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Cult side show performer Schlitzie is getting the documentary treatment.
Filming is underway on Schlitzie: One of Us, being directed by Steve Belgard, a publicist making his directorial debut with the feature. The documentary is intended to be a love letter to the 4-foot-tall performer, who was born with microcephaly and made his most notable cultural impact via the 1932 classic Freaks.
It is being shot in black and white with animation to depict his early, middle and later life.
“I’ve been promoting other people’s projects for so long, I need to make my own for my legacy, if you will,” says Belgard. “We’re shooting it in the style of film noir, shadows and mood. It will be a combination of mystery and fairy tale, since no one knows his real story. Not to be pretentious, I liken it to Citizen Kane meets Rashomon, where each person interviewed has their own idea and story to tell about Schlitzie.”
Most information about Schlitzie’s origins have been lost to time (no one knows his real name or where he was born) and he never mentally developed past that of a normal 3-year-old. He spent decades on the circus circuit working for Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey, among others, where he was often made to dress in girls’ dresses, and also appeared in movies beginning in the late 1920s.
After his handlers died in the ‘60s, their daughter put Schlitzie in a hospital to die. Luckily, another sideshow performer, a sword swallower, saw him in the hospital and got him out to perform again. He wound up in Los Angeles, where he entertained passersby by dancing and feeding pigeons at MacArthur Park. He was buried in an unmarked grave, but fans collected money to buy him a stone and held a proper burial.
His unusual appearance and his story have popped up in pop culture from time to time. The Ramones wrote the song “Pinhead” about him. The comic strip Zippy the Pinhead is based on him. And American Horror Story: Freakshow had a character based on him.
The team working on the doc includes Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductee Andrew Loog Oldham (he was The Rolling Stones’ first manager) as the narrator and veteran Academy Award-winning editor Alan Heim (Network, All That Jazz).
Interviewees are to include family members of The Ramones, actors from American Horror Story: Freakshow, caricaturist Drew Freidman and Zippy the Pinhead creator Bill Griffith, and friends who knew Schlitzie.
The doc wants to examine how he touched the hearts of many people and made an impact on pop culture while imparting a hopeful message.
“There is a fan base, but there are others out there who will just appreciate the tone of acceptance and tolerance and that everyone deserves a chance to live and be a part of society, no matter how different you look, talk or act,” says Belgard.
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