The Hotel Clarence In The News
Seneca Falls, N.Y., looks to 'Wonderful Life' movie for hope
By Rick Hampson, USA TODAY
November 26, 2009
Seneca Falls, NY claims to be the model for
the fictional town of Bedford Falls in the film "It's Wonderful Life".
by H. Darr Beiser for USA TODAY
"It's a Wonderful Life" stars, from left, Jimmy Hawkins, Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, Carol Coomes and Larry Smith.
by Republic Pictures
Not in the vault, he tells them. It's in the grand old hotel on Fall Street that reopens next spring. It's in the Downtown Deli, which will serve free Thanksgiving dinners to the hungry. It's in this fellow's home, and that one's. You know them. They're your neighbors.
At Seneca Falls Savings Bank, "we're making loans," says Case, its president. "Same as two months ago."
He sounds like George Bailey, the small-town banker played by Jimmy Stewart in the holiday classic It's a Wonderful Life, who stops a Depression-era bank run by telling depositors to calm down and stick together. Perhaps Case sounds like Bailey because Seneca Falls claims to have inspired the look and feel of Bedford Falls, the 1946 film's fictional setting.
The bank run in It's a Wonderful Life is probably American cinema's most famous depiction of financial panic. Now, the people here are facing the real thing. Can they — can we — tap the spirit of Bedford Falls?
"People will have to reach down and find something to get them through this," says Richard Goodson, a collector of It's a Wonderful Life memorabilia. "They'll have to show that there's something more to life than bigger-faster-more, that there are still enclaves of people that believe that."
When the real estate and finance markets collapsed in communities across the nation this year, leaving whole neighborhoods half-abandoned and up for sale, Seneca Falls seemed to have been spared any real misery.
An old mill town of 9,000 about 300 miles northwest of New York City, Seneca Falls had not boomed when others boomed, and so did not go bust. Home prices didn't collapse. Foreclosures didn't soar. Banks didn't close their doors or their windows. People here were relieved, maybe a little smug.
"We were proud that our banks did it by the rules," says Joyce Sinicropi, the florist.
That is, they demanded a down payment on mortgages and collateral on commercial loans; carefully checked customers' credit, and knew the people to whom they were loaning.
Seneca Falls, NY many believe the town inspired the setting of the holiday movie "It's a Wonderful Life".
by H. Darr Beiser for USA TODAY
Says Case: "When I make a loan I sit across the desk, look them in the eye and ask, 'If you're gonna borrow money from us, are you gonna pay it back?' "
But hastened by the decline in the value of IRAs, 401(k)s and college savings funds, the economic crisis now is bearing down everywhere — even on those who planned for tough times.
For many people here, It's a Wonderful Life's Depression scenes have taken on new meaning. "They're afraid of what the future will bring," says Fran Caraccilio, a former village planner.
Already, food pantries are besieged. One, the House of Concern, used to be open mornings but now is open all day and one weeknight. Although it used to see five to 10 new recipients a month, it had 38 in September and 36 in October.
Business at ZuZu Café, named after George Bailey's youngest daughter, is so slow that it will move to a smaller storefront after Christmas. More people are coming into Mark Robinette's jewelry store to sell their rings and brooches. Some tell him it's to pay the rent or mortgage.
So for Seneca Falls, this Thanksgiving is time to do as George Bailey said: Stay cool, stick together, give thanks for what you've got.
"This will be a brutal recession, but we'll get through it," Case says. "Upstate New York has been economically depressed for the last 20 years, so there's no huge adjustment here. I don't live in a mansion on the lake. I drive a 2000 Honda. I don't need to downscale much further."
Town sees itself in film
It's a Wonderful Life has been named one of the 100 best American films by the American Film Institute, and the most inspirational. Directed by Frank Capra, it's the story of Bailey, whose wanderlust is frustrated by the demands of his family's marginally profitable but public-spirited building and loan association.
The business's cash shortage on Christmas Eve has Bailey on the verge of suicide. But he's saved by a guardian angel named Clarence Odbody, who uses flashbacks to an alternate Bedford Falls — where Bailey was never born — to convince Bailey that he's made a difference and that it's really a wonderful life.
When it was released in 1946 the film was a box-office disappointment and faded into relative obscurity. Because of an accidentally lapsed copyright, it entered the public domain in the 1970s, was televised frequently and found a broad audience as a holiday staple.
Meanwhile, real-life Seneca Falls had stagnated. In the 1990s the textile mill, the auto parts maker, the Army depot and a Sylvania plant all closed or moved. Young people drifted away. Storefronts emptied.
About the same time, people began commenting on the town's similarity to the movie's Bedford Falls.
Looking back, Frances Barbieri, a life-long resident, says, "We needed something to make us feel good about ourselves. … People never understand. They say, 'Why do you live here?' "
A marker on the old bridge over the Seneca-Cayuga Canal says the town "may have inspired the hometown look of It's a Wonderful Life." Some residents, like Adrienne Emmo, are more emphatic: "There are too many coincidences for it not to have."
Enthusiasts list many similarities between Seneca Falls and Bedford Falls:
• Both have an old steel truss bridge. Bailey jumps off the one in the movie to rescue Clarence; Seneca Falls' has a plaque dedicated to a man who died in 1917 while trying to save a drowning woman.
• Both are on a train line in western New York. The film mentions Buffalo, Rochester and Elmira; a reference to Cornell University, 40 miles south of Seneca Falls, was cut from the script.
• Both have affordable, single-family housing developments named for benefactor-founders: "Bailey Park" and "Rumseyville," which acknowledges Seneca Falls industrialist John Rumsey.
• The town barber in Seneca Falls, Tommy Bellissima, says that in the mid-1940s he cut the hair of a man named Capra who was passing through en route to visit a relative in Auburn, N.Y. Bellissima said he made the connection to the director only after he saw Capra's name on a movie poster.
His story supported what many already believed. Capra must have crossed the bridge and read about the 1917 rescue attempt. "Tommy sort of gave us our legitimacy," Barbieri says.
A proud community
Today, Seneca Falls takes shameless pride in the film. Signs proclaim "Angel Avenue" and "George Bailey Lane." The hotel under renovation will be renamed The Clarence.
On the second weekend in December the town holds a festival called "It's a Wonderful Life in Seneca Falls." Actors will stroll about in the roles of George Bailey, Clarence Odbody and the others. Karolyn Grimes, the former child actress (now 68) who played Zuzu, will sign autographs, sell copies of her book and point out similarities between the town and the film.
The George Bailey Award will be given to the person who personifies Bailey's qualities. The winner's a secret, but it would be hard to think of someone more qualified than banker Case, who shares Bailey's passion for affordable housing and heads the county Habitat for Humanity chapter.
"Helping the community is part of our charter," Case says of the bank. "We'll never make as much money" as the go-go bankers who pumped up the real estate bubble in other parts of the nation, "but we'll never lose as much, either."
By all accounts, the weekend is a happy occasion. No one, says Bonnie Vaughn, an organizer, "walks out of here a skeptic."
But skeptics there are.
Jeanine Basinger is a film professor at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., and curator of Capra's archives. She knew Capra, interviewed him, brought him to campus. She has read his diaries and the unedited manuscript of his autobiography. She says he was asked many times what town inspired Bedford Falls.
Never, she says, did he mention Seneca Falls. To the contrary, Capra repeatedly insisted that no one place was Bedford Falls; it was every place.
In that light, the towns' similarities seem products of coincidence and conjecture. Many upstate towns have steel truss bridges, Victorian houses and globe street lamps. And if you want to make associations, a road sign in the movie mentions Katonah and Chappaqua, towns in Westchester County outside New York City that are near Bedford and Bedford Hills — and far from Seneca Falls.
Basinger says she's not trying to play the role of Henry Potter, the character in the film described as "the richest, meanest man in the county."
"This is a painful subject," she says, sounding nothing like the crusty old miser played by Lionel Barrymore. "I don't want to rain on Seneca Falls' parade."
Communities left behind by progress or prosperity often yearn for such a connection to history or celebrity, hoping to attract tourists or new residents or just buck up local pride.
Oddly, Seneca Falls already had such a calling card: birthplace of the American women's rights movement. In 1848 it hosted the nation's first women's rights convention, and today is the site of the Women's Rights National Historical Park.
But women's history does not have the same cachet here as It's a Wonderful Life. The movie weekend is a bigger deal than the summer "Convention Days" linked to women's rights, Sinicropi says.
"The most successful brand this town has is the movie," says Bob Buccieri, the town's development director, who's been here a year. "Exactly why escapes me."
No escape from recession
For some people in Seneca Falls this season, life isn't so wonderful.
April Kohut, 28, faces radiation therapy following thyroid cancer surgery in September, two months after she had her fourth child. Her husband has been out of work for two months. They can't afford to put their car on the road, and he can't get a job without a car.
The family lost its last apartment after two of the kids got lead poisoning and the place was condemned. They moved, but recently one of their new neighbors was beaten by some other residents in an argument.
"You think you're doing good and suddenly one problem turns into three and it all falls apart," Kohut says. She's sitting in the living room, holding 4-month-old Michaela as the other kids play on the floor.
However, in a few weeks, as always, they'll bake cookies and watch It's a Wonderful Life.
Kohut will cry when George Bailey visits the Georgeless Bedford Falls and his wife, Mary, (Donna Reed), an old maid, doesn't recognize him; when Bailey gently tricks Zuzu into thinking he's "glued" the petals back on her flower; and when Bailey realizes he wants his life back, even if it means going to jail for embezzling.
And she cries when the people of Bedford Falls turn out with the money to save the building and loan association from bankruptcy and Bailey from prison.
The film makes Kohut cry for the reason her kids make her cry — their innocence.
"We have to cut corners this Christmas. But what gets us through is our family," she says. "I wouldn't change my life."
When they moved here from a tough neighborhood in Buffalo, Kohut thought people were joking about the Bedford Falls connection.
Now she has no doubt. She senses it in people's attitudes, even when she goes for help to the House of Concern.
"They never make you feel small," she says.
Her belief is testament to the film's enduring power. Now, as the holidays and the recession and the winter close in, as unemployment rises and fear along with it, Seneca Falls is being tested, much as Bedford Falls was tested by the bank run and Potter's scheming.
Basinger, the Capra expert, wonders whether people will reach down for something to get them through this, to show that there's something more to life than bigger-faster-more.
"How much Bedford Falls is there in Seneca Falls?" she wonders. "Maybe now we'll see."