Around this time of year, fans of the classic Christmas movie It’s a Wonderful Life sometimes wonder, “Is there a real Bedford Falls?”
Many of us wish we lived in a place like the film’s fictitious setting, where the taxi driver knows your name and guardian angels like to hang out.
One thing is certain: The movie was not shot anywhere near upstate New York, where it was set. Most of it was filmed at various RKO Radio Pictures properties in California, and director Frank Capra never mentioned a particular community that he used as a model for Bedford Falls.
But one town in New York’s Finger Lakes region believes it has a stronger claim than most to be the film’s inspiration. In Seneca Falls, you can visit the It’s a Wonderful Life Museum, follow a self-guided It’s a Wonderful Life walking tour and, every December, wallow in all things Capra-esque during the It’s a Wonderful Life Festival.
So why do some think Seneca Falls is the real Bedford Falls? Anwei Law of the museum reels off the clues. A local barber swore Capra visited the town and dropped in for a haircut in 1945, the year before the movie’s release. The movie is peppered with references to real cities and towns near Seneca Falls, including Rochester and Elmira. Street lamps and a median down the town’s main street in the 1940s were similar to those in the film.
But the clincher, for many, is a small plaque on the Bridge Street Bridge over the Cayuga-Seneca Canal. It commemorates Antonio Varacalli, a young man who leaped from the canal bank below the steel-truss bridge in April, 1917, to save a woman who had tried to drown herself in the frigid water. She lived; he did not.
It’s a Wonderful Life is based on a 1943 short story called The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern. The story includes a bridge scene, but in the story, George Bailey does not jump. Law and others are convinced that Capra saw the plaque and worked Varacalli’s brave jump into the movie.
Determined to immerse myself in a Bailey-like world during a stop in Seneca Falls, I first set off on the 2.1-kilometre walking tour. Appropriately enough, snow was sifting down from a steel-grey sky as I headed down the main road, Fall Street.
Even for a fan like me, some of the town’s supposed connections to the movie are a bit of a stretch. Just because IAWL has scenes in a high school and a train station and Seneca Falls has one of each does not prove anything. And yes, two houses on Cayuga Street are built in the Second Empire style, just like George and Mary’s home in the film, but lots of Second Empire houses can be found in other cities and towns.
The fact that Bedford Falls’s main drag was called Genesee Street and that Fall Street was once part of the Genesee Turnpike is a bit more persuasive. And the Bridge Street Bridge does look an awful lot like the one in the movie.
The scales tipping in Seneca Fall’s favour, I headed to the museum to learn more.
The three-year-old shrine to all things IAWL is a small but well-organized affair. Diehard fans will be delighted to see mementos such as a program from the 1946 Academy Awards ceremony, copies of The Greatest Gift and Christmastime cancellations from the local post office (which read “Bedford Falls”). Much of the memorabilia is on loan from Karolyn Grimes, who played little Zuzu Bailey in the movie and comes to Seneca Falls each year for the festival.
That celebration is a three-day nostalgia fest, with everything from a quilt raffle and a gingerbread house contest to big-screen presentations of IAWL. Grimes and co-star Carol Coombs-Mueller (who played big sister Janie) sign autographs. Various people connected with the movie give talks. There are plays, concerts and a ceremonial ringing of the town’s church bells. For the athletically inclined, there’s even the It’s a Wonderful Run 5K.
So, is Seneca Falls really Bedford Falls? Maybe. But as snow sifts past old storefronts on Fall Street, I can almost picture Jimmy Stewart running down the long-gone median, yelling out his greetings to the Emporium and the movie theatre. That’s good enough for me. Thanks to IAWL, I turned off my inner Christmas cynic years ago.
The writer was a guest of Finger Lakes Visitor Connection, which did not review or approve this article.