George Bailey Returns to Bedford Falls by way of Seneca Falls
Okay, it really wasn't Bedford Falls, New York that I returned to; it was the lovely village of Seneca Falls, in the rural Finger Lakes region of New York State. Let me explain.
Anyone who has seen the 1946 holiday classic movie, It's A Wonderful Life knows the central character, played by James Stewart, was named George Bailey. He was a character who discovers, no man is a failure who has friends. Well, as it gets closer to Christmas I just can't seem to escape the comments about my name (not that I object, because I feel I'm already the "richest" guy in town). Some believe the setting for this heartwarming film was in Seneca Falls, New York. So, I decided to visit the town which made my name so famous.
One of the first things to strike me when I entered this village of 7,400 people was George Bailey Lane, which leads to the village's Bridge Street Bridge. It looks just like the bridge that George Bailey planned to jump off and take his own life. In the movie it wasn't until Clarence, his guardian angel, appeared did he come to his senses. Clarence Street is at the other end of the bridge.
An old plaque on the bridge tells of similar heroism, but with a tragic twist, how Antonia Varacalli leapt into the icy Seneca River in 1917 to rescue a woman but drowned himself.
Just behind the bridge is one of the 116 factories and mills that at one time lined this river. When I closed my eyes I could see Clarence and George drying out in the Knitting Mill that still exists today.
I sought out village planner, Francis Caraccilo, who claims his village is most definitely the model for Bedford Falls. He had convincing arguments. Seneca Falls half a century ago certainly looked like Bedford Falls, from globe street lamps, hydrangea bushes, Victorian era buildings and skating ponds. Many of these are still here. Fifty-year-old Caraccilo with a joyous grin says, "we even have a barber in town who cut Frank Capra's hair. He was the director of the film and he told him he loved the town and it would make a great setting for a movie."
I set out to find the 81-year-old barber, Thomas Bellissima to learn more. I found him in a little home on a quiet street within the village. He still does the occasional haircut, and confirms he cut Mr. Capra's hair. Bellissima says, "When he first walked in his barber shop Mr. Capra introduced himself, they used to do that then, and said he was visiting an aunt who lived in nearby Auburn and loved the scenery in Seneca Falls." Mr. Capra came back several times for a haircut and each time professed the quaint beauty of the area. Another tantalizing parallel is that there are references in the movie to Buffalo, Rochester, Elmira and Binghamton, which are all nearby.
When it was time for a quick snack I headed to Bailey's Ice Cream and Coffee Shop (where else?) on Fall Street. Wonderful Life buffs will love this place. The shop is completely themed to the movie. My lady friend (no, her name is not Mary) and I ordered a "Welcome Home, Harry Bailey", a delicious slice of apple pie and "Mary's Merry Christmas Cookies". We washed them down with two cups of Bailey's Blend coffees.
Seneca Falls celebrated their annual It's A Wonderful Life Festival with outrageously wonderful days earlier this month. I managed to meet up with Karolyn Grimes who played Zuzu in the movie. She was signing autographs at Bailey's.
Wanting to soak up more of the feel of this lovely town, I spent the night at the Gould Hotel, built in 1912. Looking out my window I saw the moon high in the sky. Fat snowflakes were drifting slowly down over a beautifully decorated 19th century historic downtown. I experienced echoes of the past and cherished the joy and simplicity of life.
I'm convinced Seneca Falls, really is the inspiration for It's A Wonderful Life.
For More Information visit Seneca County Chamber of Commerce or call 315-568-2906
George Bailey is a professional photographer and writer. He is a member of the Travel Media Association of Canada and writes a regular column for Canadian CAA Magazine. He can be contacted at Wonderful.firstname.lastname@example.org. All photos by George Bailey.