Friday, February 20, 2009
Schlitzie's Day: A Belated Valentine for Schlitzie
February is the month of a minor saint --St. Valentine. His day is on the 14th.
But today is a day to remember another little saint.
Today is Schlitzie's Day.
If you've ever seen the MGM 1932 horror film "Freaks" directed by Tod Browning, you know who Schlitzie was. The film premiered exactly 77 years ago today, on February 20, 1932.
Friend of the Drunken Severed Head Verne Langdon, a former makeup artist and circus performer, will join with many other people today to remember Schlitzie at an unveiling of a long- overdue headstone marking the resting place of this memorable "very special person".
Below is an article about Schlitzie, and today's memorial for him, that was sent to me by Verne.
"SCHLITZIE'S DAY" (FEBRUARY 20, 2009) TO HONOR WORLD FAMOUS SIDESHOW STAR
by Verne Langdon (with Phil De Croocq, Shelly Lichoff, Micah Harris, Bryan Moore, and Scott Michaels)
Valentine's Day will come a little late this year for one Schlitzie Surtees, a fellow who most likely lived to the ripe old age of 84 and entertained hundreds of thousands - if not millions - of carnival, circus, fair and movie attendees in his long and notable career.
"Most likely" is used casually to describe Schlitzie's age because that number surfaces at least twice in his mysterious past, both times offered by those who knew him best, his "legal guardian" of 29 years, George Surtees, and another who cared for Schlitzie after Surtees passed away in 1965.
Yet even after exhaustive research conducted first by myself then with three additional Schlitzie/Shlitze/Shlitzy (there were many ways his name was spelled over the years) aficionados, we were hard-pressed to track down any solid documentation of his birth in that nightmare alley below-the-radar world where human trading could be the norm, and "ownership" of some physically impaired individuals was commonplace (no one asked, no one told, everyone just knew).
A smokescreen of aliases second to no spy espionage were applied to and enveloped the diminutive attraction's mere existence. His most accepted surname - "Metz" - was borrowed from a man by the name of Ted Metz, who managed the sideshow 10-in-1 which included Schlitzie in 1936 as part of the movie star Tom Mix's traveling Circus.
Metz was no more Schlitzie's father than was his next "legal guardian" George Surtees, but that was a pose to easily facilitate transporting such an attraction across state borders.
Oh sure, there were laws protecting people like Schlitzie. As far back as 1873 California passed a little-known state law that forbids the exhibition of deformed persons for money.
In those days, such "laws" rarely made it past a show's "fixer", who always had a bankroll ready in his back pocket to grease the palm of any obstinate town official's extended hand.
Sideshows flourished in those days, and "performers" such as Schlitzie were main attractions, each and every one "alive on the inside", "born of perfectly normal parents, even as you and I"!
Schlitzie indeed had a story, and little by little, we pieced it together. No small feat considering we had neither birth nor death dates or any other solid information, including "Schlitzie's" real name!
(As it turns out, it very well may have actually been "Schlitzie", but that - minus the actual birth certificate - still remains to be uncovered, though we have zeroed in on three birth certificates, one of which is most likely Schlitzie's.)
Meanwhile, although some of Schlitzie's story is left to conjecture, most IS fact, and all is promised in a forthcoming tome by one of my associate researchers, Micah Harris, a freelance writer and instructor at Pitt Community College in Greenville, North Carolina. A Mulligan stew of fiction and reality, Harris's book, "The Pixie Sphinx of Ixymaya", promises to be THE unabridged Schlitzie handbook for any Schlitzie purist.
So what ever became of our "little Hero?"
Well, for the "Shlitze Surtees" (Official Certificate Of Death spelling) article and a crash course in a rarely-heralded yet cult-status Superstar, you must visit http://www.findadeath.com/Deceased/s/shlitze/shlitze.htm where you'll meet our boy first-hand.
"Once on the inside" (as the carnies used to pitch), you'll learn that after his traveling days were over, the little guy was "retired" to Los Angeles, led an uneventful life chasing ducks at a landmark lake under the watchful eye of his "caretakers", and sadly, wound up near penniless, only to pass away of bronchial pneumonia in 1971.
Our research led us to his death certificate, which informed us his remains were interred in what was a three-tiered grave (such "stacking" is commonplace in cases of charitable burial) in a Southern California cemetery.
Until late last year, Schlitzie's grave had remained pretty much uncared for, unattended, and - most regrettably - unmarked.
For my own part in all of this, I - Verne Langdon - spent part of my youth working fairs, haunting carnival midways, eyeing funhouse figures and ogling sideshow attractions, in particular "Schlitzie the pinhead," as he was sometimes advertised. A penchant for going backstage brought Schlitzie and me together at an early age (I was 8 or 9 the first time we met), and I prided myself (or at least imagined vividly) that this odd living exhibit and I had become fast "friends". It was one-sided of course, as Schlitzie was on the down low when it came to communicative skills. I do think he remembered me though, because every time I came across a show that featured him, he'd become rather emotional and behave as if he recognized me.
Certainly, and at the very least, I knew and observed at very close range the irrepressible Schlitzie, and it is this fact alone which makes me something of an "expert" on one of outdoor entertainment's most endearing personalities.
Eventually I wrote about him, Wikipedia picked up on my writings, and the next thing I knew, Schlitzie had his own Wikipedia page!
Enter Scott Michaels. Scott is the "driving force" (quite literally) of Findadeath.com, a website established in 1998 - as Scott explains it - "... to chronicle the last days of celebrities, or the 'ends' of their stories. I think Death is an important part of life, and where people die is of historical significance. I started the website so people that didn't have the ability to travel to the places mentioned can actually see them."
Do people really seek this much information? When does "so much information" become "too much information", you may ask?
Scott says "The website gets about 20,000 visitors a day, give or take a thousand. There are over 3000 members to the message board, where Schlitzie's gravestone plight began."
Well, there's your answer.
As for Schlitzie, Scott explains his personal obsession "... began when I first saw the film Freaks. I mean no disrespect when I saw people different than myself. I just found people that were born different, fascinating .... 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 on line, and here we are."
As I mentioned, Scott is a DRIVING force, and in 2005 he decided to branch out with the REAL "Tragical History Tour" of his virtual reality website, Dearly Departed Tours*. Scott's tour takes the curious on a 3.5 hour journey to the death sites of the famous and/or peculiar. This idea proved very successful for Scott, who explains - tongue planted firmly albeit macabrely in cheek - "People love the story of the Manson Murders or the Menendez brothers, but people really do enjoy the restroom break, which is also where George Michael was arrested."
Since 2008, when my Schlitzie memorial first appeared on Findadeath.com at Scott's request, a congress of Findadeath "DeathHags", as they like to call themselves, discovered the little guy's story. And others, who were familiar with Schlitzie, finally got some facts about the entertainer they knew of, but knew very little about.
The DeathHags were touched, and set-out to right an almost 40 year wrong.
They ante'd up just over four hundred dollars to buy a marker for Schlitzie's unmarked grave, located in the 'unidentified or deprived deceased' section (a "pauper's grave", if you will) of Queen Of Heaven Cemetery and Mortuary in Rowland Heights, California.
Through the caring and generousity from a group of people who only knew each other as screennames on the internet, you will now find a gravestone for Schlitzie.
Shelly Lichoff lives in Columbus, Ohio and is a triage nurse at one of the large tertiary care hospitals there. Shelly is also a full time college student working on finishing her BSN.
She is now also the legal guardian of Schlitzie's grave.
Shelly explains, "I was touched after reading the bio on Schlitzie. I felt that it was a shame that this little guy made money for others but none was left for him, and felt that he had been taken advantage of. Later that morning I was reading on the message board that others also thought that it was a shame that his grave wasn't marked. Someone posted that to mark the grave you needed the permission of the family and there was none. It just stuck with me, why can't we do this? I just kept thinking about it for a few days. Finally, after I had been up for almost 24 hrs, having just worked a 9 day stretch at work with alternating double shifts, on my one day off before I went back for another 8 day run, all I could think about was why can't we place a marker for this guy?"
"I called the cemetery listed on his death certificate after doing a quick Google search. I figured the worst they could do was hang up. The woman who answered was pretty cool about answering my questions, she would have to get back to me about the total cost since it had to be researched from 1971, but as long as someone was willing to sign the contracts and take ownership of the grave, it could be done. It was harder to explain why I wanted to do this to my lawyer when I called her to check it out than it was to deal with the cemetery. I asked Scott for permission to post this on the message board, and figured if for some reason he said no, I would just do it myself. It was a small amount that needed to be raised, just $378.37."
"I raised the funds rather quickly. Several of the doctors and social workers at work contributed, and the rest came from members of the message board."
"I received donations from New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, England, Canada, and of course the good old USA! The smallest contribution came from a woman who wasn't going to buy her weekly treat of a donut and coffee after church because she was sending that $3.00 dollars to me and she didn't have another $3.00 to spare. The highest contribution came from 2 people who each sent $50.00. One didn't even belong to the message board but had heard about our cause from someone and asked if he could contribute as he was a fan of Schlitzie's. Most contributions were between $5-$10 dollars."
"I kept ALL RECORDS and when we reached our goal, I pulled the paypal account and found out we had raised just over $400.00. No one wanted their money back, so we agreed to spend the extra money on flowers. I did not take any money for my time or effort or to pay the lawyer (I had the lawyer check it out to make sure there would be no further financial obligations after the stone was placed). I am Catholic, but I believe in Karma and I refused to raise even 1 cent that did not go to Schlitzie."
"Enough people had made money off this little guy. I did accept 2 more donations from members of the message board after they begged me to be part of this, and added that money to the flower fund. I also received an 'anonymous' donation from some doctors at work that wanted to help but didn't want others to know they were helping me in my "morbid hobby". This brought the flower fund up to $100.00. One doctor gave me $25 to spend on a gas card for Scott to go and photograph the stone for all of us."
But not every aspect of this Labor Of Love went as planned.
Shelly relates, "The cemetery had promised to call me when the stone was ready to be placed, because the LA DeathHags wanted to be present. I called every week, then found out the stone had been placed a week or two prior and the cemetery had forgotten to tell me".
The cemetery "forgot".
Shelly mentioned that she was sorry she couldn't see the stone with the other LA people. Then, Phoenix, Arizona photographer, line producer and Schlitziephile Phil De Croocq mentioned that Feb. 20 would be the 77th anniversary of the release of Tod Browning's MGM classic "Freaks". He suggested that might be an appropriate day to meet. Others agreed, and Schlitzie's Day was born!
So on Friday, February 20, 6 days after Valentine's Day, certain members of this group - including Yours Truly, will be traveling to Los Angeles to stand at Schlitzie's now-marked grave site, and listen as San Diego, California based sculptor/artist Bryan Moore, who also happens to be an enormous Schlitzie fan and an ordained minister, shares a prayer with us for a wonderful little trouper, a simple, sweet child of God, in order that he might receive peace for all Eternity.
Then we'll depart Schlitzie's gravesite and cemetery for a day - SCHLITZIE'S Day - of visiting his haunts around Los Angeles, winding up at the care facility where he left his mortal coil.
Phil De Croocq opines, "I'll bet more people, especially those under 40, have seen a picture of Schlitzie, even if they don't know his history, than have seen a picture of Gary Cooper or Jean Harlow."
Phil might just be right.
But then, who really cares about a little circus sideshow pinhead anyway?
Oh, just a few hundred thousand of us, that's all.
Happy Valentine's Day, Schlitzie! A few days late to be sure, but most assuredly the greeting comes straight from our hearts.
Today, February 20 is YOUR day! Enjoy it, and may God Bless and watch over you, wherever you are!
- Verne Langdon, Phil De Croocq, Shelly Lichoff, Micah Harris, Bryan Moore, and Scott Michaels