In real-life 'Wonderful Life,' Stewart backs museum

January 31, 1994|By New York Times News Service

INDIANA, Pa. -- People here in Jimmy Stewart's hometown spent years suggesting that different types of museums be erected in his honor. Mr. Stewart, as shy off the screen as on, rejected them all. But when he was told last fall that a museum dedicated to him could bring a financial lift to this depressed coal-mining region, he had a change of heart.

Events began to take on the appearance of a sequel to "It's a Wonderful Life," the 1946 movie that enshrines small-town values and remains Mr. Stewart's favorite.

In the movie, George Bailey, played by Mr. Stewart, is a soft-hearted operator of a savings and loan who is saved from taking his own life by an angel and helped out of a tight spot by generous and loving neighbors.

In real life, Mr. Stewart is enthusiastically backing the museum that local officials hope will attract at least 10,000 tourists a year to this town of 16,000 people, about 60 miles east of Pittsburgh. But true to Mr. Stewart's nature, he insisted that the museum be modest. The townsfolk are following his instructions. The Jimmy Stewart Museum will not even have its own building.

The site will be a renovated, 4,500-square-foot space on the third floor of a nondescript municipal building, across the street from where the Stewart family's hardware store once stood. Organizers hope the $250,000 project will be ready to open on May 20, Mr. Stewart's 86th birthday.

The beige brick municipal building looks much like the one that housed George Bailey's saving and loan in the fictional town of Bedford Falls. The Indiana Free Library occupies the first two floors; the fourth floor, where the Masons once met, has been condemned as unsafe. "More than 90 percent of the reason Jimmy Stewart is allowing us to do the museum is that it would be of help to Indiana," said Jay Y. Rubin, a lawyer and local film buff who is chairman of the museum committee.

It was Mr. Rubin who made the estimate of 10,000 visitors a year, and other residents think that that figure is too low. They point out that the town's annual Christmas festival -- yes, "It's a Wonderful Life" -- brings in nearly 28,000 people to see floats and lights that re-create scenes from the movie.

Named for the Shawnee and Delaware Indians who were driven from this area, Indiana looks like a quaint New England village filled with clapboard houses and churches with white steeples. It is essentially a colorized version of Bedford Falls. Referring to the director of "It's a Wonderful Life," Frank Capra, Mr. Stewart has said: "If he had wanted to film that movie on location, he could have used my hometown."

The town today is not without vacant storefronts, however, and the primary employers are the Indiana County government and courts and Indiana University of Pennsylvania, which has 16,000 students.

But residents, who 10 years ago parlayed spaghetti dinners and cake sales into a bronze statue of Mr. Stewart in front of the courthouse, are not just looking for economic benefit from the museum.

"My biggest fear," said Linda J. Moore-Mack, the clerk of county court and a member of the museum committee, "is that the generation growing up today will say, 'Jimmy who?' A lot of people here appreciate his contributions and want them to live on."

It seems premature to worry about people forgetting Mr. Stewart. Visitors who come here to pay homage visit the site of the Stewart family's hardware store, which has been replaced by a pharmacy, and the site of Mr. Stewart's first home, which is now a parking lot for a funeral home.

Mr. Stewart has not lived here since he left for college but comes back for special occasions, like the unveiling of his statue.

Mr. Stewart has promised to lend the museum a huge assortment of movie props, his military uniforms, photographs and awards, including the Academy Award he received for lifetime achievement.

The museum, which will be licensed to sell Stewart knickknacks and T-shirts, is to feature Mr. Stewart's films in a 52-seat theater.

Mr. Stewart lives with his wife of 44 years, Gloria, in Beverly Hills, but he has not been feeling well and declined to be interviewed.

He issued a statement through John Strauss, his publicist of 36 years: "Naturally, I feel greatly honored that the residents of my hometown, Indiana, Pa., have decided that they want to create a museum which will bear my name. I love the town of Indiana, my birthplace, where I grew up in the happiest of families, friends and circumstances."

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