Schlitze the Pinhead: One of Us! One of Us!

The circus side show - a familuar site from long ago has now dissapeared due to a more tolerant society and political correctness

Despite the fact that it has become an essential ingredient of Americana, the circus sideshow, or Freakshow, has become one of the lost paths of the pop culture journey.  As a result of political correctness, sensitivity and better understanding of the human condition, what was once a beloved staple of circuses and carnivals has been extinct for decades.  However, despite the dark shadow that covers the reputation of the sideshow, it hasn’t stopped the public from being fascinated by this entertainment phenomena of days gone by.  Emerging out of the American Civil War and lasting until the mid 1960’s, the circus sideshow was a chance for average Americans to come face to face with extraordinary people and oddities beyond their imagination.  Sword swallowers, bearded ladies, midgets, fire eaters and freaks of all shapes and sizes became staples of carnival fairgrounds.  The sideshow even became all the rage of Victorian England, with Queen Victoria herself being a fan of the odd spectacle underneath the darkened tents. 

Simon Metz, better known to the world as Schlitze the Pinhead, has become a symbol of sideshow entertainment

Yet, while modern sympathies criticize the exploitation of the disabled, the reality was that in many cases the circus sideshow was the only way for many of these disabled and deformed performers to gain employment, and in many cases the performers became quite wealthy.  In fact, the sideshow had superstars of it’s own including Jo Jo the Dog Faced Boy, General Tom Thumb and John Merrick, “The Elephant Man.”  Yet it is one of the last of these sideshow superstars, Schlitze the Pinhead, who has become a symbol and recognizable icon for the world of sideshow entertainment.  Possibly best remembered for his memorable presence in Tod Browning’s controversial 1932 film Freaks, Schlitze is remembered by those who knew him as a whimsical individual that lived his life with a sense of childlike innocence and showed affection towards everybody he met.  To Schlitze the entire world was his friend.  Schlitze’s story is a modern tale of the circus sideshow performer, and through his life it can be asked if the sideshow merely exploited his severe retardation, or did it provide him with an opportunity that he could never had have, and a happiness that no other life could have offered him.  Come and discover Schlitze’s story as




An early picture postcard of Schlitze labeling him "The Last of the Aztecs"

Due to his inability to tell his own story, Schlitze’s true origin remains a mystery.  However, a number of stories and theories exist based on rumors, speculation and research by devoted Schlitze fans that give clues to who he may have really been.  One of the most popular stories was that Schlitze was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1901 and named Simon Metz by parents who locked him away from the public until they were able to sell him to a Freakshow.  However, Schlitze may have been the child of Cuban immigrants Estevan and Augusta Mills who arrived in America in 1909.  The Mills family were friends of Walter K. Sibley who originated the 10-in-1 shows in 1904, and who may have provided Schlitze’s entrance into the world of the sideshow.  It is also commonly believed that Schlitze originally came from Sante Fe, New Mexico, and there is a possibility that Schlitze may have been from Montreal, Canada or Yucatan, Mexico.  It is also possible that Schlitze was not the only one in his family to be on the sideshow circuit.  During the early part of his career he performed with a female pin-head named Athelia who was said to be his sister.  Being that Athelia’s origins were as mysterious as Schlitze’s, there is no way of knowing if this fact was true or not.  Some of the origin stories surrounding Schlitze mention a sister while others do not.  The passage of time will prevent us from ever knowing if Athelia and Schlitze were ever truly related or not.

Schlitze suffered of a nuerological disorder known as microcephaly which produces a small cramium that doesn't grow with the rest of the face, resulting in sever mental retardation

Schlitze was stricken with a condition known as microcephaly which is a neurological disorder which results in those suffering from the affliction to have a small cranium.  While the face of those with microcephaly continues to grow, the head does not.  This prevents the brain from growing as well, resulting in mental retardation and lack of many basic motor skills.  Most children suffering of microcephaly do not survive past childhood.  Although Schlitze lived well into his seventies, he never mentally developed past the intelligence of a three year old.  Yet, despite his lack of mental abilities, Schlitze was a natural performer.  He could mimic audience members, sing songs, dance, perform simple routines and was even taught a number of magic tricks by circus magicians.  Yet what made Schlitze a star was his ease in front of a crowd, his charisma and his love for performing.  Schlitze loved to be the center of attention, and through his energy and good natured interaction with audiences, he became one of the most popular attraction at sideshows world wide.

Despite his condition, Schlitze was able to learn magic tricks which he used in his act

Schlitze first made his appearance around 1921.  As the ward of Bernice Zerm, wife of 10-in-1 showman Charles Zerm, it is most likely that Schlitze made his debut in Venice Beach, California.  However, the first known record of Schlitze is as part of an exhibit at the World’s Museum in Philadelphia where Schlitze was billed as “The Last of the Aztecs.”  Throughout his career Schlitze would go under many monikers such as “Schlitzie the What Is It,” “Schlitzie the Mysterious” and even “Princes Ha Ha,” not to mention under the banner “Aurora and Natalie, the Amazing Aztec Sisters” when he performed with Athelia.  Schlitze was often billed as a female by sideshows as a result of his choice of clothing – a light muumuu or dress and pantaloons.  Throughout the 1920’s and the 1930s Schlitze became a major draw for a number of high profile circuses including Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, The Clyde Beatty Circus and The Tom Mix Circus.  In fact, Schlitze became so popular other circuses sought out their own pinheads who they also billed as being “Schlitzie” in order to prophet off of the name.  In an era without television who would know the difference?  However, as Schlitze’s popularity grew, it wouldn’t be long until he found his way in front of the cameras and in 1928 Hollywood came calling.

Schlitze got his first film roles via director Earl C. Kenton, including a bit part in "The Island of Lost Souls" (1932) with Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi

In 1928, during the circus’ off season, Schlitze was featured in a walk on in Erle C. Kenton’s film The Sideshow.  Schlitze made quite an impression on the cast and crew of the film and through his involvement in The Sideshow Schlitze received more work in Hollywood.  Kenton would use Schlitze again in his 1932 film The Island of Lost Souls staring Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi where he was put in heavy make up to play one of Dr. Moreau’s rampaging mutations.  More importantly, however, was that he gained the attention of another sideshow performer who appeared in The Sideshow named Paul Desmuke. 

Schlitze with co-star Wallace Ford in Tod Browning's controversial 1032 film "Freaks." The film prove to be Schlitze's most famous performance

Known as “The Armless Wonder,” Paul Desmuke was born without arms, but despite his disability managed to not only learn how to play the violin with his feet, but became a justice of the peace in his home state of Texas.  Desmuke was no stranger to motion pictures having acted as a stunt double for Lon Chaney Sr. in the 1927 film The Unknown, in which Chaney played an armless man.  The Unknown was directed by Tod Browning, and when he was preparing to put together Freaks he asked Desmuke to join the cast.  For some unknown reason Desmuke turned down the offer, but he tipped Browning off to Schlitze who had made such an impression on him during the filming of The Sideshow.  Browning contacted Schlitze’s people and Schlitze was brought to M-G-M Studios in early 1932.  Schlitze immediately became a popular novelty around the studio, who never stopped performing and  for studio executives, stars and staff during downtime and would try to start games of tag with anybody who would play with him.  It was said that Schlitze became very enamored with Tod Browning himself.  He would follow the director around and mimic his moves and vocal tones.  In one publicity photo Browning was filmed with Schlitze embracing him.  Obviously Browning had an affection of his own for Schlitze, and featured Schlitze heavily in Freaks most famous scene featuring the passing of the loving cup.  In 1934 Schlitze once again returned to the silver screen in a disturbing exploitation film about sterilization titled Tomorrow’s Children.  In it Schlitze played a mentally defective criminal who undergoes forced sterilization.  Schlitze would make one more major film appearance in 1941 in the role of “Princess Betsie” in Meet Boston Blackie, starring Chester Morris.

In the mid 1960's, due to the death of his guardian, Schlitze ended up in a Los Angeles sanitarium where he fell into a deep depression due to being away from the circus and the only life he ever knew

Throughout the 1920’s and the majority of the 1930’s Schlitze was considered the legal responsibility of whoever was running the sideshow that he was performing in.  However, in 1935 Schlitze finally gained a family when he was legally adopted by chimpanzee trainer George Surtees.  Surtees and Schlitze stayed together throughout the forties and fifties gaining employment from circus to circus.  Unfortunately, in mid 1965 George Surtees died leaving Schlitze alone again.  Schlitze’s caretaking was left in charge of Surtees’ daughter who, not being part of the show business set, did not want the responsibility of taking care of Schlitze who was now well into his sixties.  Instead she packed up Schlitze’s things and committed him to a Los Angeles area county hospital.  Locked away from the crowds, sights and sounds of the circus Schlitze fell into a deep depression.  For all of his life the circus was the only life that Schlitze knew, and now being locked away in a mental hospital seemed to be the cruelest fate that could be placed upon this human oddity.  Yet fate smiled down on Schlitze when he was found by chance by a sword eater named Bill Unks who was working at the sanitarium as a janitor during the circus’ off season.  Unks recognized Schlitze from working on the same venue years earlier and was able to communicate with the little man in ways that the doctors could not.  Through Unks’ persuasion, hospital officials released Schlitze into the care of Unks’ employer Sam Kortes and Schlitze returned to the sideshow.  This move rejuvenated Schlitze and he once again turned into the whimsical individual that he was remembered as being and had a second lease at life.

A photo of Schlitze near the end of his life, circa 1968

Between 1965 and 1969 Schlitze traveled with former sideshow attraction “The Man With Two Faces” Sam Alexander, who was running his own traveling sideshow throughout Canada and the US.  Schlitze’s final public performance would be in 1968 at the Los Angeles Sports Arena in a giant circus gala hosted by none other then Ed Sullivan as guest ringmaster.  However, due to his age and failing health Alexander decided that Schlitze should be retired in early 1969.  However that didn’t stop Schlitze from performing.  Always the attention getter Schlitze became a familiar sight in the streets of Los Angeles, and especially MacArthur Park, where he would play and perform for the public while his handlers sold picture postcards of the charismatic little imp.  During this time of his life Schlitze was remembered for his love of candy, ice cream and popsicles, as well as for feeding the birds in the park. 

Schlitze was laid to rest in an unmarked grave in 1971, until supporters of raised money to give him a proper marker in 2009

On September 24th 1971 Schlitze died quietly from a case of pneumonia.  It was believed that he was 71.  He was buried in Queen of Heaven Cemetery in Rowland Heights, California under an unmarked grave.  Schlitze’s grave would remain unmarked for over three decades until the readers of put their time and efforts to donating money so that Schlitze would finally have a proper headstone to finally honor him.  Over a century after his birth, Schlitze still managed to have a following of fans who loved and cared for him and were dedicated to making sure that his legacy lived on. 

Is this the face of someone being exploited, or of someone having a good time? The life of Schlitze remains to bring up many questions about the morality of the circus sideshow

Despite his deformity and disability, Schlitze was remembered as  being a happy little man who had a lust for life.  He was charming, whimsical and not only loved but was loved in return.  Yet, it was his career in the circus sideshow which was the basis of his happiness.  Thus it has to be asked, was his career in the sideshow exploitation, or did it offer him a better life that he would not have otherwise known?  Modern sensitivities state that it is cruel and demeaning to exploit the disabled.  However, Schlitze traveled the world, was taken care of, was clothed and fed and had experiences that defied those of most normal individuals.  One has to imagine what his fate would have been if he had not been taken in by the circus.  While modern audiences can frown upon the idea of the sideshow the truth remains that the sideshow held a world of opportunity for Schlitze, and as a result his wildest dreams came true.  Perhaps exploitation can lead to happiness.  Perhaps Schlitze just didn’t know any better.  Whatever the case Schlitze will always be remembered fondly as one of the most beloved oddities of the pop culture journey.

  1. Rob Andrews’s avatar

    Some may term this explotation. But he seems to have had fun; and was able to travel and earn a living.

    It’s sad the circus is no longer around. I can remember-until the mid 1960s-all us small town kids, enjoyed a warm summer day at the circus.


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