Welcome to Bedford Falls… Or is it Seneca Falls?

Movie buffs who love “It’s a Wonderful Life” and small-town Bedford Falls should feel right at home in this Finger Lakes village.

Well, it’s the Christmas season again and time to settle down to watch my favorite holiday movie – the classic film that always promises a tug at the heart, brings a tear to the eye, and, best of all, never fails to provide a giant lift to the spirit. It wouldn’t seem like Christmas without a viewing of Frank Capra’s 1946 classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

I can’t get through the holidays without watching George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) discover that his life, despite a series of disappointments keeping him forever in small-town Bedford Falls, has not been a failure at all. At the peak of his desperation, George considers suicide, but thanks to Clarence the Angel (Henry Travers), finds out he has forever touched the lives of many people – and in the end they rally to him in his time of need. As Clarence tells George, “Strange isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives, and when he isn’t around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” Solid American values of love, faith, friendship, honor, and the overall inspirational tone of the story
make “It’s a Wonderful Life” the perfect Christmastime treat.

There is another reason “It’s a Wonderful Life” strikes so close to home – a geographic one! Within an hour’s drive from my home, through upstate New York’s scenic Finger Lakes region, lies a picturesque village that many residents think, and can argue pretty persuasively, is the Bedford Falls prototype – Seneca Falls, New York. Bedford Falls embodies small-town America, and while Frank Capra never pinpointed an exact location for his fictitious town, a series of circumstances, similarities, and coincidences make Seneca Falls folks confident that their village fits the bill better than any other. Try jogging your “It’s a Wonderful Life” movie memory with these connections.

• Let’s start with the names: Bedford Falls…Seneca Falls. Interesting, but by itself not an uncommon coincidence. There’s more.

• Geographically, Seneca Falls sits in a perfect position for references to nearby cities in the film. George’s brother, Harry Bailey, arrives in town to introduce his new wife, who is from Buffalo, while old pal Sam Wainwright offers George a position with his new plastics factory in Rochester. Both cities are less than a two-hour drive to the west of Seneca Falls. In addition, Mr. Carter, the irritable bank examiner, hurries George along with the audit of the Building and Loan, saying he wants “to spend Christmas in Elmira with my family.”  Elmira is just an hour south of Seneca Falls.

• In Seneca Falls, a truss bridge spans the Cayuga-Seneca Canal on Bridge Street. In 1917, local resident Antonio Varacalli actually leaped into the river in an attempt to save a woman who had fallen into the icy water. Thanks to him, she survived although his life was lost. Could this event have been the inspiration for a pivotal scene in the film? While contemplating suicide on a similar bridge, George Bailey instead leaps in to save Clarence, George’s guardian angel. This eventually leads Clarence to proclaim, “You’ve been given a great gift, George. The chance to see what the world would be like without you.”

• The streets of Seneca Falls are lined with Victorian homes, much like “the old Granville place” where George and Mary Bailey (Donna Reed) settle down to
raise their family. There must be a loose knob on a banister somewhere in one of those homes.

• George Bailey, a man of principle, always used his Building and Loan to help the little man. He provided affordable housing in Bailey Park for many of the immigrant families of Bedford Falls, people who would otherwise be trodden upon by heartless Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore), “the richest and meanest man in the county.”  Meanwhile, Seneca Falls boasts of an important citizen in its own past. John Rumsey was a generous industrialist, who during the 1920s aided his workers in attaining low-cost housing on a local tract of land, a neighborhood which to this day is referred to as Rumseyville. Hmmm, Bailey Park…Rumseyville?

• While many of these aspects involve conjecture, not fact, proof does exist that Frank Capra knew about Seneca Falls. Auburn, less than 20 miles to the east, was the home of Capra’s aunt. It has also been established that Capra was a customer in Tommy Bellissima’s Seneca Falls barbershop more than once over a period of several weeks in 1945 or 1946. “He introduced himself in the shop,” recalls Bellissima, now 80, “But I didn’t know who he was at the time. He fit right into the conversation easily, showing interest in people, the town, its factories, and the bridge.” Tommy’s shop was a stone’s throw from the Bridge Street Bridge.

Well, convinced or not, a walk down Fall Street, the village’s main thoroughfare, could well be a stroll down the familiar main drag of Capra’s version of small-town America, Bedford Falls. Angel Christmas lights, period-style storefronts, and Yuletide decorations line the street. Many village shops and the local visitors’ center display still photographs from the famous film as if to help validate a claim that can never really be proven. “We think the facts are on our side,” says Village Planner Fran Caraccilo. “Anyway, that’s our story and we’re sticking to it!”

But it’s fun, and a little enchanting, to keep the connection alive. The spirit of the film rubs off on the residents and has become a source of civic pride. Crossing the bridge, you’ll see black lampposts unofficially adorned with signs christened Bedford Falls Boulevard, George Bailey Lane, Clarence Street, and Angel Avenue. Not far from the end of the bridge you can stop for a treat at “Bailey’s – ‘It’s a Wonderful…’ Ice Cream Shop”. Combine it all, the local enthusiasm, history, architecture, geographic locale, and of course, the bridge, and Seneca Falls is surely…well, it’s a wonderful town!

“It Will Be Like Coming Home”
Karolyn Grimes–better known to audiences as Zuzu from “It’s a Wonderful Life” fame–is returning to fictional Bedford Falls via the real-life Seneca Falls in December. Grimes will be signing autographs at Bailey’s Ice Cream Shop on Fall Street from 2-5 p.m. December 6, and introducing a special airing of the classic Christmas film at 7 p.m. at the Seneca Falls Community Center. She will return the next day to ink photographs from 10 a.m.-noon and 2-5 p.m. The event is being sponsored by the Seneca Falls Revitalization Committee. For more information, call 315-568-6894.

Here are a few questions we asked Karolyn concerning her role with the now famous movie.

1.  Do people you meet want to share with you some thoughts about when they first saw the movie?
No, not really…..most people that I meet are already huge fans of the film because they grew up watching it. It has been in public domain for 30 years, so people watch it every year as part of family traditions and they keep passing this joy on through generations.

They watch it while they decorate the tree, as a part of the Thanksgiving celebration, to start the holiday season, at family get-togethers etc. The film gives them a feeling of togetherness, of unity, of memories that feel good. Some folks watch it year-around when they are down or just want to feel that comfort of the hope that it offers.

2. How has being in the movie affected your life?
In all my wildest dreams, I never would have imagined this movie would have become what it is today. They remember that little girl who uttered those famous words at the end of the film, “Daddy, teacher says, every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings.” And of course, Zuzu’s petals are an integral part of the story.

Most of the cast has already gotten their wings. So, to fans all over the world they want to see Zuzu today. She was not a real character but I think that most people think of her as real. That is a responsibility that I feel very strongly about. I am so thankful that I am able to give them just a small piece of that wonderful film history. I want to be able to continue to spread the magic that comes from all the messages from this wonderful film.

I am two people, yet I am one. I have two initial pins that I wear. One is a Z and one is a K. Sometimes I am Zuzu and sometimes I am Karolyn but really they are both the same person. I was and I am Zuzu. My grandchildren call me Grandma Zuzu.

3. Have you been to Seneca Falls before? If yes, do you think it was the inspiration for Bedford Falls?
I have never been to Seneca Falls….I have been interviewed by radio stations in New York who certainly feel strongly that this was the inspiration for Bedford Falls. So I have been aware of the town for many years. I will soon find out.

by James P. Hughes

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