His name is alternately spelled "Schlitze" or "Shlitze".
Schlitzie's true birth date, name and location is unknown; it is commonly accepted, at least by what was inscribed on his death certificate and gravesite, that he was born on September 10, 1901 in The Bronx, New York City, New York, though 1891 has also been strongly considered as a possibility. Additionally, some sources have claimed that he was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Claims that he was born in Yucatán, Mexico, are probably mistaken reflections of Schlitzie's occasional fanciful billing as "The Last of the Aztecs". Schlitzie's born identity may never be known, the information having been lost as he was handed off to various carnivals in a long line of mostly informal guardianship throughout his career.
Schlitzie was born with microcephaly, a neurodevelopmental disorder that left him with an unusually small brain and skull, a small stature (he stood about four feet tall (122cm)), myopia and moderate to severe mental retardation. It was said Schlitzie had the cognizance of a three year-old: he was unable to fully care for himself and he could only speak in monosyllabic words and form a few simple phrases. However, he was still able to perform simple tasks and it is believed that he could understand most of what was said to him, as he had a very quick reaction time and the ability to mimic. Those who knew Schlitzie described him as an affectionate, exuberant, sociable person who loved dancing, singing and being the center of attention, performing for anyone he could stop and talk to.
In accordance with the common practices of the carnival business of the time, it can be assumed that Schlitzie was either given to or purchased by a sideshow from his (thus far unknown or unidentified) birth parents. His guardians were usually his employers, sometimes by law and sometimes simply de facto. Responsibility for him tended to change hands as shows traded attractions. Most accounts tell that he was widely known, well cared for and treated affectionately throughout his carnival years.
On the sideshow circuit, microcephalics were usually promoted as "pinheads" or "missing links", and Schlitzie was billed under such titles as "The Last of the Aztecs", "The Monkey Girl" or simply "What Is It?", or was paired up with other microcephalics. One notable example of the latter was Schlitzie's possible pairing with a microcephalic woman named Athelia, exhibited together as "Aurora and Natalia, the Aztec sisters". This has led to claims that Aurora actually was Schlitzie's sister, but these claims are unsubstantiated.
Schlitzie was often dressed in a muumuu and either presented as a female or left androgynous to add to the mystique of his odd appearance. Those who knew him alternately referred to him as "he" and "she". Most sources say the choice to dress him like this was also due to his incontinence, as Schlitzie had to wear diapers and such clothing made it easier to care for him. However, even this is debatable, as most pictures show that Schlitzie was in fact wearing pants under his dress and some who knew him have said that he didn't develop incontinence until later in life.
The sideshow circuit was a tremendous success for Schlitzie, and throughout the 1920s and 1930s, he was employed by many upscale circuses, including Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Clyde Beatty Circus, Tom Mix Circus, Crafts 20 Big Shows and Foley & Burke Carnival. In 1928, Schlitzie made his film debut in the The Sideshow, a drama that took place at a circus, featuring a variety of actual sideshow performers including himself.
In 1932, Schlitzie landed his most known role as an actor in Tod Browning's iconic horror film Freaks. Not unlike The Sideshow, Freaks also took place at a carnival and featured a number of genuine sideshow performers, among them conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton and Prince Randian, "The Living Torso". A group of "pinheads" appear throughout the film, and Schlitzie (who is referred to in the feminine sense) has a scene of (unintelligible) dialogue opposite actor Wallace Ford.
Freaks' use of a deformed cast proved extremely controversial upon its release, and the film was ultimately a financial failure. Additionally, it was banned for thirty years in the United Kingdom and Browning struggled to find work following its release, his last with a major studio. Schlitzie appeared in bit roles in various movies, and is credited with a role in the 1934 exploitation film Tomorrow's Children, in a brief role as a mentally defective criminal who undergoes forced sterilization. He is often widely cited as appearing in 1933's Island of Lost Souls, in a seconds-long role as "Furry Mammal", However, there have been some doubts about whether or not the performer in these two films is actually Schlitzie or just a look-alike.
In 1935, while Schlitzie was performing with the Tom Mix Circus, George Surtees, a chimpanzee trainer also appearing at the show with a trained chimp act, adopted him, becoming Schlitzie's legal guardian. In 1941, Schlitzie appeared in his final film role as "Princess Betsy", a sideshow attraction, in Meet Boston Blackie.
Under the care of Surtees, Schlitzie continued performing the sideshow circuit until Surtees' death in early 1960s, leaving his daughter, who was not in show business, to take care of Schlitzie. Finding herself unable to do so, she committed him to a Los Angeles county hospital.
Schlitzie remained hospitalized for some time until he was recognized by sword swallower Bill Unks, who happened to be working at the hospital during the off season. According to Unks, Schlitzie seemed to miss the carnival dearly, and being away from the public eye had made him very sad and depressed. Hospital authorities determined that the best care for Schlitzie would be to make him a ward of Unks' employer, showman Sam Kortes, and return him to the sideshow.
In his later years, Schlitzie lived in Los Angeles, California, occasionally performing on various sideshow circuits both locally and internationally (he frequently performed in Hawaii and London, and his last major appearance was at the 1968 Dobritch International Circus held at the Los Angeles Sports Arena). Schlitzie also became a notable attraction performing on the streets of Hollywood, his caretakers selling his stock carnival souvenir pictures. Schlitzie spent time in his final days visiting MacArthur Park, feeding the pigeons and ducks with his guardian and performing for people as they passed by.
On September 24, 1971, at the age of 70, Schlitzie died from bronchial pneumonia at Fountain View Convalescent Home. His death certificate listed his official name as "Shlitze Surtees" and his birth date as 1901. He was interred in an unmarked grave at Queen of Heaven Cemetery in Rowland Heights. Schlitzie's grave remained unmarked until August 2008, when members of the website http://www.findadeath.com almost $400 to purchase him a proper headstone, which displays his name as "Schlitze Surtees" and his birth date as September 10, 1901.
In the 1960s, Freaks was rediscovered and enjoyed a long run as one of the first midnight movies, becoming a cult classic, and in 1994, it was selected by the National Film Registry as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". The film became the public's major exposure to Schlitzie, who remains one of the more memorable characters in the film.
Schlitzie's iconic image has lent itself to many products, including masks, hats, shirts, models, clocks, snow globes and dolls. Additionally, Schlitzie has been cited as the inspiration for Bill Griffith's cult comic strip Zippy the Pinhead.