SALT LAKE CITY -- When she was 5, actress Patty Smith played the little girl who stuck out her tongue at the heartless wretch who jailed Santa Claus in "Miracle on 34th Street."

At 6, she was an extra in "It's a Wonderful Life," one of several children dashing across a snowy street in the mythical town of Bedford Falls. And at 7, she played the daughter of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in "The Sea of Grass," a drama about land, power, divorce and child custody set on a western ranch at the turn of the century.

Forty years later, Priscilla Solarz goes by her real name, but in many ways the themes of the 20 movies she performed in as a child in the 1940s -- tragedy, human endurance, redemption -- revisit her each day. She is executive director of the Traveler's Aid Society here, ministering to more than 12,000 homeless people, including couples and their children, who stop in Salt Lake City pursuing jobs and better luck.

"I feel deja vu quite a bit," said Solarz, a soft-spoken, dark-haired woman who manages a budget of $190,000 and a staff of 27. "Several months ago, there was a run on a savings and loan here. It got to a point where the bank manager was practically handing out money. I couldn't help thinking of Jimmy Stewart when he did the same thing in 'It's a Wonderful Life.' "

Solarz was raised in a poor neighborhood in west Los Angeles. "Our neighbors were all immigrants -- Jews, Poles, Italians, Japanese -- and I grew up particularly fascinated by ethnicity. All the houses looked the same on the outside -- white, stucco, single-story -- but inside the lives of the people were all so different.

"I slept on a couch in a three-room apartment until I was 10. My father was unemployed for quite a while, and I had to go to work to help support my parents," she said. "Those movie roles helped keep the family together."

She remembers how lanky and thin Stewart was, the jokes Tracy told and how her mother disapproved of Hepburn's individualistic style of dress. Solarz was crowned "Little Miss America" in a Hollywood Bowl beauty pageant in 1946 and made her last movie at 14. Five years later she married an itinerant military contractor in Mountain Home, Idaho, and 10 years later found herself in Albuquerque, divorced, with four small children.

After earning a master's degree in social work, Solarz worked for the state of Washington in Seattle before coming to Salt Lake City three years ago to take charge of Traveler's Aid.

"I spend a lot of time raising cash just to keep us afloat and coming up with ideas like having a school for homeless children," she said, sitting back in her chair in a second-floor office of the Greyhound bus station here. "The movie was right, of course -- it is a wonderful life.

"But it would be even more wonderful if we had a little more money to help people out here."