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Classic Hollywood Christmas Film Has Roots in Wyalusing - by David Keeler - 12/2/2004 Wyalusing Rocket

Publisher's Note: Special thanks to genealogy buff Carol HOOSE Brotzman of Beaver Meadows, whose tireless research played a major role in uncovering information for this story.

Was Seneca Falls, NY inspiration for Capra's Movie Set? Click Here

It's a little known fact about a classic Christmas movie: the author who penned a short story that eventually was turned into the holiday favorite, It's a Wonderful Life, was born in Wyalusing, and there's at least a possibility that his memories of small town life in Wyalusing helped forge the imaginary community that Hollywood brought to life.

Philip Van Doren Stern was a respected author in the 1930's, 40's and 50's who was primarily known for his authoritative books about the Civil War.

But when he was unable to find a publisher for his 4,000-word short story “The Greatest Gift,” Stern had 200 copies printed at his own expense and sent them to friends as Christmas cards in 1943.

Philip Van Doren Stern
From this humble beginning, a Christmas classic was born. A copy of Stern's story was eventually given to Hollywood director Frank Capra, who said he had been looking for a story like it all his life.

Capra's beloved adaptation, It's a Wonderful Life, starring James Stewart, Donna Reed and Lionel Barrymore, was released in 1946. The film received Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Director, but ultimately didn't win any Oscars. What it did win, however, was a place as an enduring American Christmas tradition. 

Stern's birth in Wyalusing has been confirmed by local genealogy researcher Carol Brotzman of Beaver Meadows through three sources. Brotzman obtained copies of Stern's obituary in the New York Times and in a Sarasota, Florida paper, where he resided at the time of his death in July 1984. Both listed his place of birth as Wyalusing, PA.

Brotzman also contacted Stern's daughter, Marguerite Robinson of Cambridge, Massachusetts who verified the two obituaries. “My father was indeed born in Wyalusing, Pennsylvania on September 10, 1900,” Mrs. Robinson wrote in a reply to Brotzman's query.

In a 1977 interview in the NY Herald Tribune, Philip Van Doren Stern said he began working on “The Greatest Gift” in the late 1930's after dreaming about it.

It is unknown whether that dream may have been inspired by memories Stern had of Wyalusing, but it's not farfetched to assume that his time in Wyalusing played some role in the creation of the imaginary small town in his book.

How long Stern actually resided in Wyalusing also is not known. His obituary states that he was born in Wyalusing, grew up in New Jersey and graduated from Rutgers University.

Brotzman's research found that Stern's father was a traveling merchant of Bavarian descent, who came to Wyalusing from West Virginia with his wife.

After sending the story to friends as Christmas cards, Stern later sold it to a number of magazines and eventually sold the screen rights. Original copies of his book are extremely rare and valuable today.

The New York Times obituary stated Stern was a “historian, novelist and editor who was widely respected by scholars for his authoritative books on the Civil War.” He authored some 40 books.

Christmas Classic Finds New Audience

When its copyright was inexplicably not renewed in 1974, It's a Wonderful Life slipped into the public domain and could be found on the air literally dozens of times every holiday season. It was this repeated showing that transformed an otherwise obscure film from the postwar 1940's into a Christmas classic with a whole new audience by the 1980's.

In 1994, NBC obtained exclusive rights to the film and stemmed the tide of holiday season broadcasts of the film.

Of the 80 movies he made, actor James Stewart said It's a Wonderful Life was his favorite.

It's a Wonderful Life is one of today's most popular Christmas films, easily surpassing other favorites such as A Miracle on 34th Street. 

Contrary to common belief, It's A Wonderful Life was not an immediate hit. Although nominated for five Academy Awards, the movie was shut out at the ceremony. And, despite Capra's popularity at the box office, It's a Wonderful Life barely made back its cost.

Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed were also not the original choices for the leading roles. Before Capra took over the project, Cary Grant was in line for the role. Capra wanted Stewart to get the role. It was the first movie for both of them after their military service in World War II.

In an interview with Guideposts Magazine shortly before his death, Stewart commented on the movie's longevity. “A friend told me recently that seeing a movie I made over 50 years ago is a holiday tradition in his family-like putting up the Christmas tree,” Stewart said. “That movie is It's a Wonderful Life, and out of all the 80 films I made, it's my favorite.”

Jean Arthur was Capra's first choice for the female lead. It is believed while he was returning from visiting Arthur in New York City to convince her to take the roll, Capra stopped in the Village of Seneca Falls, New York, which is said to have been his inspiration for the movie's Bedford Falls.

For Donna Reed, who appeared in 20 films including the World War II classic From Here to Eternity, It's A Wonderful Life is seen as the major turning point in her career. She also went on to star in her own TV situation comedy, The Donna Reed Show from 1958-1966.

It's a Wonderful Life tells the story of George Bailey (Stewart), a bank officer in the small town of Bedford Falls, who wants to end it all by jumping off a bridge on Christmas Eve. He misplaced $8,000 and believes that he is not only ruined, but his entire life has been a waste. A crotchety old male angel named Clarence Oddbody stops Bailey from jumping, however, and shows him what Bedford Falls might have been like if George had never lived. It's a unique opportunity to see how even a small, seemingly uneventful life touches so many others in marvelous and unexpected ways.

The set for It's a Wonderful Life was impressive. A huge, 300-yard long representation of Bedford Falls' main street was constructed, with over 80 stores and buildings, and 20 transplanted oak trees. Since the film was shot in the middle of summer, the copious amounts of snow used during the winter scenes had to be man-made (3,000 tons of shaved ice, 300 tons of gypsum, 300 tons of plaster, and 6,000 gallons of chemicals were utilized). Through the unique magic of motion pictures, it's impossible to tell that not one flake of snow is genuine.

Combine the characters, the story, the message and the acting, and it's easy to see why It's a Wonderful Life has become such an enduring part of the Christmas season.

And it all becomes even a bit more special when you consider that the inspiration for the dream that spawned this holiday classic could have been Wyalusing, PA.

Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed with family and friends in the final scene of It's a Wonderful Life.

Was Seneca Falls, NY inspiration for Capra's Movie Set? Click Here

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Published On Tri-Counties Site On 05/20/2005
By Joyce M. Tice
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The Seneca Falls Connection:
Was Upstate New York Village
Inspiration For Capra’s Bedford Falls?

 Too Many Coincidences to Ignore…

 Was the Upstate New York village of Seneca Falls Frank Capra’s inspiration for the design of Bedford Falls in It’s A Wonderful Life?

Karolyn Grimes, the actress who played Zuzu, one of the children of James Stewart and Donna Reed in the American movie classic, thinks it was.

“When I came around the corner and saw (Seneca Falls’s) main street, I gasped and said ‘this is Bedford Falls!’” Grimes then saw the steel bridge spans the canal. “It is nearly a replica of the same bridge that George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart’s character in the movie) had grown up with all his life.”

Physical similarities between Seneca Falls and Bedford Falls are striking. In addition to the architecture along the main street and the steel truss bridge, Seneca Falls has many Second Empire Victorian homes (like the large, old house Stewart and Reed owned in the movie). Both towns have a canal. In 1945, when the movie was shot, Seneca Falls was a mill town, just like Bedford Falls. Seneca Falls had the globe street lamps seen in the movie and even had a median on a portion of its main street.

There were also similarities in the towns’ characters. Both had a large Italian community and both had a neighborhood where people of modest means could live comfortably, courtesy of the generous terms of a community leader. In the movie it was “Bailey Park,” named in honor of Jimmy Stewart’s family’s building and loan; in Seneca Falls it was “Rumseyville,” named after the owner of one of the town’s large pump manufacturers.

It’s A Wonderful Life Festival

Takes Place This Weekend

Seneca Falls town leaders are so sure it served as Capra’s inspiration that they have created an “It’s A Wonderful Life” festival. This year’s event is Dec. 3 and 4 and will include a screening of It’s A Wonderful Life. Featured guest Karolyn Grimes will discuss her experiences shooting the movie (her character closes the movie with the famous line “Look, Daddy, teacher says ‘every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings’”), the downtown will be decorated with replicas of the Christmas lights of Bedford Falls, and the shops and restaurants will serve up It’s A Wonderful Life fare.

So why does Seneca Falls think it is Bedford Falls? After all, Bedford Falls strikes a chord with millions of people in small towns across the country. Jimmy Stewart said the set reminded him of his hometown of Indiana, Pennsylvania. Many towns have similarities with Bedford Falls. Why isn’t the movie set just an excellent depiction of the look and feel of small-town America?

Seneca Falls’s claim begins with geography. It’s hard to dispute that Capra set Bedford Falls in New York State. Rochester, Buffalo and Elmira are mentioned in the script and referenced as being relatively close. All three are an easy drive from Seneca Falls. And a reference to Cornell University in Ithaca, just 40 miles south, was taken out of the script by the studio’s rights clearance lawyers.

There are road signs in the movie pointing to Katonah and Chappaqua, both of which are in Westchester County and near the towns of Bedford and Bedford Hills. Maybe they were Capra’s inspiration?

But Bedford is a very affluent community of Colonial-era homes and sprawling horse farms, not like the humble Bedford Falls in the movie at all. And Bedford has just a few buildings on one side of its main street, nothing at all like the center-of-town feeling in the movie.

Bedford Hills comes closer; it was populated by a large Italian immigrant population in the ‘40s, and its main street has buildings on both sides, some of which are same-era architecture as Capra’s Bedford Falls. But the town is much smaller and doesn’t have the same physical layout as that in the movie, and there never was a steel bridge over water.

There’s something else against the Bedfords being Capra’s inspiration. Both of these towns are just 45 miles from New York City.  Even in 1945 train and automobile travel times, Bedford was hardly the remote spot that has Jimmy Stewart’s character feeling hopelessly isolated from the world. (A check with the local historian and townspeople revealed no evidence or local legend of Capra visiting the area or any knowledge of the towns’ connection with the movie).

Capra’s Bedford Falls has a Genesee Street, and that is a common street name in Upstate New York. Seneca Falls has a Genesee Turnpike.

A check of the map of New York reveals half a dozen towns with “Falls” in their name. But each lacks significant characteristics of Bedford Falls.

Comparing Seneca Falls to other towns in the state gives more evidence in its favor. When It’s a Wonderful Life was made, New York State had many towns the size of Bedford Falls. Some had similar architecture, some were mill towns, some had a large proportion of immigrants and some had a steel bridge.

But none of them had as many similarities to Bedford Falls as Seneca Falls.

The final proof offered for the town’s claim is the story that Frank Capra visited the town in late 1945. It is said he was on his way to visit an aunt in nearby Auburn and he stopped in Seneca Falls and had his hair cut. Barber Tommy Bellissima says he didn’t know who Frank Capra was at the time, but when the movie came out he recognized the name of his famous patron on the poster. He remembered Capra because the two had talked at length about their lives in Italy and common experiences as immigrants. The name stuck with Bellissima because “capra” in Italian means goat.

But Capra never mentioned Seneca Falls in his memoirs and nothing about the town is found in his archives. No definitive proof has been found that Frank Capra visited Seneca Falls and brought the image of the town back with him to Hollywood.

So is it just a coincidence that Seneca Falls is practically identical to Bedford Falls, or did Capra, a man who made meticulous notes about his work, deliberately keep the Seneca Falls connection to himself? After all, he wanted the town of Bedford Falls to appeal to everyone. Making it known his set design was based on one place would have compromised its universal appeal.

Consider this scenario.

It is documented that Capra was in New York City in November 1945 trying to talk Jean Arthur into the female lead in It’s A Wonderful Life. A check of historical maps shows that the most direct route in the ’40s from New York to Auburn, where his aunt reportedly lived, would have been west across NY Route 17 and then north when he got to the southern Finger Lakes region—a route that would have taken him through Ithaca and then Seneca Falls.

Leaving Bellissima’s barbershop, Capra would have gone over the steel truss bridge on Bridge Street to get to the main part of town. On that bridge was a plaque honoring Seneca Falls resident Antonio Varacalli, who had leaped into the icy waters of the canal in April 1917 to rescue a girl who had just attempted suicide by jumping off the bridge. Varacalli saved her but he was overcome by fatigue from the rescue and drowned.

Varacalli’s “guardian angel” sacrifice would have certainly captured Capra’s attention. It’s A Wonderful Life was based upon the short story “The Greatest Gift” by Philip Van Doren Stern. The movie is remarkably true to the story: a man frustrated and beaten down by life contemplates suicide by jumping off a bridge, a guardian angel intercedes and grants him his wish that he had never been born, the man gets to see how terrible things in his small hometown would have turned out if he had never lived, then he frantically goes back to the bridge and pleads to get his life back. His wish is granted and the man rushes back into town in euphoria to celebrate his life with his wife and children.

Here on the bridge in Seneca Falls was a real story similar to the opening incident in his upcoming movie; Capra certainly would have been inspired.

Capra was still in the early planning stages of It’s A Wonderful Life when he is said to have visited Seneca Falls, having just signed the contract a few weeks before. Not only did the bridge over the canal and the guardian angel match the plot of “The Greatest Gift,” but Seneca Falls also had the size, look and personality of the town depicted in the story. It’s not hard to imagine that he would have wandered into town and started taking notes…

And while the movie closely follows the storyline of “The Greatest Gift,” there is no mention of location in the short story. Capra, on his own, placed Bedford Falls in Upstate New York.

Bedford Falls might just be a composite of small towns across America, set in Upstate New York. But the fact is no town in Upstate New York has as many similarities to the town in It’s A Wonderful Life as does Seneca Falls.

Whether he knew it or not, when Frank Capra created Bedford Falls, he replicated Seneca Falls.
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