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“It’s a Wonderful Life” in this New York town every December

Seventy-two years after the premiere of the Christmas classic set in a town called Bedford Hills, folks celebrate Frank Capra's crowning achievement with the It's a Wonderful Life Festival.

Locals dressed as characters from "It's  a Wonderful Life"  greet the crowd as they walk through downtown Seneca Falls, N.Y.,  during the 2017 festival parade.
Locals dressed as characters from "It's a Wonderful Life" greet the crowd as they walk through downtown Seneca Falls, N.Y., during the 2017 festival parade.Read moreJay Jones / Tribune News Service

Each December, a magical transformation takes place in Seneca Falls, N.Y.

The word Bedford replaces Seneca on signs marking the city limits.

The tavern at the Gould Hotel becomes Martini's.

Along Fall Street, the main drag, George Bailey shouts, "Merry Christmas! Hello, Bedford Falls!"

Not far away, a cigar-chewing Mr. Potter gruffly grumbles, "Merry whatever. Someday, this will be Pottersville."

And perhaps most poignantly, Zuzu exclaims, "Look, Daddy! Teacher says, 'Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.' "

Seventy-two years after the premiere of the movie It's a Wonderful Life,  275 miles away in New York City, folks here celebrate Frank Capra's crowning achievement with the It's a Wonderful Life Festival, boasting that the famous director based its fictional town on this Finger Lakes community.

Capra is said to have visited Seneca Falls in the 1940s, but whether he ever set eyes on Fall Street, or walked across the steel truss bridge that's a dead ringer for the one in the Christmas classic, before the movie was made remains up for debate. But that potential connection aside, the place certainly looks, feels, and sounds like Bedford  Falls each December, especially when snow is falling and the church bells are ringing.

"It's a Wonderful Life is such a fabulous film; it needs to leave a footprint somewhere," said Karolyn Grimes, 78, who at 6 portrayed Zuzu, the youngest child of George and Mary Bailey, in the 1946 movie. She travels from Seattle every December to talk about her role in cinematic history and to recite her angel remark "over and over and over."

Each year, other septuagenarians who were child actors also share their memories during a wealth of presentations, meet-and-greets and autograph sessions. Another regular is Monica Capra Hodges, who bestows insights about her grandfather Frank Capra.

"He just wanted to share a message of hope after going through World War II," she explained last December. "I just love that people here are still celebrating that message that was so important to him. In the end, there's the hopefulness that  everybody's life has an impact that makes a difference."

The movie gets screened throughout the festival, which is Dec. 7-9 this year and is scheduled for Dec. 13-15 next year.  There are wagon rides, train rides, special meals, and the Dance by the Light of the Moon. Seemingly every  business in town takes part in the event, including a downtown pizzeria with a sign that reads, It's A Wonderful Slice.

Throughout the weekend, people dressed as various characters from the movie can be spotted on Fall Street sidewalks. They include actor Brian Rohan, a George Bailey lookalike who also presents a one-man show about the movie's star, James Stewart.

A couple of blocks away is the Bridge Street bridge — built by the Phoenix Bridge Co. of Phoenixville in 1915 — that many locals insist inspired Capra to model Bedford Falls after Seneca Falls. They say that if Capra had visited, he might have walked across the bridge and seen the plaque mounted there that honors Antonio Varacalli, who in 1917 jumped from the span into the canal below to save a suicidal woman, losing his own life in the process.

In the film, which was adapted from a short story called "The Greatest Gift" by Philip Van Doren Stern, George Bailey jumps from a bridge into frigid waters to save Clarence, who turns out to be a guardian angel sent from heaven to save Bailey from his own self-destruction.

"What Capra and his scriptwriters put in was someone going in to save the person who had jumped, and we believe that could likely be inspired by the story of Antonio Varacalli," said Anwei Law, a cofounder of the Seneca Falls It's a Wonderful  Life Museum. Aptly located in a building that once housed a movie theater, the museum is just a few blocks from downtown along Fall Street. It's open year-round, and admission is free.

"It's not just about a movie," Law said of the museum. "It's about something very much more important than just a movie. It's about a message. The movie gives us a tool to discuss many important issues related to human rights, related to caring  about each other and valuing each other. They're all interconnected."

Law pointed out that  Seneca Falls is where, at a gathering of delegates of the National Woman's Party in 1923, Alice Paul delivered the text of the original Equal Rights Amendment, which she had written. The town is  home to the Women's Rights National Historical Park.

In addition to movie memorabilia —   Grimes donated many items related to the film — the museum shares stories of oppressed people.

"I sent 200 items to be on display to start the museum," Grimes said. "I feel it's one way to keep this movie alive for the generations to come, because, you know, I'm going to get my wings," she said with a laugh.

The museum's walls are lined with images from the movie accompanied by inspiring quotes from Frank Capra.

"People are increasingly taking photos of his quotes," Law said. "They're looking to have that hope rekindled through this movie."

Capra's granddaughter Monica said her grandfather "just wanted that hopefulness to be out there."

"Everybody's George Bailey," she added. "Everybody has those down times. But we all can rally together, we can look to each other and be part of a bigger community."