The true identity of the pinhead known as Schlitzie is still somewhat debatable. The most common opinion is that Schlitzie was born as Simon Metz on September 10, 1901 in the Bronx. His birth parents remain mysterious figures to this day and young Simon was likely ‘sold’ to a showman for display. Yet, despite his rather traumatic beginning, Schlitzie would go on to be one of the most beloved attractions of all time.
Schlitzie was born microcephalus, a condition characterised by an abnormally small and often pointed cranium. The condition often resulted in retardation and Schlitzie himself was as cognitive as a four year old. Previous to Schlitzie, the display and exhibiting of ‘pinheads’ was nothing new. In the 1800’s pinheads were often exhibited as a species apart from man, as the last members of an ancient race – usually Aztecs – and on occasion they were billed as being from another planet. During his lifetime, Schlitzie was exhibited as all of these things. Schlitzie was most famously preceded by the pinhead Zip, and even today pinheads enjoy popularity as a microcephalus man dubbed Beetlejuice frequents The Howard Stern Show.
For much of his career, Schlitzie was billed as female. This was mostly due to his dress-like attire which was an attire choice based purely on his incontinence. While popular with crowds, Schlitzie’s biggest fans were his colleagues and caretakers. To sum up the reason for this fondness is difficult but the wonderment Schlitzie held for the daily mundane, his childlike exuberance, his eternal innocence greatly influenced those around him. Schlitzie was a ray of sunshine, and his smile and unconditional love shined on all those around him.
During his long career Schlitzie entertained millions of carnival and film goers with his antics. He was perhaps best known for his role in the Tod Browning cult classic film Freaks – though he also appeared in Island Of Lost Souls opposite Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi. As a sideshow entertainer, Schlitzie was employed by every major name in the business. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Clyde Beatty Circus, Tom Mix Circus, West Coast Shows, Vanteen & Lee Circus Sideshow, and the Dobritsch International Circus all had Schlitzie in their shows at some point.
Although Schlitzie had no known biological family, during the 1936 season of the Tom Mix Circus sideshow George Surtees, a chimpanzee trainer, became Schlitzie’s legal guardian. Surtees was, by all accounts, a caring and loving guardian but when he passed in the early 1960’s his daughter had Schlitzie committed to a Los Angeles County Hospital.
Schlitzie remained committed for some time, until he was recognized by sword swallower Bill Unks. Unks just happened to be working at the hospital during the off season when he noticed a very sad and depressed Schlitzie. Schlitzie missed the carnival, missed his friends and the adoration of the crowds. Hospital authorities eventually determined that the best care for Schlitzie would be to make him a ward of Unks’ employer, showman Sam Kortes, and return to the sideshow.
Schlitzie never truly retired. He was eventually cared for by performer friends and settled in and apartment near MacArthur Park Lake in downtown Los Angeles. In his final years, Schlitzie could be seen feeding the pigeons and ducks with his guardian, performing for people as they passed by.
He continued to enchant crowds until his passing in 1971 at the age of 71.