Greater Western New York: The Hollywood Ideal of America?

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We drove down “Main Street” into Seneca Falls trying very hard to capture in our eyes the wholesome virtue of Frank Capra’s fictional Bedford Falls. Many people believe the Seneca County village was the inspiration for Capra’s town in the Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life. Some say you can see the obvious resemblance just by driving down the main street of Seneca Falls. It was tough to do. First, a lot of things have changed since Tommy Bellissima remembers cutting Capra’s hair in late 1945. For one thing, urban renewal, while not overly disturbing the buildings on Falls Street (the real name of the main thoroughfare through town), did change the layout of the road on the east side of town.

On the other hand, it was summer and hot. It’s hard to conjure up the comforting warmth of a tranquil blanket of freshly fallen snow when you’ve got the air conditioner cranking inside a hermetically sealed automobile.

Plus, I couldn’t figure out where the dang bridge was. Seneca Falls has three bridges. The east end bridge – on Ovid Street – obviously participated in the aforementioned urban renewal. The west end bridge – Veterans Bridge on aptly named Veterans Bridge Street – lay on the only other street that crossed Fall Street (a.k.a, 5 & 20 for all you veteran Greater Western New York drivers).

Frustrated, sweaty and starting to grow hungry, we seeped down the part of Fall Street immediately following 5&20’s escape from it for a couple of quick shots of Van Cleef Lake. They were working on the road, further infuriating us. We parked, took a few pictures, then headed back to the car, thinking maybe we’d take the bait and try lunch at the Hotel Clarence (OK, that wasn’t the original name of the place).

That’s when we noticed it.

Nestled in the corner of this beaten down portion of Fall Street sits a museum within a museum, sort of like what we found at the Jell-O Museum. Except, this time, the real gem isn’t the headliner, it’s the supporting actor. Of even greater coincidence, the building is Seneca Falls first movie theater.

OK, so here’s the scoop. On the outside you’ll see above the arch of the grand entrance the words “Center for the Voices of Humanity.” Beneath it, and much smaller, a plastic banner hangs precariously pinned. On it reads “The Seneca Falls It’s a Wonderful Life Museum.” It’s almost as if they’re embarrassed to admit it. But don’t mistake this for the quality of both the exhibit and the exhibitors.

We tentatively knocked on the door. They were closed, but we saw someone moving inside coming ever so slowly to the door. They opened it, but just a crack. “We’re sorry, but we’re closed,” was all we heard. We explained we were there researching this book and they kindly let us in, apologizing for the state of things. Monday – the day we were there – was normally their day off, but they received word that morning of a water leak on the second floor and it was dripping into their space. Fortunately, it was far away from the fine exhibit they had set up in the front corner of the building.

The curator, Anwei Law, was so kind and inviting. Her husband Henry was, too, but his more important job at the moment was to fix the water leak. We asked only for the chance to get a couple of good shots for the book’s video, but she insisted on giving us the grand tour. We looked at each other and, without saying a word, agreed lunch could wait a little longer. Law went through the entire litany of “proof” that Seneca Falls was the model for Bedford Falls: The coincidence of the street layout; the similarity of the buildings (go to 32 Cuyahoga Street and tell me that doesn’t look like George and Mary Bailey’s home on 320 Sycamore); and, the mention of all those New York towns and cities EXCEPT for Seneca Falls. She even explained how Seneca Falls, like its fictional kin, had a large Italian population that lived in a neighborhood called “Rumseyville,” named after John Rumsey, a successful factory owner who built cheap and affordable housing for his immigrant labor force. She was speaking to the choir.

But what about the bridge?

She then showed us the exhibits, movie posters, collectors’ items and even some still photos. Much of the movie memorabilia has been provided by Karolyn Grimes, the actress who played Zuzu in the movie and who has written eloquently of her experiences visiting Seneca Falls (and the museum).1 Law explained how people have written their feelings about the movie on a banner in the museum. She even told us – and showed us – envelopes people addressed to “Bedford Falls” that somehow have found their way to Seneca Falls. Does the post office know something Tinsel Town doesn’t?

But I kept wanting to get back to the bridge.

Law then offered, again apologetically despite our clear enjoyment, to show several news stories and a short film about the museum and the movie. We happily sat through. Then, she came out of the blue and said, “those in Hollywood who know Frank Capra insist he did not model Bedford Falls after Seneca Falls. They don’t offer an alternative. They just say it’s not Seneca Falls. And here’s the truth: There’s no way to know for sure.” In fact, Capra never mentions Seneca Falls ever. In his memoirs. In his notes. In this personal archives.

My heart sank.

“Except,” she continued, “for the strange coincidence of the story of the bridge.”

My eyes lit up! The bridge! The bridge! I knew it. It was the bridge all along.

The story begins in 1945 with Frank Capra in New York City trying to convince Jean Arthur to play the part of Mary. We know this took place in November of that year. We also know he had an aunt in Auburn, NY and, given the most direct route at that time, driving from New York to Auburn would have taken Capra directly through Seneca Falls. It’s not outside the realm of possibility he stopped in Seneca Falls and decided to tidy himself up for his aunt by getting a haircut.

Tommy Bellissima didn’t know Frank Capra from Adam when he cut his hair. Only after the movie came out the next year did Tommy recognize his most famous fare. Bellissima said he remembered Capra because they spoke of Italy and because Bellissima (which mean “beautiful” in Italian) made fun of Capra’s name (capra means “goat”). Bellissima’s only significance is that he places Capra on the other side of the bridge.

Ah, the bridge. The bridge Frank Capra must have crossed to go to his aunt’s house. The bridge with the conspicuous bronze plaque with the following inscription: “Here April 12, 1917 Antonio Varacalli gave his life to save another. He honored the community. The community honors him.” Ironically, Varacalli rescued a young girl attempting to commit suicide.

It was from this bridge, the bridge on, I’m not kidding, “Bridge” Street, the bridge that appears identical to the bridge in Bedford Falls, the bridge that George jumps from TO SAVE ANOTHER’s life (or at least so he thought), that a real person duplicated the same feat. And Capra was there to read this plaque.

Coincidence? Wait. There’s more.

We know, a few weeks before, Capra had just signed the contract to make It’s a Wonderful Life. We know he’s in New York at this time to convince an actress to take the lead role. It makes sense he’s still in the very early planning stages of story boarding the movie, at least in his mind. In “The Greatest Gift,” a short story by Philip Van Doren Stern on which the movie is based, George Bailey contemplates committing suicide by jumping off the bridge, but never actually jumps! Clarence appears on the bridge and convinces George not to jump. The movie changes the story. In the film, Clarence jumps in, forcing George to follow in order to rescue him.

Voilà! There’s your smoking gun. After learning of the Varacalli’s story, it’s plausible Capra, still in the story board phase, adjusts the plot line of “The Greatest Gift” to the more powerful one used in It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s just one too many coincidences to believe Capra did not have Seneca Falls in mind when he created Bedford Falls.

Yet, all this speculation doesn’t matter. The very fact we’re even having this discussion provides further evidence that, just as Walter Cronkite once said our “accent” represents the heart of America, It’s a Wonderful Life shows Greater Western New York represents the character of America’s heart. And that, certainly, is the greatest gift any area can give to its country.

For all this make-believe show business brings into Greater Western New York, you might be surprised to learn how many real entertainment artists our small (and not so small) towns have produced. We’ll give you a bit of a taste in the next chapter.

If you like this story, you’ll love Chris Carosa’s book 50 Hidden Gems of Greater Western New York. For those who don’t believe “Wide Right” or “No Goal” should define our region, this is the book for you. It makes a great gift for the person who has everything! (It’s also a great way to spend those gift cards you’ve been holding onto. You can order it right now by clicking this link that takes you to the publisher’s CreateSpace store. If you prefer, order it directly from Amazon or pick it up from your favorite bookstore or any of the locations listed here.

1 Grimes, Karolyn, “Was Seneca Falls the inspiration for Bedford Falls?” Essays Thoughts & Stories from Karolyn, http://www.zuzu.net/essays/bedford_falls.html |

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