ZaSu, Not Zazu, Pitts


Once upon a time, a one-legged Civil War veteran named Rulandus Pitts married a woman named Nelly Shay, and they partook of afternoon delights and made a baby, whom they named Eliza Susan Pitts, after Rulandus’s two sisters. By jamming the end of Eliza into the beginning of Susan, the baby became ZaSu. Because that’s normal.

ZaSu Pitts was born 120 years ago in Kansas and moved to California when she was nine, where she would grow up to star in both silent films and talkies. America’s Sweetheart, Mary Pickford, predicted that people would pronounce the uncommon name as Zaz-oo, as it appears. Pitts however, preferred “Say Zoo,” which is crazy talk because Za does not sound like Say, nor does Su sound like Zoo. So right off the bat, we know ZaSu was a curious dame.

Her first non-extra role was  in the 1917 silent film, The Little Princess, as an orphaned slavey (Yes, that’s a word! It means overworked maidservant. Kind of like Cinderella.)

She starred in several Hal Roach films and in a series of comedies with Slim Summerville. Her stock character as a fretful, flustered spinster was immediately recognizable and often imitated in films and cartoons such as Popeye. Pitts peaked in the 1930s, starring in B movies and comedy short films, teamed with Thelma Todd. Here they are with bobbed hair in bed together in On The Loose. Don’t ask.


Her best known series role was playing a shipboard beautician on The Gale Storm Show (1956) in the role of Elvira Nugent (“Nugie”). Here Gale (as Susannah) has just become engaged to an Air Force officer and is shoving her ring in Nugie’s face.

Pitts’s last role was a switchboard operator in the madcap Stanley Kramer comedy It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. If you are old, you have probably seen that one.

In her personal life, Pitts was married to Thomas Sarsfield Gallery, an actor and boxing (yes, Dave) promoter from 1922 to 1933. She bore a daughter and later adopted a son, both with unfascinating names. The ink was still wet on her divorce papers when she married Eddie Woodall, with whom she remained until her death 30 years later in 1963. A book of candy recipes (yes, Liz) called Candy Hits by ZaSu Pitts was published several months after her passing.

I don’t know what she is clutching. A chair?

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30 Responses to ZaSu, Not Zazu, Pitts

  1. wdydfae says:

    Until now, I thought ZaSu was just a sound Ella Fitzgerald made when she was scat singing.

    You know, like Zasu Dabby ooby waba DEEEYoooooo or something like that.

  2. wdydfae says:

    I never saw It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World but I must be old enough to have seen it because I remember when Mad Magazine came out with the It’s a World World World World Mad issue.

  3. Benson says:

    I remember Ms. Pitts quite well. Her voice was the most memorable thing to me. She spoke with a slight tremor and always sounded as though she was afraid. She also had the most remarkable face. She could be quite glamorous I think. Odd name or not I always enjoyed her roles.

  4. I have a copy of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World in my collection somewhere. I’ll have to watch it again to see if I can spot her. Kind of like “Where’s Waldo” only in a cross country car race version.

  5. Arto says:

    Your descriptions delight me, Kerbey! “A fretful, flustered spinster”, an “overworked maidservant”. That’s a bunch of goodness!

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen one of Say Zoo’s pictures. Talkies or movies.

    Rulandus, his father’s name, is a puzzle as well that I will cherish today.

    • kerbey says:

      Well, wikipedia gets the credit for the 2 F words, but I get credit for all slave-related ones!

      And I’m so glad Rulandus is getting some props. Not only did he have a sweet flouncy white mustache, but get this: “Rulandus was among the first to go down when Davis’ Confederates attacked them about 10:30 that morning. During the fight, he was hit in the right knee, and as he lay there he was wounded again in the right shoulder. When the union troops pulled back through Gettysburg, Pitts was left behind. He lay there all night and throughout the rest of the battle.” And that’s why they lobbed off his leg, due to the delay. Rulandus is pretty hardcore.

  6. ksbeth says:

    i love how her name came into being. and so interesting that the original afternoon delight yielded a child who wrote a cookbook of afternoon delights (candy).

  7. Her best known series role was playing a shipboard beautician … in the role of Elvira Nugent (“Nugie”).

    Little known fact: Elvira would grab her customers with an arm around their head and rub her knuckles furiously on top of their skulls. This is where the contemporary term Noogie came from.

    Nah, nah, nah… I just made that whole thing up.

  8. Liz says:

    Great post! Really, a lot of fun. I am not particularly old (right?) but I have seen Mad World thanks to my dad’s love of the classics. Have I told you about his senior movie clubs? I will do so at some point if I haven’t already. Watched mostly for Peter Falk but would have looked for Mary had I known. I actually do remember that switchboard lady! Crazy about her name. Sounds like an eccentric lady. And anyone who makes candy and has her recipes published is alrighty in my book.

    • kerbey says:

      Well, if our cable company hadn’t gotten rid of TCM movies, then perhaps I could watch an old movie once in a while, but I have not seen that. Why would one WANT to watch Peter Falk? Is he funny in this? I have no idea what a senior movie club is, but it sounds like fun.

  9. markbialczak says:

    I have seen the movie of many Ms and one W, Kerbey, and will not cop out a la Liz who indeed is not old. I am old, but still remember that it was unda the Big Double-Ya. Really. Go stream it on NetFlix to see WaZoo Pitts as the operator.

    That sign of explanation regarding her name looks priceless until your flawlessly researched story explains that it’s actually useless because of her wild-ass pronunciation expecations. What the?

  10. Dave says:

    Wow, I’m about one line into this post, and you totally had me at Rulandus Pitts!! Not to mention that awesome photo. I’ll weigh in with more thoughts momentarily!

  11. Dave says:

    Wait, boxing? BOXING!!!!!!?!?!?!!!! BOXINGGGGG!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  12. Pingback: Goodbye Stephen Colbert & Munchma Quchi, and Hello Brandybuck Cumberbund! It’s Funny Names in the News 95! | The Blog of Funny Names

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