It’s the most ‘Won­der­ful’ time

See Christ­mas movie come to life in Seneca Falls, N.Y.

Orlando Sentinel (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - By Jay Jones Jay Jones is a free­lance writer.

“It’s a Won­der­ful Life” leaps off the screen in Seneca Falls, N.Y.

SENECA FALLS, N.Y. — Early each De­cem­ber, a mag­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion takes place in Seneca Falls, as the clas­sic Christ­mas movie “It’s a Won­der­ful Life” leaps off the screen.

The word “Bed­ford” re­places “Seneca” on signs mark­ing the city lim­its.

The tav­ern at The Gould Ho­tel be­comes “Mar­tini’s.”

Along Fall Street, the main drag, George Bai­ley shouts, “Merry Christ­mas! Hello, Bed­ford Falls!”

Not far away, a cigar-chew­ing Mr. Pot­ter gruffly grum­bles, “Merry what­ever. Some­day, this will be Pot­tersville.” And per­haps most poignantly, Zuzu ex­claims, “Look, Daddy! Teacher says, ‘Ev­ery time a bell rings, an an­gel gets his wings.’ ”

Seventy-two years fol­low­ing the film’s pre­miere 275 miles away in New York City, folks here cel­e­brate Frank Capra’s crown­ing achieve­ment, boast­ing that the fa­mous di­rec­tor based the movie’s fic­tional Bed­ford Falls on this Fin­ger Lakes com­mu­nity.

Whether Capra ever set eyes on Fall Street, or walked across the steel truss bridge that’s a dead ringer for the one in the movie, re­mains up for de­bate. But that po­ten­tial con­nec­tion aside, the place cer­tainly looks, feels and sounds like Bed­ford Falls each De­cem­ber, es­pe­cially when snow is fall­ing and the church bells are ring­ing. The lure is in­escapable for the thou­sands of movie buffs who flock to town for a hefty dose of hol­i­day cheer.

“‘It’s a Won­der­ful Life’ is such a fab­u­lous film; it needs to leave a foot­print some­where,” said Karolyn Grimes, 78, who, as a 6-yearold, por­trayed Zuzu, George and Mary Bai­ley’s youngest daugh­ter, in the 1946 movie. She trav­els cross-coun­try from Seat­tle ev­ery De­cem­ber to talk about her role in cin­e­matic his­tory and to re­cite her now-fa­mous an­gel line “over and over and over.”

Each year, other sep­tu­a­ge­nar­i­ans who were once child ac­tors also share their mem­o­ries dur­ing a wealth of pre­sen­ta­tions, mee­tand-greets and au­to­graph ses­sions. An­other reg­u­lar is Mon­ica Capra Hodges, who be­stows in­sights about her grand­fa­ther, Frank Capra.

“He just wanted to share a mes­sage of hope af­ter go­ing through World War II,” she ex­plained last De­cem­ber. “I just love that peo­ple here are still cel­e­brat­ing that mes­sage that was so im­por­tant to him. In the end, there’s the hope­ful­ness that ev­ery­body’s life has an im­pact that makes a dif­fer­ence.”

The movie gets screened through­out the It’s a Won­der­ful Life Fes­ti­val, held Dec. 6-9 this year (Dec. 13-15 in 2019). There are wagon rides, train rides (on a real train), spe­cial meals and the “Dance by the Light of the Moon.” Seem­ingly ev­ery busi­ness in town tries to cap­i­tal­ize on the event, in­clud­ing a down­town pizze­ria. The sign out­side reads: “It’s A Won­der­ful Slice.”

Through­out the week­end, peo­ple dressed as var­i­ous char­ac­ters from the movie can be spot­ted on the Fall Street side­walks. They in­clude ac­tor Brian Ro­han, a George Bai­ley look-alike who also presents a one-man show about the movie’s star, Jimmy Ste­wart.

On Satur­day af­ter­noon, Ro­han and the oth­ers join in a pa­rade that blends a cel­e­bra­tion of the movie with home­town pride. (Think movie re-en­ac­tors fol­lowed by firetrucks.) Ven­dors hand out free roasted chest­nuts as a small brass band plays Christ­mas car­ols.

A cou­ple of blocks away is the bridge that many lo­cals in­sist in­spired Capra to model Bed­ford Falls af­ter Seneca Falls. They say that if Capra came here, he could have walked across the bridge (on ap­pro­pri­ately named Bridge Street) and spot­ted the plaque mounted there. The marker hon­ors An­to­nio Vara­calli, who in 1917 jumped from the span into the canal be­low to save a sui­ci­dal woman, los­ing his own life in the process.

In the film, which was adapted from a short story called “The Great­est Gift” by Philip Van Doren Stern, George Bai­ley jumps from a bridge into frigid wa­ters to save Clarence, who turns out to be a guardian an­gel sent from heaven to save Bai­ley from his own self-de­struc­tion.

“What Capra and his scriptwrit­ers put in was some­one go­ing in to save the per­son who had jumped, and we be­lieve that could likely be in­spired by the story of An­to­nio Vara­calli,” said An­wei Law, a co-founder of the Seneca Falls It’s a Won­der­ful Life Mu­seum. Aptly lo­cated in a build­ing that once housed a movie theater, the mu­seum is just a few blocks from down­town along Fall Street. It’s open year-round, and ad­mis­sion is free.

“It’s not just about a movie,” Law said of the mu­seum. “It’s about some­thing very much more im­por­tant than just a movie. It’s about a mes­sage. The movie gives us a tool to dis­cuss many im­por­tant is­sues re­lated to hu­man rights, re­lated to car­ing about each other and valu­ing each other. They’re all in­ter­con­nected.”

Law pointed out that it’s no co­in­ci­dence Seneca Falls is where, at a gath­er­ing of del­e­gates of the Na­tional Woman’s Party in 1923, fem­i­nist Al­ice Paul de­liv­ered the text of the orig­i­nal Equal Rights Amend­ment, which she had writ­ten. The town is home to the Women’s Rights Na­tional His­tor­i­cal Park.

In ad­di­tion to movie mem­o­ra­bilia, the mu­seum shares sto­ries of op­pressed peo­ple. Grimes do­nated a num­ber of ar­ti­facts re­lated to the film.

“I sent 200 items to be on dis­play to start the mu­seum,” Grimes said. “I feel it’s one way to keep this movie alive for the gen­er­a­tions to come, be­cause, you know, I’m go­ing to get my wings,” she said with a laugh.

The mu­seum’s walls are lined with images from the movie ac­com­pa­nied by in­spir­ing quotes from Capra.

“Peo­ple are in­creas­ingly tak­ing pho­tos of his quotes,” Law said. “They’re look­ing to have that hope rekin­dled through this movie.”

Capra’s grand­daugh­ter, Mon­ica, said her grand­fa­ther “just wanted that hope­ful­ness to be out there.”

“Ev­ery­body’s George Bai­ley,” she added. “Ev­ery­body has those down times. But we all can rally to­gether, we can look to each other and be part of a big­ger com­mu­nity.”

JAY JONES/FOR THE CHICAGO TRI­BUNE

Joined by movie buffs, ac­tor Brian Ro­han, dressed as George Bai­ley, poses for pho­tos dur­ing the It’s a Won­der­ful Life Fes­ti­val in Seneca Falls, N.Y.

JAY JONES/FOR THE CHICAGO TRI­BUNE

Lo­cals dressed as char­ac­ters from “It’s a Won­der­ful Life” greet the crowd as they walk through down­town Seneca Falls in 2017’s pa­rade.

AP

George Bai­ley (Jimmy Ste­wart), cen­ter, holds Zuzu (6-year-old Karolyn Grimes), in the 1946 Frank Capra clas­sic “It’s a Won­der­ful Life.”

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