Actress. Born: January 3, 1894, Parsons, Kansas. Died: June 7, 1963 Hollywood, California.
Several motion picture actresses grew up in the vicinity of Cherryvale, Independence, and Parsons. One woman who became a star was born in Parsons and would go on to enjoy a career of more than 200 films, often playing a worrisome spinster.
ZaSu Pitts was one of four children born to Rulandus and Nellie (Shay) Pitts. Her name is a combination of those of her mother’s sisters, Eliza and Susan. In her 1963 book, Candy Hits, Pitts wrote “It is really pronounced ‘Say Zoo.’” Pitts’ family lived in Parsons until she was nine years old when they moved to Santa Cruz, California, for warmer weather and better job opportunities. After her father died in 1908, Pitts’ mother and two siblings took in renters to try to hang on to their home. Pitts started working to help make ends meet. Pitts wrote:
“You’ll never make a seamstress,” my mother said sadly, “you can’t even sew a button on straight. But maybe you can become an actress.” I shuddered at the thought. Shy, self-conscious, my only interests were growing flowers, cooking, and finishing high school. However, Mother decided to send me to some friends in Hollywood … so off I went … dreading the ordeal that lay ahead of me.”
On her first day at the studio, Pitts met Francis Marion, who wrote many of the scripts for Mary Pickford’s films. Marion and Pickford agreed that Pitts would play Pickford’s opposite in The Little Princess, and her career was launched. After earning acclaim for her performance as the lead in the 1924 drama Greed, Pitts appeared in a series of short comedies but never lost her desire to secure more dramatic roles.
Her wish was granted when she was cast in the 1930 film All Quiet on the Western Front. On opening night the film was preceded by a short comedy film in which Pitts had also starred. When Pitts’ character in Western Front appeared on screen, the audience laughed. The next day the studio edited Pitts out of the film. Pitts wrote, “I was packing to go home when Hal Roach sent for me. ‘ZaSu, you’re a natural-born comedienne’ he said. ‘The woods are full of actresses and actors who can emote, but there are few who can make an audience laugh.’”
Pitts went on to enjoy a successful career as a comic actress, first in films and on the radio, and then on television. Her last film role was as a voice actor (the switchboard operator) in the 1963 comedy It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Pitts died later that year. Since her death, Pitts has been recognized with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a U.S. postage stamp, and a star tile at the entrance to the Parsons Theatre.
Entry: Pitts, ZaSu
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: June 2010
Date Modified: January 2017
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.