James Stewart, Donna Reed, Carol Coombs, Jimmy Hawkins, Larry Simms and Karolyn Grimes.
Herbert Dorfman/Corbis via Getty Images

Love 'It's A Wonderful Life'? Step Into the New York Town Known as the Real Bedford Falls

Seneca Falls may have inspired the holiday classic.

The 1946 holiday hit "It's a Wonderful Life" is considered a classic Christmas movie by many fans, yet few know there's an entire town dedicated to transforming itself into the fictional town of Bedford Falls every December. Despite filming the movie on sets built in California, it's believed that director Frank Capra modeled Bedford Falls after the small town of Seneca Falls in upstate New York. While some continue to dispute this, there's no denying the similarities extend further than the town's names.

To honor these similarities, Seneca Falls hosts an annual festival where fans come together for a weekend of activities and special events revolving around the film. This year is the 77th Anniversary Celebration of "It's a Wonderful Life," which is jam-packed with activities like a parade, a showing of a documentary on the connections between Bedford Falls and Seneca Falls, a video tour of the movie set, a visit to the "It's a Wonderful Life" Museum, and the chance to get autographs from some of the cast.

People travel from all over the country to enjoy the festival and immerse themselves into the narrative Capra created all those decades ago. If you plan to attend the Anniversary Celebration of "It's a Wonderful Life" this year, or in the future, you should know a few things about the movie's history and connection to Seneca Falls. Here's everything you need to know.

A short story inspired 'It's a Wonderful Life'

Before it hit the big screen, "It's a Wonderful Life" started as a short story by American writer Philip Van Doren Stern. When he couldn't find a publisher, Stern self-published it as a 24-page booklet titled "The Greatest Gift," which he gifted to friends and family for Christmas in 1943. Despite only printing 200 copies, the booklet managed to wind up in the hands of RKO Pictures producer David Hempstead, who showed it to actor Cary Grant.

Upon reading the story, Grant voiced his interest in playing the main character, so RKO Pictures purchased the movie rights to Stern's book in 1944 for $10,000. Several screenwriters worked on adaptations, but ultimately, they decided to shelve the project. The following year, RKO showed Frank Capra a copy of "The Greatest Gift," which he purchased along with three versions of the script to produce under his new production company, Liberty Films.

Frank Capra visited Seneca Falls in 1945

AP Photo/David Duprey

While working on the script for what would eventually become "It's a Wonderful Life," Capra and his team of screenwriters visited Seneca Falls. According to the "It's a Wonderful Life" Museum, a former barber in the small town recalled Capra's visit to his shop. Tom Bellissima gave Capra a haircut in 1945 and even remembers joking about their names, saying, "I'm the beautiful one, and you're the goat," as bellissima means "beautiful" in Italian and capra means "goat."

During this visit, many believe Capra took inspiration from his surroundings and came up with Bedford Falls. Fans have also made connections between the movie's set and the architecture in Seneca Falls, specifically local homes, the old railroad station, and the steel truss bridge. Even though Bedford Falls is a fictional town, the film references surrounding areas like Buffalo and Rochester, confirming it's set in New York. 

Capra may have been inspired by a local hero

There's a popular theory that while in town, Capra came across the plaque on the Seneca Falls Bridge honoring Antonio Varacalli. The 19-year-old drowned in 1917 after successfully rescuing a woman drowning in the canal. The town recognized his heroism by awarding him the Carnegie Hero Medal and erecting a plaque on the bridge.

It's thought that Capra learned of this story during his time in Seneca Falls, which inspired the scene in "It's a Wonderful Life" when George Bailey jumps into the water to save Clarence Odbody. In previous versions of the script, George doesn't jump into the water to save Clarence. Instead, while standing on the bridge contemplating suicide, George is stopped by a mysterious man who says, "I wouldn't do that if I were you."

Seneca Falls celebrates the anniversary of 'It's a Wonderful Life'

Its a Wonderful Life Town

AP Photo/David Duprey

Each year, Seneca Falls celebrates the anniversary of "It's a Wonderful Life" with a three-day festival in December. This year's festival is Dec. 8 through Dec. 10 and offers a full schedule of activities and special events. Attendees will get the chance to meet several actors from the movie, including Karolyn Grimes, who played Zuzu Bailey, Jimmy Hawkins, who played Tommy Bailey, and brothers Donald and Ronald Collins, who played a young Pete Bailey. At an additional cost, fans can pay extra to join the stars for an exclusive dinner or breakfast. 

They aren't the only big names who'll be making an appearance, though. Donna Reed's daughter, Mary Ownen, and Frank Capra's granddaughter, Monica Capra Hodges, will also make special presentations. Guests will also enjoy a radio play, silent auction, It's a Wonderful Run 5K, and the presentation of the 20th Annual George Bailey Award. Of course, no trip to Seneca Falls would be complete without a visit to the "It's a Wonderful Life" Museum!

What to find in the 'It's a Wonderful Life' Museum

The "It's a Wonderful Life" Museum opened in December of 2010 in part the building that held the town's first movie theater. It holds a rare collection of movie memorabilia, including original call sheets with doodles by the movie's Art Director Jack Okey, the original program from the movie premiere, and the earrings worn by Gloria Grahame, who played Violet Bick in the film. The museum also exhibits some items from the personal collections of the film's stars, including Carol Coombs, Jimmy Hawkins, and Jeanine Roose. 

This year, the "It's a Wonderful Life" Museum is located at a temporary location while they do renovations. A large part of the museum's expansion plans include movie set recreations. In the future, fans will get to shop displays and sit at the counter at Gower's Drugstore, sing "Auld Lang Syne" in the Bailey family living room, and recreate the scene when George stands up to Mr. Potter.

'It's a Wonderful Life' offers valuable life lessons

American actors James Stewart (1908 - 1997) and Donna Reed (1921 - 1986) star in the film 'It's a Wonderful Life', 1946. The children are Larry Simms  (Peter Bailey), Jimmy Hawkins (Tommy Bailey) and Carol Coombs (Janie Bailey).

RKO Pictures/Archive Photos/Getty Images

There's a reason "It's a Wonderful Life" is a holiday classic. Despite being released in 1946, the film offers valuable life lessons and an uplifting message. In a moment of weakness, George finds himself standing on a bridge contemplating suicide. However, Clarence, his guardian angel, steps in to show George what Bedford Falls would be like if he had never been born. 

The experience teaches George that everyone's role in their community is important, regardless of how small it may seem. "It's a Wonderful Life" demonstrates how important it is to have family and friends to rely on, a message that fans cling to year after year. This may be why so many writers and filmmakers replicate Capra's timeless theme!

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