Jimmy Stewart museum needs an angel of its own

NATIONAL CLOSEUP

October 14, 1994|By Kenneth R. Clark | Kenneth R. Clark,Chicago Tribune

INDIANA, Pa. -- George Bailey, embattled protagonist of the Christmas classic "It's a Wonderful Life," was rescued in his hour of despair by a guardian angel named Clarence.

Jay Rubin would settle for an angel of any name or persuasion, just as long as it comes with deep pockets and a generous nature.

Like the savings and loan institution threatened with bankruptcy in the 1946 Frank Capra movie starring this western Pennsylvania town's most famous native son, a museum long planned in honor of Jimmy Stewart is woefully short of funds.

"We need $250,000; we have far less than that," said Mr. Rubin, 46, an attorney, film buff and chairman of the James M. Stewart Museum Foundation.

"Growing up in Indiana, you get a passion for Jimmy Stewart, except we've noticed that younger people are not attuned to him because he hasn't been making anything currently. And the community is more transient than it used to be," Mr. Rubin said.

"People whose roots are not in Indiana are now moving in, and they don't have that feeling of watching the small-town boy grow up and become a great movie star and a national hero."

Mr. Rubin and his fellow fund-raisers had hoped to open the museum May 20, the ailing actor's 86th birthday, but failed to meet the necessary financial goal.

Now, Mr. Rubin said, he has another "wish date," in December, to coincide with the town's annual "It's a Wonderful Life" festival, when, for a few days at least, Indiana becomes the fictional Bedford Falls of the movie.

Bedford Falls was just a Hollywood sound stage with artificial snow, but the movie easily could have been shot on location in Indiana, a town of about 35,000, suburbs included. About 60 miles northeast of Pittsburgh and home to Indiana University of Pennsylvania, the town is a Currier & Ives print of spacious houses, lush greenery and a blue sky punctuated by church steeples.

The site of the proposed museum, on a floor above the town library, could pass for Bailey's savings and loan. A bank now occupies the spot where the Stewart family's hardware store once stood, across the street.

Mr. Stewart's life is not likely to have the happy ending so joyously caroled in "It's a Wonderful Life." Gloria Stewart, his wife 44 years, died in January. Bill Moorhead, 91, Mr. Stewart's lifelong friend and the only one of his childhood contemporaries still alive here, said the actor was devastated.

"After she was gone, he just went down, down, down, and I can't get him out of it," said Mr. Moorhead, who grew up a few houses from the Stewart mansion on a high hill overlooking the town. "I get a letter off every week and try to cheer him up. I send him lots of clippings about things here, and he told his daughter that's what is keeping him alive."

Linda J. Moore-Mack, county clerk and a leader in the fund drive, lTC is determined to preserve the memory of Mr. Stewart, one of the brightest stars in the Hollywood pantheon and a war hero who, as a bomber pilot, flew 20 combat missions in World War II and returned a much-decorated full colonel.

"Our county is really hard hit by unemployment," she said. "The coal industry used to be king here, and we've been severely hurt by the closing of a lot of coal mines. This museum could have a strong economic impact."

Once up and running, the museum will occupy a 4,500-square-foot space on the library's third floor. It will include two theaters, one for showing Mr. Stewart's movies and another for a slide show covering his life in Indiana.

Mr. Stewart delighted his hometown in 1983 when he returned to Indiana on his 75th birthday with several members of the original "It's a Wonderful Life" cast for the dedication of a statue.

"He's just Jim," Mr. Moorhead said fondly. "He'd be a friend to you, just like he is to me; no high-hat or anything with him. It's been a wonderful relationship, and I certainly feel honored to be one of his friends. But we need the museum because I think it's almost time for both of us to go."

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