story and photos by James P. Hughes
Seneca Falls? Bedford Falls? Is there a connection between the charming Finger Lakes village and the town portrayed in Frank Capra’s classic holiday film, the one that never fails to tug at the heart, bring a tear to the eye, and lift the spirit? You bet there is, and it’s on full display throughout the village every December at the “It’s a Wonderful Life” Festival. During the gala (and year-round as well), a charming museum dedicated to the film “It’s a Wonderful Life” highlights details of its ever-growing and undeniable link to Seneca Falls.
A walk down Fall Street, the village’s main thoroughfare, could well be a stroll through Bedford Falls, Capra’s version of small-town America. Capra never pinpointed a precise location for the fictional community – his sole intent was to create an inspirational storyline about life in “Everytown,” USA. With a fine cast that ranged from Jimmy Stewart (George Bailey) to Henry Travers (Clarence the Angel), Capra fashioned a film whose viewing, for so many, has become an indispensable part of each Christmas season.
Decades ago, folks in Seneca Falls began to notice a series of similarities and circumstances in the movie, suggesting that their hometown fit the “Bedford Falls” bill like no other. With each passing year that initial speculation has been buttressed with the emergence of ever-increasing evidence and convincing comparisons.
The list of facts and theories supporting Seneca Falls as the “real” Bedford Falls is extensive, but these two key examples help make the case.
• Geographic location – Seneca Falls sits in the midst of nearby cities mentioned in the film. George Bailey’s brother, Harry, introduces his new wife, from Buffalo. Old pal Sam Wainwright offers George a position in Rochester. Mr. Carter, the irritable bank examiner, arrives from Elmira. Ithaca’s Cornell University was mentioned by name in the final script but dropped just before filming. These cities fan out around Seneca Falls, all within 100 miles or so.
• Reportedly while visiting an Auburn relative in 1945, Frank Capra himself dropped into the late Tommy Bellissima’s Seneca Falls barbershop on at least three separate occasions. The young barber was unaware of the famed producer/director’s identity at the time, but both being of Italian ancestry they joked about their last names: Capra (“goat”) and Bellissima (“beautiful”). Bellissima later recalled their “barber shop conversations” and Capra’s keen interest in Seneca Falls: its immigrant population, its factories, and other village details, many which parallel recognizable situations in the film.
A Festival is Born
After chatting, comparing, and much consideration, residents decided in 1996 that a celebration of their hometown’s “Wonderful Life” connections was long overdue. The initial endeavor was low-key: a public showing of the movie (with some pertinent discussion) at the high school auditorium, posters and banners along Fall Street, and an opportunity for local merchants to have a sale. Tongue in cheek, it was promoted as a “Clarence Sale,” a tip of the hat to George Bailey’s guardian angel.
From that modest beginning, the “It’s a Wonderful Life” Festival has grown in popularity each year, now hosting an estimated 15- to 20-thousand visitors over its annual three-day run. Of course, along with bountiful food, a colorful parade, and showings of the film, community groups showcase every detail of “It’s a Wonderful Life” with an almost endless string of activities.
Visitors can chat with actors, in character, as they wander about the village: George and Mary Bailey, Clarence the Angel, and even the unscrupulous Mr. Potter, the “richest and meanest man in town.” Special guests connected to the movie have visited, including the granddaughter of Frank Capra, and the actors who appeared as the Bailey children and young Violet Bick. Karolyn Grimes, who portrayed Zuzu Bailey in the film, has been a favorite at the festival since 2002. She meets and greets, signs items, presents talks on her experiences, and has become a believer that “Seneca Falls IS Bedford Falls.”
Visitors pour into the “It’s a Wonderful Life” Museum during festival weekend. It opened in 2010, appropriately housed in the village’s first movie theater building (circa 1913). The gallery’s superb assortment of memorabilia provides an unparalleled opportunity to absorb film facts and discuss the enduring message of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The museum’s ever-increasing collection of items, many by donation, is a testament to those who increasingly recognize the Seneca Falls/Bedford Falls kinship.
The 2019 festival will take place Friday, December 13 through Sunday, December 15. The museum, particularly lively on festival weekend, is open Tuesday through Saturday, 11a.m. to 4 p.m. throughout the year, excluding major holidays. Admission is free.
Steeped in History
Long before Seneca Falls became the focus of a memorable movie, it had earned a significant spot in American history. The Seneca Falls Historical Society, founded in 1896, keeps that past alive in a stunning 19th-century, Victorian-era mansion on stately Cayuga Street. The building’s architectural details and its 23 rooms decorated with period pieces are imposing, a vivid glimpse at the glory of a bygone era. The museum’s exhibits, events, and collections highlight the community’s colorful past including its substantial role in the Women’s Rights Movement.
On July 19 and 20, 1848, several hundred women and men crowded into the Wesleyan Chapel on Fall Street for the first women’s rights convention in the United States. Led by names now etched in history – Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott among them – the existing social and civil conditions of women were passionately discussed and debated. With its Declaration of Sentiments, the gathering launched a national movement toward equal rights and status for women, and with it initiated a first major step toward women’s suffrage.
The Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls was established by Congress in 1980. The park’s visitor center, alongside the restored Wesleyan Chapel, provides exhibits, brochures, and tours of key local sites relating to the first convention and the Women’s Rights Movement. Seneca Falls resident Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a driving force behind the convention, often called her home on Washington Street the “Center of the Rebellion.” In 1851, Stanton encountered Rochester’s Susan B. Anthony on the streets of Seneca Falls; the two would become lifelong friends, working together and traveling widely to advocate their common causes.
The National Women’s Hall of Fame on Fall Street, created in 1969, honors and displays the achievements of notable American women. It will soon quadruple its space, moving into new quarters in the historic Seneca Knitting Mill.
For anyone visiting the Finger Lakes area, Seneca Falls might be a perfect “home base.” A walking tour of the village not only highlights the noteworthy spots that likely inspired key scenes in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” it provides an opportunity to appreciate quiet, shaded streets and quaint period architecture.
The Empire Farm Days, an exposition dating back to the 1930s, has called Seneca Falls home since 1988. For three days every August, the largest agricultural trade show in the Northeastern U.S. showcases the latest equipment and innovations in the farm and dairy industries. As many as 100,000 people annually take in its demonstrations, seminars, and exhibits.
Canal Harbor at Seneca Falls along the Cayuga-Seneca Canal provides comfortable facilities for boaters with ample amenities from showers to laundry facilities. Ever improving, there is no charge for its mooring sites or hookups, all within a stone’s throw of a wide range of village restaurants and shops.
Nearby are the del Lago Casino (gaming, live entertainment, and dining options), Sauders Mennonite Country Store (unequaled spices, baked goods, deli meats, vegetables, and specialty items), The Seneca Museum of Waterways & Industry…well, you get the idea. Put an “X” on the Finger Lakes map at Seneca Falls for a must visit.