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This New York City celebrates the 75th anniversary of a favorite holiday movie

by Stewart Cole

A classic holiday movie turns 75 this year and a city in New York State hosts a big party.

Seneca Falls will launch an almost weekly celebration with the anniversary release of “It’s A Wonderful Life”. From December 8 to December 12, 2021 at various venues, the festivities will welcome special guests associated with the 1947 film, including cast members or relatives and film history experts.

Along with celebrating its diamond jubilee, the city has recognized the film for many years. Since the 1990s, Seneca Falls has been the site of a “It’s A Wonderful Life Festival” held in the second week of December. It is also the location of a permanent museum, which also honors the film.

According to Anwei S. Law, one of the museum’s founders and interpreters, Seneca Falls could possibly have been the inspiration for the film’s setting for a variety of reasons.

Apparently, a local barber named Tom Bellissima said that the film’s director, Frank Capra, came to Seneca Falls in mid-1945. As he was cutting his hair, Bellissima remembered talking to him about various things.

Capra was in New York to promote the production of “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Apparently he had an aunt in Auburn, [a city] about 20 minutes away, “Law explained. “She told the village designer and a journalist that Capra asked about the people, the factories and the bridge. “Bellissima did not know who Capra was at the time – he only realized who he was years later, but he remembered their conversation.”

This bridge, which Bellissima is said to have mentioned, contains a true story of Seneca Falls. While “It’s A Wonderful Life” shows actor Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey jumping off a bridge to save his guardian angel, Clarence, from drowning, the true story is sadly over.

“We believe it is possible that Capra saw the plaque on our bridge dedicated to Antonio Varakali, who drowned while rescuing a woman who had jumped off the bridge in 1917,” Lo explained.

Additional theories include other New York State destinations mentioned in the film, including Buffalo and Rochester Falls. It is also reasonable that the location of the film may be a synthesis of other small towns. For example, the name Bedford Falls, which is the central location of the film, could be derived from Bedford and / or Bedford Hills, NY

“We also say we do not believe Frank Capra intended Bedford Falls to be a place,” Lo said. “It’s every place people love us.”

Nonetheless, Law noted that Seneca Falls welcomed actress Karolyn Grimes, who played Zuzu Bailey, from her first visit there in 2002.

“He has introduced us to other cast members, relatives of cast members and others associated with the film,” Lo said. Other guest actors range from Jimmy Hawkins, who played Tommy Bailey, to Ginny Rose, who played the younger Violet Bick.

Grimes also helped make the Museum It A Wonderful Life a reality, as he was told of the need for a place where moviegoers could reminisce and appreciate its meaning.

The museum now houses 30 exhibits and a wall with memorable excerpts from the film. His collection includes photos of the cast with autographs, a program from the film’s premiere in New York in 1946, and photographs from Capra’s appearance in “Late Night With David Letterman.”

“It’s like an oasis of hope – a place that brings people together through their love for this film [and] “where everyone feels they belong,” Lee said.

The five-day Seneca Falls Film Festival will include a groundbreaking ceremony for the second phase of the museum expansion. A new initiative entitled “The Timeless Message of It’s a Wonderful Life: A Journey Through Seneca Falls”, which shows how Seneca Falls reflects the famous message of the film, will be presented.

For an event schedule, visit the museum Website.

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