Sometimes, we would like life to imitate art

December 07, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

INDIANA, Pa. -- Picture the scene: An evening at Christmastime. The mythical town of Bedford Falls in the Jimmy Stewart movie "It's a Wonderful Life." Children gathering quietly at the front porch of protagonist George Bailey's house.

Bundled against the cold in scarves and caps, the youngsters hold candles as they jostle and whisper. Behind the wreathed door, the lights are bright with merriment.

After a pause, the kids lift their voices, filling the night air with the hymn, "Jubilate Deo." The door opens. The Bailey children come out -- Janie and Zuzu. Then Ruth, George's sister-in-law. In the background stands George's war-hero brother, Harry.

It is an emotional moment -- the captivated listeners, the beautiful singing -- perfect for the famous 1946 movie about the Baileys and Bedford Falls. Except . . .

This Zuzu is not the curly haired, 6-year-old angel of the movie, but Karolyn Grimes Wilkerson, 53, of Stilwell, Kan., who played the part in the film. This Janie is not the shy 10-year-old who cries at the piano in one memorable scene, but Carol Coombs Mueller, 58, who had the part in the movie and whose last name has been misspelled in the credits for 47 years.

And this house is not actually the Bailey house, but the four-bedroom, boyhood home of Mr. Stewart, who portrayed the movie's tortured but triumphant main character.

No, the scene that unfolded over the weekend on Vinegar Hill overlooking the spires of this small northwestern Pennsylvania borough was not part of the legendary movie.

It was, instead, a scene from real life, featuring the real people whose lives stretched beyond their movie roles, who, after singing "Auld Lange Syne" in the film's last act, grew up, grew old and lived real lives of joy and sadness.

It was, indeed, a touching moment, and all part of a festive and bitter-sweet weekend as the town where Mr. Stewart was born in 1908 honored the movie and some of its surviving makers. It served to contrast past and present, myth and reality, and set up a kind of twilight zone in which a large sign outside a downtown bank read: "You Are Now in Bedford Falls."

The festivities were built around a reunion here of six members of the cast and one of the crew from the 125-minute long, black-and-white movie directed by Frank Capra. Mr. Stewart, 85, who lives in Beverly Hills, could not attend because of his ill health and that of his wife, Gloria.

In the film's story, which spans the 1920s, 30s and 40s, Mr. Stewart plays George Bailey, an honorable man who dreams of leaving the small town of his youth, but who takes over the family building and loan association after the death of his father.

George marries -- the late Donna Reed, then 24, played his wife -- has four children and many worries. One Christmas, despondent over looming financial disaster, he is saved from jumping into the river by his guardian angel.

George says he wished he had never been born. But when the angel shows him how mean the town might have been without him, George is transformed and runs shouting through the streets to a joyous reunion with his family and many of the townfolk.

In addition to Ms. Wilkerson and Ms. Mueller, the reunion was attended by Todd Karns, 72, who, then 25, played George's younger brother Harry; Virginia Patton Moss, who played Harry's wife, Ruth; Argentina Brunetti, 86, who, then 40, played the Italian housewife, Mrs. Martini; Jimmy Hawkins, who played the youngest Bailey child, Tommy, and Bob Lawless, a member of the crew.

Most of the guests were attending a private dinner in the stately brick and stucco Stewart house now owned by local attorney, Donald Miller, and his wife, Dolly, when the Indiana Arts Council Childrens Chorus serenaded them Friday night.

Through all the festivities, the guests seemed genuinely moved at the little town's salute -- saying over and over again how grateful and honored they were, and how down through the years this beloved but corny movie had meant so much to them.

Carol Coombs Mueller, who played the Baileys' eldest daughter, Janie, said she and her brother had been brought to Hollywood from Toronto by their mother to get them into the movies.

Ms. Mueller said she was picked to play the role because she resembled Donna Reed and because she played the piano. It is Janie who is practicing "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" when an anguished George Bailey comes home from work and shouts at her, "haven't you learned that silly tune yet?" Crushed, she later whimpers the famous line, "Ohh, Daddy."

But in the credits at the end of the movie, her last name, then Coombs, is misspelled Coomes. Why? "I haven't a clue," she said in an interview during a break in the weekend of festivities. "You know, you saw the movie and your name's misspelled and you're just glad its up there. You praise God it's up there at all."

Ms. Mueller acted until she was 21, but felt a calling to teach and went on to kindergarten and elementary school classrooms in California for several decades.

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