Of all the freakshow performers, few were as beloved as Schlitzie. Those who knew him describe him as a ray of sunshine, a sprite of good cheer, a wonderful individual capable of softening even the most granite heart, and one who was impossible not to become attached to.
His origins are still cloaked in mystery today. Some say his real name was Simon Metz, but it is not known exactly when he was born (the most likely date is September 10, 1901), nor who his parents were; most likely they sold him to some sideshow at an early age. Schlitzie-that is his stage name-was suffering from microcephaly, a genetic alteration that results in a head circumference much smaller than normal. The brain, thus constricted, cannot fully develop and various cognitive and psychomotor impediments can arise, depending on the severity. In the circus show business, where they had been performed since the nineteenth century, microcephalic individuals were usually called pinheads (“pinheads”). In sideshows, pinheads were presented as “missing evolutionary links” (between ape and man), “Aztec wonders,” “beings from another planet,” or even in shows called more simply “What is it?”
All of these fanciful appellations were used for Schlitzie during his blazing career with the world’s greatest circuses. Often presented as a woman by virtue of the ample robes they made him wear (actually to mask his incontinence), when the curtain opened he left everyone speechless at his appearance; yet it only took a few minutes for the audience to put aside all fear and melt into thunderous applause.
The crowds adored him, but never as much as his colleagues. Schlitzie had, they said, the brain of a three- or four-year-old child: he spoke in monosyllables, could not take care of himself, and yet he was perhaps smarter than people thought, given his ability to imitate people and his incredible speed of reaction. As he wandered among the carriages and circus tents, he looked like an always cheerful, joyful little spirit who couldn’t wait to dance in front of someone just to draw attention to himself.
In the 1930s the major circuses vied for him: Schlitzie performed for the famous Ringling Bros. as well as the Barnum & Bailey Circus, then came the Clyde Beatty Circus, the Tom Mix Circus, the West Coast Shows… and the list would still be very long. The movies also courted him: he appeared in Tod Browning’s classic Freaks (1932), and in E.C. Kenton’s Island Of Lost Souls (1933) with Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi.
From 1936 Schlitzie was legally placed in the care of George Surtees, a chimpanzee breeder for the Tom Mix Circus; Surtees became the loving and caring father Schlitzie never had, caring for him until his death. And it was with the departure of this “guardian angel” in the 1960s that the real problems began for Schlitzie: Surtees’ daughter, in fact, did not feel up to keeping him at home and decided to place him in a clinic.
Thus Schlitzie disappeared.
For a long time nothing more was heard of the world’s most famous pinhead, until one day the sword-swallower Bill Unks, who was working as a nurse at the end of the theater season, recognized him in a ward of the clinic where he was serving. Schlitzie was miserable, depressed, and most of all sick with loneliness. He missed his friends, he missed the shows, he missed the applause, he missed the sideshow.
Bill Unks managed to convince the authorities that getting him back to performing would be essential to his health.
Schlitzie returned to the sideshow with great enthusiasm, and practically stayed there for the rest of his life.
The large family of carnies showered him with attention and affection and eventually bought an apartment for him in Los Angeles where he lived out his last years: many remember him feeding pigeons, marveling at any small aspect of life, from a flower to a tiny insect, or dancing for anyone who stopped to talk to him.
He died in 1971 at the age of 71, but still an eternal child; today his figure, among the most recognizable icons in circus history, continues to inspire artists around the world.