Every time a bell rings Town: Folks here say they believe in angels and 'It's a Wonderful Life,' because it's their story.

December 24, 1997|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

SENECA FALLS, N.Y. -- Angels in white lights hover above Bedford Falls Boulevard. George Bailey waves to the town from a second-floor shop window. Two blocks away, a bronze plaque marks a familiar steel truss bridge where, 51 Christmas Eves ago, George contemplated suicide before he realized that his had been a wonderful life.

"What do you mean it's only a movie?" says Frances T. Barbieri, the associate director of the Seneca Falls Historical Society. "Be a believer! Have faith!"

Most of the mills and many of the people have left this upstate New York community of 7,370, but the village of Seneca Falls has no shortage of faith, and maybe even a surplus of outright fantasy. People here say that they believe in angels, believe in the special healing powers of small towns, and above all, believe that Seneca Falls was the inspiration for Bedford Falls, the town immortalized in the 1946 Christmas film classic, "It's a Wonderful Life."

This faith runs so deep that Seneca Falls has begun to imitate its celluloid counterpart. Street signs that say "Bedford Falls Boulevard" and "George Bailey Lane" have gone up. The Bridge Street bridge, the spitting image of the span that figured so prominently in the movie, has been rededicated to indicate its supposed place in cinematic history.

Town officials have done considerable research into the story of Antonio Varacalli, an Italian laborer who jumped off the bridge in 1917 to save a suicidal woman. He pulled her to safety, but drowned in the current.

"There are too many details we share with Bedford Falls for the town not to be us, and the 1917 story is the clincher," says Janette T. Pfeiff, the Seneca Falls supervisor. "It's the village government's official position: We're the 'It's a Wonderful Life' town."

As a theme to rally a village around, "It's a Wonderful Life" is a curious choice. The 1946 movie, written and directed by Frank Capra, offers a sometimes bleak view of small-town life. Banker George Bailey, played by the late Jimmy Stewart, hungers to leave Bedford Falls and see the world, but his ambitions are thwarted by his father's death, his work at the town's building and loan, and a powerful, unethical local businessman named Mr. Potter.

When $8,000 turns up missing from the bank on Christmas Eve, Bailey contemplates suicide at the bridge. But before he can jump, an incompetent angel named Clarence Oddbody vaults into the river. Bailey jumps in to save the angel and himself, and, after much reflection, decides to live. The townspeople rally around Bailey and collect enough money to cover the bank shortfall.

But accounts of the movie's making offer little evidence that Seneca Falls was the model for Bedford Falls. The film was based on a short story written by Philip Van Doren Stern, a Civil War historian. Frank Capra, the legendary director, filmed the movie on a set in California's San Fernando Valley. Stern, Capra and Stewart are all dead, and none of the three ever gave any indication that he knew of Seneca Falls.

"Frank Capra always said that Bedford Falls was sort of an Every-town," says Jeanine Basinger, the curator of the Frank Capra Archives at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. "I hate to be the Mr. Potter in the eyes of the people of Seneca Falls, but there is no proof of what they're saying."

But in Seneca Falls, small-town faith has proved stronger than any outsiders' research.

The movie craze began with Francis Caraccilo, the village planner, who has watched the movie nearly 100 times over the past 20 years -- enough to develop a compelling if circumstantial case for Seneca Falls. Two years ago, he mentioned his suspicions to local reporters, who learned that Capra had an aunt in nearby Auburn.

Maybe, the theory goes, Capra swung by Seneca Falls on a visit to his aunt. Fifty years ago, the town looked like Bedford Falls, with globe street lamps, Victorian houses and a tree-lined island in the middle of main street. Bedford Falls' thoroughfare was Genesee Street; Seneca Falls had the Genesee Turnpike. Both were old mill towns, both had large populations of Italian and Irish immigrants, and both were near Rochester and Elmira, two cities that are mentioned in the movie.

Local historians say that Seneca Falls even has a historical model for George Bailey: John Rumsey, a 19th-century factory owner famous, like the movie character, for lending money to the town's poor Italian immigrants so they could own their own homes. The Bailey-financed homes were part of a Bedford Falls section called Bailey Park. To this day, Seneca Falls has a predominantly Italian neighborhood called Rumseyville.

"There's no way that all this can just be coincidence," says Moe Koch, tourism director for Seneca County.

But surely, some of the connections drawn by locals are strained. Koch herself makes much of the fact that Seneca Falls and Bedford Falls each had, oddly enough, a family named Partridge and a street named Jefferson.

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