Seneca Falls: The town where It’s A Wonderful Life every day

Seneca Falls inspired It’s a Wonderful Life - and it's a town with a magical story. Plus, star 'Zuzu Bailey' on what the film means to her and the fans she meets

We like to pay a visit to Bedford Falls every year. It’s A Wonderful Life is a Christmas classic, and settling down to watch it with nearest and dearest has become a fixture of the festive season.

The film is almost 70 years old but George Bailey’s journey from the edge of despair to the realisation that he is the richest man in town – with a little help from an angel trying to earn his wings – is timeless. The themes of family, sacrifice, love and redemption are as powerful today as when the film was made in 1946. Recessions return in cycles. War is an ever-present shadow. Some people want to help others. Other people only want to help themselves.

But in one town the film is not just for Christmas, residents live a wonderful life all year round. Seneca Falls in upstate New York claims to be the town on which Frank Capra based the film’s fictional Bedford Falls. Around a two-hour drive east of Buffalo, it has a population of just over 9,000, serves as a base for tourists visiting the picturesque Finger Lakes nearby and was the site of the first women’s rights convention in 1848.

Capra passed through Seneca Falls while developing the film’s script and stopped in at Tom Bellissima’s barbershop on Ovid Street for a trim. Undeniably, the buildings and streets look like they could have been the ones seen in the film. As local historian Francis Caraccilo points out: “There are wonderful things happening here all the time.”

Caraccilo helped put together a 1.3-mile It’s A Wonderful Life-themed walking tour that passes many landmarks related to locations in the film. The main avenue, Fall Street, was once divided by a central median lined with trees, like the one George Bailey runs along euphorically wishing everyone a Merry Christmas, and there is the Hotel Clarence, sharing a name with the film’s lovable bungling angel.

The large steel truss bridge spanning the Cayuga-Seneca Canal looks identical to the one where George contemplates ending his life on Christmas Eve.

“It’s a dead ringer for the bridge in Bedford Falls,” Caraccilo says. Does he ever see people standing on it looking like they are waiting for an angel? “I never got the impression they were waiting for a guardian angel but I’ve seen people linger to get their photo taken.”

There is a poignant parallel with the film, found in the middle of the bridge. A small and simple plaque reads: “Here April 12, 1917 Antonio Varacalli gave his life to save another. He honoured the community, the community honours him.”

Varacalli was working on a barge when he heard a scream. He ran to the canal bank and saw a young woman struggling in the water. Without hesitation he jumped in and managed to bring her close enough to the side for others to pull her out. Varacalli, however, could not swim himself and sank beneath the surface and drowned, aged 17.

“We’re convinced this incident is what inspired the scene in the movie where George jumps in the river to save Clarence, who jumped in to save George,” says Caraccilo, who believes Capra must have seen the plaque after leaving Bellissima’s. The events following Varacalli’s death are also echoed by the finale of the film when the residents of Bedford Falls rally round to help George Bailey avoid bankruptcy and prison.

“The whole reason Antonio was in this country working was to try and raise enough money to bring the rest of his family from Italy,” Caraccilo explains. “When he made his sacrifice the community turned out and began raising funds and eventually they raised enough to bring the rest of the family over.”

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Caraccilo volunteers in the It’s A Wonderful Life Museum on the east side of town, which opened its doors in 2010. “We’ve had visitors from 25 countries and 49 states – I suspect we might have had someone from South Dakota in here but they didn’t sign the book.”

The museum’s collection includes memorabilia, cast autographs and an old cigar lighter like the one in Gower’s store. “People love to come in and get their photo taken wishing they had a million dollars,” he says. “But what I enjoy the most are the memories being shared by visitors. We’ve had people of all ages, kids who can quote the movie to World War Two veterans. Some people come in and they’re crying, others are dancing like little children. It has an impact on everyone.”

The mini-industry around the film is booming. There has been an It’s A Wonderful Life festival for the last 13 years. Shops dress their windows in 1940s-style and the local bank erects a Bailey’s Building and Loan sign for the weekend. The Seneca Community Players perform an adaptation of the film, there is a parade, the annual gingerbread house contest, a cinnamon bun-eating competition – a 5km fun run to burn off those excess calories – and at least a dozen screenings of the film.

“The festival is growing every year,” says Chris Podzuweit, executive director of the town’s visitor centre, who is gearing up for the influx of guests who will arrive between December 12 and 14. “When I was first involved seven years ago 770 people came through our doors that weekend. Last year it was over 3,000.”

How many more people is that compared to any other weekend? “About 3,000. During the summer months we might have 300 to 500 people come through on a normal weekend. The weekend before the festival – because it’s winter – you might see 50 or 60 people. People come from everywhere and everybody comes with the spirit of the movie and wants to share it. It’s… I was going to say it’s wonderful but I’ll say it’s special. I’m working on not using that word all the time.”

Guest of honour is Karolyn Grimes, who played the Bailey’s youngest daughter Zuzu. She has been coming to the festival since the town declared itself the real Bedford Falls over a decade ago and there was an instant sense of recognition when she arrived for the first time.

“When we came into the town it started to snow,” she says. “The bridge was all lit up, there were lights across the main street and angels on all the lamp posts. It was silent because of this new snow and it was magical. It was a moment I will never forget. I really felt like I was in Bedford Falls.”

Now 74, Grimes lives in Port Orchard, a suburb of Seattle, and is busy preparing for this year’s trip to Seneca Falls. It is only mid-November but her Christmas tree is already up, decorated with some of the thousands of angels that fans have given her over the years.

“I have many, many boxes full of angels,” she says. “Some of them are handmade out of pinecones, some are very glamorous. I keep every one of them.”

One of her ornaments comes from the actual tree in the film, though Grimes is uneasy admitting the 69-year-old theft of a bauble. “It might be true…”

She was six years old when the film was made. “It was just a job,” she says. “As a bit player, which is all we kids were, you get your daily script and you have no idea what the story is about. The director says, ‘Look happy, look sad’, whatever!”

Grimes went on to work with the charming Cary Grant and rakish David Niven in The Bishop’s Wife. “Cary Grant loved kids,” she recalls. “There was an ice rink on the stage and he’d come get me every day at lunch and pull me around on a sled practising his ice skating.  Now David Niven on the other hand didn’t like kids. I was told from the get go not to bother him, so I didn’t.”

Grimes’ final major role was in Rio Grande with John Wayne, who got his hands on $300 worth of fireworks to celebrate her 10th birthday.

But her fondest memories are of James Stewart, who she assures was nicer than we could possibly imagine. It’s A Wonderful Life was a box office failure when it was first released but became incredibly popular after TV networks started repeating it every Christmas. Fans wrote to Stewart asking him what happened to the little girl from the film. He had one of his secretaries track Grimes down and the two were reunited in 1980.

At that point, Grimes had never seen It’s A Wonderful Life. After making the film, her life became anything but wonderful. She was orphaned by the age of 15 and sent to live with relatives in Missouri. “It certainly wasn’t Hollywood,” she says. “I had gone to LA High with 900 kids in my year, in Missouri there were 36 – all farmer boys and they all smelled of cow shit.

“I became a medical technologist and was raising seven kids. I lived in the kitchen or the laundry room, I didn’t have time for TV so I had never seen it. After I started getting fan mail I thought I better sit down and watch this film. So I finally did, and the tears came.”

After not watching it for decades, Grimes now watches the film at least 20 times every December at various screenings and events. “There are so many things in the movie that go unnoticed,” she says. “When there’s the run on the bank, before George goes to talk to the people he pauses a moment and looks up at his father’s portrait. Underneath there’s a little needlepoint sampler and it says, ‘All you can take with you is that which you have given away’. It’s there but nobody sees it.”

“It’s worth remembering that Capra’s portrait of Bedford Falls – neighbourly, safe, upstanding, a place where everyone knew one another’s name – would have seemed like a slice of heaven to audiences traumatised by World War Two,” says The Big Issue’s film reviewer Edward Lawrenson. “But if Capra is today a byword for a kind of folksy sentimentality, there’s a surprising darkness to It’s A Wonderful Life that makes its charm all the more lasting and lends a political charge to the film’s sense of Christmas cheer that is still relevant.”

The film’s lasting popularity was proved when it topped a Radio Times poll of the best Christmas films. It has also been crowned most inspiring film by the American Film Institute. The hopeful message of the film is one Grimes wants to keep alive. She explains this was one of the reasons why she donated her large collection of film memorabilia to the Seneca Falls museum.

“They share a vision I have about helping fans enjoy this wonderful, wonderful film for years to come. I’m also 74 years old, I had to sell the house and downsize. I had to think, what can I do with all this stuff? So I sent it their way and they’re on exhibit at the museum. I so believe in Frank Capra’s philosophy. Quite frankly, I don’t take it lightly. I really feel like it’s a responsibility. I know it sounds silly but people will come up to me and start crying.”

Do you have to carry extra tissues? “Yes I do. A couple of weeks ago a woman came up to me. She said, ‘My son was in Iraq and the family had watched the movie all his life. I sent him the film when he was over there so he could watch it. He was so thrilled’. She started crying because he didn’t come home. That movie will always be a tie between the two of them.

“And just this weekend a guy came up and said, ‘I wanted to tell you that this movie means so much to me. I lost my wife a couple of years ago. She had terminal cancer and when she was in the hospice we watched that film every day for 15 days before she went on and got her wings’. He bought a bunch of bells and gave them out to ring at the end of the memorial service.”

The film has touched thousands of lives and helped people at difficult times. Has there been a period where it has helped you? “Actually it has. My 18-year-old son took his own life – ironically. For a parent to lose a child in that way… it’s much worse than a car accident or any other kind of death because there’s so much guilt that goes with it. Your child was in so much pain they didn’t want to live any more. That’s a horrible thing to have to live with. You look back and think, why didn’t I? What if…?

“Finally the Christmas season rolled around and once again I was forced to watch the movie. It opened up a world of doors for me. You can’t live or relive the past. You have to let it go. The movie makes you look at your own life. When you’re in the doldrums your world shrinks and you get absorbed in one thing. You don’t see the big picture.”

Karolyn Grimes admits she is now as much Zuzu Bailey as she is herself, and looks forward to every December and her trip to Seneca Falls. “It’s like I go home for a few days,” she says. “I really enjoy being that little girl.”

It’s A Wonderful Life will be on a TV screen near you this Christmas