Operator
1954Best of Broadway, TheThe Best of BroadwayMiss PreenEpisode: "The Man Who Came to Dinner"
1955Screen Directors PlayhouseSelmaEpisode: "The Silent Partner"
195620th Century Fox Hour, TheThe 20th Century Fox HourMiss AppletonEpisode: "Mr. Belvedere"
Gale Storm Show, TheThe Gale Storm ShowElvira Nugent91 episodes
1957Private SecretaryAunt MarthaEpisode: "Not Quite Paradise"
1960Dennis O'Keefe Show, TheThe Dennis O'Keefe ShowLoretta KimballEpisode: "Dimples"
1961Guestward, Ho!Episode: "Lonesome's Gal"
1961Perry MasonDaphne WhilomEpisode: "The Case of the Absent Artist"
1963Burke's LawMrs. BowieEpisode: "Who Killed Holly Howard?"

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Candy Hits by ZaSu Pitts; Duell, Sloan and Pearce; 1963; p. 15
  2. ^ Concerning Pitts' year of birth, about which the actress often dissembled, some sources cite 1894 (IMDB: Zasu Pitts, Find-a-Grave, Golden Silents, Who2, and InfoPlease), while other sources cite 1898 (Halliwell's Filmgoer's Companion, 12th edition, HarperCollins, 1997, ISBN 0-00-255798-3 and TCM:Biography) or even 1900 (Allmovie:Overview and New York Times obituary (June 8, 1963))
  3. ^ As per 1900 United States Federal Census & Voter Lists, ZaSu's name is given as Yazan Pitts, an apparent mistranscription of "Eliza Susan"
    Age: 6
    Birth Date: [Mar - sic] 1894
    Birthplace: Kansas
    Home in 1900: Parsons Ward 1, Labette, Kansas
    Race: White
    Gender: Female
    Relation to Head of House: Daughter
    Marital Status: Single
    Father's Name: Rulandus Pitts
    Father's Birthplace: New York
    Mother's Name: Nelly Pitts
    Mother's Birthplace: New York
  4. ^ "Rulandus Pitts biography on 76th NY Regiment site". Retrieved June 7, 2010. 
  5. ^ a b Barbara Giffen. "ZaSu Pitts: Actress 1898–1963". Santa Cruz Public Library. Retrieved June 7, 2010. 
  6. ^ Stumpf, Charles (2010). ZaSu Pitts: The Life and Career. McFarland. pp. 103–104. ISBN 0-786-44620-X. 
  7. ^ "Hollywood Walk of Fame, Zasu Pitts". Retrieved Sep 28, 2014. 
  8. ^ Christopher Smith. "Hollywood Star Walk ZaSu Pitts". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved March 3, 2010. 
  9. ^ "Arago—People, Postage & the Post: Silent Screen Stars". 
  10. ^ "Kansapedia, Kansas Historical Society: Zasu Pitts". 
  11. ^ {{cite weburl=}title=Encyclopedia of World Biography, Mae Questel}}

External links[edit]