Saturday, May 18, 2024

The Mystery of Schlitze Surtees

This is what we know for certain about Schlitze Surtees, the sideshow performer – nothing. Not even his name. Actually, we can say that we know he wasn’t born Schlitze Surtees, so maybe that’s a start. Most likely born in The Bronx, New York around 1900 (some estimates suggest as early as 1882 but as we’ll see, that seems outlandish to the point of absurd), it is generally accepted that his birth name was Simon, though there is no primary evidence to confirm this. His parents also had at least one other child, most often referred to as Athelia, sister to Simon and born with the same medical condition/conditions.  His birth surname is regularly given as ‘Metz’ (sometimes Metzner), though this too is misleading, it actually being the name of one of his guardians in later life, Ted Metz. These conditions are, inevitably, also undiagnosed officially but the physical characteristics of both suggest microcephaly, some form of dwarfism, a slight curvature of the spine and learning difficulties. There may even have been signs of Seckel syndrome, though this usually leaves people with next to no vision or complete blindness.

Microcephaly is an incurable condition which affects the head and skull, leaving sufferers born with either a smaller-than-average skull or one which fails to grow, though the face continues to grow at the normal rate. As the child grows, the size of the skull becomes more obvious, with the facial features becoming more obviously pronounced. There is usually a negative impact on the child’s intellectual capacity and the body is often left underdeveloped or even, as in Schlitze’s case, dwarfen. The causes are either genetic or due to the intake of toxins by the mother whilst pregnant – alcohol being a notable one, though many children born in the wake of the Japanese nuclear attacks in World War II also had the condition. Speech was usually impaired and motor skills could be severely impacted, though in many cases it only gave the appearance of clumsiness.

To have given birth to two children with microcephaly (and/or related conditions) would have been unusual, though not unthinkable – even now it affects 1 in 800-5000 children born every year in America. It is assumed that the parents were unable to cope with bringing up two children with such handicaps and it would not have been unusual for families with meagre means to have given children with extreme challenges up for fostering, or for anyone able to give them what would realistically be 24-hour care. However, Schlitze was born at a time when a disability could open doors otherwise locked. Since ancient Rome, those born with microcephaly could find themselves exhibited before crowds of the curious. By the turn of the 19th century, there was even greater interest, as the growing demand for sideshow performers both in Europe and America reached its peak. “Pinheads”. “Throwbacks”. “Monkey or Rat People”. “Last of the Aztecs”. There was a seemingly endless stream of names wheeled out by inventive show owners in a bid to extract a few coins from the morbidly inquisitive.

It was one of these exhibitors or human curiosities who took Schlitze under their wing at the age of around eight years old, most likely Pete Kortes, a successful freak show owner at the beginning of the 1920s. Schlitze and his sister’s family would have been paid for the pair to have their guardianship given over to Cortes, and it was in the world of sideshows that the pair went on to spend the majority of their lives. Simon, for reasons unknown, was given the name Schlitze – his sister, Athelia. For many years both were exhibited as a pair and Athelia was well looked after by Cortes and his wife, with Schlitze primarily looked after by his brother, George Kortes.

It is well reported that although the sensationalisation and promotion of people with birth abnormalities are troubling to many today, there can be little doubt that the care, protection and, in many cases love, they were given by their respective adopted guardians was far greater than they could have expected anywhere else, including medical facilities. Although Athelia is documented as having appeared alongside Schlitze for some years, she disappeared from records around the 1930s, assumed to have passed away, though as is common with sideshow performers, no records exist detailing this.

Schlitze, sat at the front, 1924

Schlitze was only around four feet two inches tall and in combination with his unusually-shaped cranium and odd mannerisms, he was easy to market. Regardless, he was given a haircut such that the only hair on his head was an exaggerated tuft or ponytail and was clothed in a dress (more accurately, a muumuu). The latter addition was a practicality – Schlitze was incontinent (at least in later life) and wore nappies – the dress simply made life easier (and cleaner) for all involved. Moreover, Schlite loved wearing dresses and hats, so the arrangement was not an unhappy one for him. The outfit did strongly influence the marketing, with Schlitze almost always being presented as female. It is estimated that Schlitze had the cognition of a two to a three-year-old child with a very limited vocabulary but a love of mimicry and music.

It was more than his appearance which made Schlitze stand out. He was hugely enthused by the hustle and bustle of sideshow life and loved being the centre of attention. If people wanted to come to his stage and watch him perform, he would happily do so until the crowd were moved on to allow for new paying customers. He enjoyed stringed instruments and dancing; playing cards and board games and loved to meet new people. His seemingly inexhaustible joy made him popular not just with audiences but also those within the circus or sideshow. In common with many of the most popular draws, he was lent out to other exhibitors and appeared for the likes of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Clyde Beatty Circus, Tom Mix Circus, Crafts 20 Big Shows, Foley & Burke Carnival, West Coast Shows, Vanteen & Lee Circus Sideshow, and the Dobritsch International Circus.

He was billed under many different titles – “The What Is It?”; “The Missing Link”; “Pinhead”; “The Monkey Girl”; “Princess Ha Ha”; “Maggie, The Last of the Aztecs”. The latter can be blamed for muddying the waters yet further as to his true background, with many sources claiming he was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico or Yucatan in Mexico, both taking the marketing a little too much to heart.


The 1932 Tod Browning film, ‘Freaks’, is how most people know of Schlitze but this was not his earliest appearance onscreen, neither was it the last. In 1928 he fleetingly appear as a geek in ‘The Sideshow’, directed by Erle C. Kenton (one of the original ‘Keystone Cops’, later to direct several Universal horror follow-ons including ‘The Ghost of Frankenstein’ (1942) and 1945s ‘House of Dracula’). The fact that Freaks was filmed in 1932 gives us some further indication as to his age. It is difficult to imagine that he was older than his early 30s and reports of him in shows around 1910 rather dispel any suggestions he was much younger. So popular was Schlitze at the time that other pinheads would sometimes be shown under his name, so it is little surprise that he was brought to the attention of Browning.

Browning was well-versed in the ways of sideshows having run away from home to join the circus himself aged sixteen. As a clown, acrobat, snake (!) swallower and general ‘available hand’, Browning looked upon all the performers as equals and had already ventured back into that world as a film director, notably with ‘The Show’ and ‘The Unknown’, both made in 1927. Universal had opened the floodgates for what could be considered ‘out-and-out horror’ in 1931 with Browning’s ‘Dracula’ and rival studios were quick to realise that the public had a craving for shocks and scares. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer producer, Irving Thalberg, asked script-writer Willis Goldbeck to come up with a script which would be the final word in horror. Largely built around the short story, ‘Spurs’ by Clarence Aaron “Todd” Robbins, with input from Browning himself relating to his own experience alongside unusual individuals, the script was entitled, ‘Freaks’ and legend has it that when presented with the work, Thalberg put his head in his hands and remarked, “well, it is horrible…

Browning was the overwhelmingly obvious choice to direct, not only due to his box office allure but his vested interest in the material. Even without his even more famous muse, Lon Chaney, who had died in 1930, it was felt that the stars had aligned perfectly. ‘The Unknown’ had brought Browning into contact with the midget actor, Harry Earles, a considerable talent and one who still commands attention in all his roles. He was cast as one of the dramatic leads, the spurned freak who becomes the object of ridicule of the normal-bodied characters and the driver of revenge for his unusual friends. With no Chaney and a cast which would never have worked with one person playing so many parts, casting for the sideshow performers was headed by Browning himself, who amassed a huge collection of photographs of potential stars to choose from.

Alongside Earles and his sister, Daisy, an early casting was Schlitze. His enthusiasm for appearing on camera was unquenchable, and even on days when not required to be on-set, he kicked up enough of a fuss back at the hotel that he had to be brought along, even if only to sit and watch. Even in 1932, Schlitze had not only been given the security of a stable place to live but had also become wealthy, even if he wasn’t in a position to exploit the fact. Likewise, he had a large wardrobe of clothes and hats, a particular passion. There were three other parts which featured actors with conditions similar to that of Schlite – Koo-Koo The Bird Girl (born Minnie Woolsey) was blind and had the previously mentioned Seckel syndrome, which rendered her blind. Also aboard were Pip and Zip – sometimes billed Pip and Flip (Jenny Lee and Elvira Snow) who weren’t actually sisters, they were simply paired together. Both microcephalic, they were far more reserved than Schlitze but had a significant career, often appearing at the World Circus Sideshow at Coney Island in New York. Though Jenny Lee died only a couple of years after filming, Elvira lived until 1976.

The car-loads of freaks arriving on-set at the end of 1931 prompted Louis B. Mayer, MGM’s president, to finally take notice, and he did everything in his power to halt production. Thalberg was having none of it and ploughed ahead. A petition to have the freaks banned from eating alongside cast and crew from other productions was carried but alternative arrangements were made so that not only were they fed just off-set but stayed in a comfortable hotel each night. Production was kept a secret by the studio and incidents of note were few and far between, though required judicious editing, particularly the famous wedding feast sequence, with the rowdiness on-camera being impossible to follow without redubbing. With the film considered ‘lost’ for many years (or possibly just hidden), there is no-one who can confirm that the original running length of the film was 90 minutes (it currently runs at 61). We do know with a degree of certainty that a significant portion of the ending was excised, having shown – or rather strongly implied – that the conniving strong man in the film, Hercules, is castrated by the freaks. When released, the film lasted only three or four weeks before being shown publically again, a whole 30 years later at the Cannes Festival Repertory.

It is all but impossible to discern what Schlitze says in the film, though it’s easy to see how utterly delighted he is to be there. Real-life behaviours were perhaps included as part of his role (the promise to buy ‘her’ a hat with a long beautiful feather) to make him at ease but performing clearly came naturally. Though he found speaking difficult, it is said that he mimicked the tone of Browning’s voice when he spoke on-set. Away from the camera, he craved the affection of others and apparently wept with happiness when held in the arms of others. Schlitze appeared on film again later in the year, in Kenton’s ‘Island of Lost Souls’, starring Charles Laughton. Though his appearance as one of Dr Moreau’s ‘manimals’ is fleeting, it’s still easy to spot him. He also appeared as a patient ordered to be sterilised in 1934s preposterous exploitation-eugenics fest, ‘Tomorrow’s Children’ (aka ‘The Unborn’, directed by Crane Wilbur (later to film ‘The Bat’) and a tiny part in 1941’s ‘Meet Boston Blackie’, the first of several crime yawns featuring the title character. His appearance in ‘Tomorrow’s Children’ is especially interesting, showing him with a full head of hair and a beard. An unspeaking part, you would scarcely guess it was Schlitze.

In 1935, whilst appearing at the Tom Mix Circus, Schlitze was adopted by George Surtees, a chimpanzee trainer at the time. This was to be the longest period of stability in Schlitze’s life, indeed even his death certificate lists his surname as Surtees. Surtees already had a biological son and daughter and the family unit must have been very comforting to Schlitze, though it is said that his daughter was very unhappy with the arrangement. Schlitze continued to be in demand across America and as far afield as London, Canada and Hawaii. It’s worth remembering that circuses and sideshows were hugely popular in America, long after they had dwindled in popularity across Europe. You could just as easily see top pop sensation, Tiny Tim appearing as you could Grady Stiles – Sealo the Seal Boy. Indeed, in 1962, Schlitze shared the bill with both a three-legged man, some Siamese twins and…The Beach Boys. Upon George’s death in 1965, his daughter absolved herself of any further responsibility and Schlitze was sent to Los Angeles County Hospital, where you might well assume, his life ended.

In fact, there was one final twist. In a very short period, Schlitze’s health and well-being had declined dramatically. His treatment from staff and fellow patients in the hospital was a world away from the affection and thoughtfulness to which he had become used and the bullying was both mental and physical. By chance, during the off-season from performing, Bill “Frenchy” Urks was working as a porter at the hospital during the summer. Urks was a sword swallower and immediately recognised Schlitze, sitting in a waiting room, as one of the most famous travelling stars around. He contacted sideshow promoter, Sam Alexander who convinced the hospital to release him into his care.

More than most, Alexander knew of the stigma attached to being different. For decades he was a performer himself – “The Man With Two Faces”. Alexander had burned off half his face when young, igniting gasoline as he lit a cigarette. His act involved him appearing wearing a mask, only to whip it off at the end, to a startled audience – so startled in some cases that he was banned from ever appearing again. A rejuvenated Schlitze once again returned to the stage, now clearly older and trailer but delighted to be receiving attention. At some point, he had even trained himself to deal with any hecklers by spitting at them. An appearance at Gooding’s Million Dollar Midways in Pennsylvania in 1967 offered this introduction to his act:

“You’ll see Schlitze the Monkey Girl, the strangest living human being in the entire world. Some people say Schlitze is half-human and half-monkey. Schlitze was discovered living with the monkeys in the Southern part of the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. She has a head the size of a coconut which comes to a point like an ice cream cone and when you feel the head, it is soft like a sponge. She has no more brains than a monkey. She’s on stage now among the strange and unusual. The strangest of all is Schlitze the Monkey Girl”

It’s difficult not to be startled when reading this. Fundamentally, attitudes had not changed since the Victorian shows, either in terms of the general public or the institutions tasked with protecting the vulnerable. Ironically, as Schlitze neared the end of his life, attitudes had started to change and the appetite for sideshows became less acute. Schlitze appeared fewer and fewer times from 1968 to 1969 and essentially retired to an apartment with a full-time nurse, only appearing for particularly financially beneficial reasons at the behest of his caretakers. Settling in Los Angeles, Schlitze could often be seen in public, most often in MacArthur Park and around Santa Monica Boulevard feeding the pigeons and ducks, happily signing/scribbling on photos of his circus days for anyone who asked. He lived out his final days alongside other circus friends who had come to the end of their lives at Fountain View Convalescent Home where he died September 24th, 1971. His death is recorded as being due to bronchial pneumonia brought on by medullary depression (a strangulation of the spinal cord, not a mental illness).

To have lived until 1971 is just about possible if he had been born at the beginning of the century. It seems all but unbelievable that his condition would have allowed him to live into his 80s, as some reports suggest. For years Schlitze was buried in an unmarked grave in Rowland Heights, California until a group of fans clubbed together to buy a simple marker – topped with a brightly-coloured hat with a long feather.

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