1994 ZaSu Pitts
- Honors one of the legendary stars of the Silent Film Era
- Designed by famed caricaturist Al Hirschfeld
Stamp Category: Commemorative
Set: Silent Film Stars
First Day of Issue: April 27, 1994
First Day City: San Francisco, CA
Quantity Issued: 1, 860,000
Printed By: Bureau of Engraving and Printing
Printing Method: Lithographed and engraved
Format: Vertical stamps issued se-tenant with nine other silent film stars in four panes of 40 stamps
Why the stamp was issued: Issued as part of the Silent Screen Stars set of 10. Honors the great names of the early days of Hollywood movie-making. The stamp fulfilled the then-current First-Class postage rate.
About the stamp design: The stamp was designed by renowned artist Al Hirschfeld. Art director and typographer was Howard Paine. The artist used the same caricature style as his earlier work on the Comedians se-tenant booklet pane of five. Hirschfeld’s style captures the main characteristics of each actor’s screen persona. The 29c denomination was printed in drop-out type on a stylized torn ticket stub. Red and Purple colors add vibrancy to the black and white caricatures.
First Day of Issue Ceremony: The Castro Theater in San Francisco was the site of the First Day Ceremony, with actor Karl Malden as its main speaker.
Unusual fact about this stamp: The artist was asked to work his daughter Nina’s name into his caricatures, as he had often done in previous drawings. In ZaSu Pitts case, her “Nina” is found on the actress’s shoulder and collar.
About the Set: Besides ZaSu Pitts, the Silent Screen Stars set includes nine other prominent stars of the Silent Screen era: “The Sheik” Rudolf Valentino, “It Girl” Clara Bow, “The Little Tramp” Charlie Chaplin, “Man of a Thousand Faces” Lon Chaney, “The Vamp” Theda Bara, plus John Gilbert, Harold Lloyd, Keystone Cops, and Buster Keaton. Several of the images include the artist’s familiar “Nina” in honor of his daughter.
History behind the stamp:
Actress ZaSu Pitts was born Eliza Susan Pitts on January 3, 1894, in Parsons, Kansas. Though known as “the screen’s greatest tragedienne” for her dramatic silent film roles, she went on to star in several comedies after the advent of sound films.
The daughter of a Civil War veteran, Pitts was nicknamed “ZaSu” (shortening and combining her first and middle names) when she was a child. She adopted it as her legal name when she began acting. Her family moved to Santa Cruz, California in 1903, where she performed in plays at Santa Cruz High School.
Unbeknownst to her, Pitts was discovered one rainy day in 1915 on a crowded Hollywood trolley. Pitts had moved to Hollywood that year in search of a career as an actress. Her big break didn’t come, however, until two years later when she co-starred in A Little Princess, the first of several movies with America’s sweetheart – Mary Pickford. By 1919 she had made 28 movies.
The following year, Pitts was hired by director King Vidor. Exclaiming “I discovered you,” he went on to explain how he had seen her on the trolley on that rainy day in 1915. “Had I not been just a struggling screenwriter at the time,” he told her, “I would have hired you on the spot!” Pitts went on to make four movies with Vidor.
In 1924 she starred in her most important role – the leading lady of Erich von Stroheim’s psychodrama Greed. He also cast her in his 1928 film The Wedding March. During the first half of her career, Pitts became known as “the screen’s greatest tragedienne.” When sound was introduced to film, she successfully transitioned to playing comedy roles. She often portrayed flustered spinsters and was frequently paired with Thelma Todd. In fact, Pitts became so well-known for her comedic roles, people didn’t take her seriously as a dramatic actor. She was initially cast in the war drama All Quiet on the Western Front, but when preview audiences laughed at her performance, she was re-cast.
In addition to film, Pitts branched out to radio, vaudeville, Broadway, and television. She appeared on several Fibber McGee and Molly shows and acted performed alongside Bing Crosby, Al Jolson, W.C. Fields, and more on variety shows. Pitts also appeared in the soap opera Big Sister. In 1944, she made her Broadway debut in Ramshackle Inn, which was written for her. The play was a success, and she later took it on the road. In the 1950s and 60s, Pitts appeared in a number of TV shows including The Gale Storm Show, Guestward, Ho!, Perry Mason, and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.
Pitts received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960. Famous for her candy-making talent, in 1963, she wrote the cook book Candy Hits by ZaSu Pitts, which was published posthumously.
Pitts’ acting style reportedly inspired voice actress Mae Questel’s performance of Olive Oyl in the Popeye cartoons. She was diagnosed with cancer in the 1950s and died on June 7, 1963.
About the artist:
Legendary illustrator Albert Hirschfeld was born on June 21, 1903, in St. Louis, Missouri. Hirschfeld’s work was so iconic, the USPS broke their own rules to feature his illustrations on two sets of stamps…
Hirschfeld spent the first 12 years of his life in St. Louis before his family moved to New York City in 1915. There, he attended the National Academy of Design. When he was just 17 years old, he was made art director at Selznick Pictures. He remained there for four years before going to Paris and London to study painting, drawing, and sculpture.
Upon Hirschfeld’s return to the US, his friend, Broadway press agent Richard Maney, showed some of the artist’s drawings to an editor from the New York Herald Tribune. The editor was impressed with Hirschfeld’s work and began offering him commissions for illustrations. Soon, his illustrations were being featured in the Sunday edition of The New York Times, and became a weekly staple for decades.
In 1945, Hirschfeld and his wife, Dolly, had a daughter named Nina. After her birth, the artist hid her name in the hair, clothes, or background of his drawings. Often “Nina” would be hidden in several spots and Hirschfeld would write a number next to his signature to let people know how many to look for.
Hirschfeld became known for his signature style – black and white caricatures with exaggerated features. While he was best known for his black and white drawings, he also produced many full-color paintings for magazine covers such as TV Guide, Life, American Mercury, Look, The New York Times, The New Masses, and Seventeen. Hirschfeld also provided color illustrations for several books, including Harlem As Seen By Hirschfeld, which included text written by William Saroyan.
Hirschfeld specialized in illustrations of Broadway actors, singers, and dancers that were featured in the newspaper shortly before opening night. But he illustrated famous people from all walks of life – politicians, TV stars, movie stars, jazz musicians, rock stars, and more. Hirschfeld illustrated several movie posters for Charlie Chaplin films and The Wizard of Oz. He also provided the artwork for the 1977 Aerosmith album Draw the Line. His work was a major inspiration for the “Rhapsody in Blue” segment of Disney’s Fantasia 2000, and he was a consultant on that project. His work was also reportedly influential on the design of the genie in Disney’s 1992 film, Aladdin.
In 1987, the USPS reached out to Hirschfeld to ask if he’d be interested in illustrating Broadway, Hollywood, vaudeville, radio, and television stars for future stamps. Hirschfeld was excited by the idea and accepted the commission. The Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee sent him several names and they loved all of his illustrations, telling him to “keep them coming.” The USPS was so excited to work with Hirschfeld, they broke some of their own rules. They normally didn’t allow hidden messages on US stamps. But postal officials wanted Hirschfeld to include as many hidden “Nina’s” as he could, because otherwise they wouldn’t be real Hirschfeld caricatures. And while he wasn’t allowed to sign his name on each stamp, they did include his name on the booklet cover, calling the set “Comedians by Hirschfeld.”
Hirschfeld had created dozens of illustrations for the USPS. In 1994, they issued a second set of stamps featuring his work honoring Silent Screen Stars. Once again, he was permitted to include “Nina” in as many areas as he could. On both sets of stamps, there are some easily identifiable “Ninas” and some that are more ambiguous, which Hirschfeld called “near-Ninas.” The USPS marketing for Hirschfeld’s stamps encouraged people to count how many Ninas they could find.
During his lifetime, Al Hirschfeld received two Tony lifetime achievement awards and a National Medal of the Arts. He died on January 20, 2003, and later that year, a Broadway theater was renamed in his honor.