After seeing the Jimmy Stewart statue, the solid-oak front door that once graced the actor's home, his military memorabilia, priceless film posters and costumes, and even a red leather booth from a favorite Beverly Hills haunt, the Wisconsin couple signed the guest book at the Indiana, Pa., museum.
"This fulfills a bucket list dream . . . Thank you so much!"
The Jimmy Stewart Museum, a modest but meaningful salute to a wonderful life that started nearby, could use more patrons with bucket lists or soft spots for Shenandoah or Vertigo or The Philadelphia Story.
No one's murmuring prayers, as in the opening of Stewart's holiday classic, but the museum is in need of a few angels with open or deep pockets.
A boost in attendance and publicity related to a recent appearance by Patrick Wayne, who accepted the museum's Harvey Award on his behalf and that of his late father, John Wayne, obviously won't last.
"Until we have an endowment, it's touch and go," says Timothy Harley, executive director of the museum.
Museums aren't forever, as some recent shutdowns proved.
The Liberace Museum, dedicated to the flamboyant entertainer, closed in October in Las Vegas after 31 years. A museum celebrating Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, last located in Branson, Mo., shut its doors in December.
The Jimmy Stewart Museum's problems include a drop in attendance from 6,500 in 2009 to nearly 5,000 this year through mid-November; a cut from $5,500 to $1,400 (and soon, nothing) from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission; an inability to squeeze into increasingly narrow foundation guidelines; and the sad reality that some fans are aging out of bus tours that keep museums humming.
"The most dramatic evidence of that came this fall. We have always had, in both May and June and September and October, very strong charter bookings, primarily of seniors, who have been the consistent supporters of the museum," Harley said.
They are the patrons who knew Stewart firsthand as an actor, whom he called his "partners," and who made him famous. Stewart, after all, was born in 1908 and was 89 when he died in July 1997.
"September and October, when we usually see 10 to 15 charter bookings per month, we did not have a total of five between the two months," Harley said. Spring 2011 also looks thin for motor coaches, so the museum is trying to entice more individuals through the doors.
Even then, the attraction might have a couple of flat years before the baby boomers step up to visit the hometown of the actor they know primarily from It's a Wonderful Life and Harvey.
Unlike, say, the Andy Griffith Museum in Mount Airy, N.C., or the Lucy-Desi Museum in Jamestown, N.Y., the Jimmy Stewart Museum is dedicated to a film star, not a TV performer kept alive by cable and reruns. The Griffith attraction drew 54,295 in its debut year, which just ended, five times the 10,000 attendance of the Stewart museum in its inaugural year.
Harley has considered what could happen if prospects plummet - a reduction in hours, temporary cutbacks during the winter, or even a shift to weekends only.
Oct. 23 events with Wayne and donations generated by a story in the Indiana Gazette about the museum's finances led Harley to say, "We're OK for the moment. This museum is so accustomed to living on a very narrow margin.
" . . . We need to have an endowment that will help us over the lean months and the lean years and that, ideally, comes from a principally restricted gift that remains intact and only permits us to use the interest or earnings."
Such a benefactor could be an individual or a group of community leaders "who see the value of this and begin committing funds to a restricted account."
By Harley's reckoning, the museum contributed an estimated $407,000 to the local economy in 2009 alone. The Indiana County Tourist Bureau says it's among the top five draws, behind outdoor trails and other recreational attractions that benefit from repeat trips.
The museum, which has received annual $25,000 gifts from the Stewart family since it opened in May 1995, typically has an operating budget of roughly $140,000 and relies mainly on volunteers.
Harley is the only full-time paid employee, and there's a part-time bookkeeper and part-time guide.
The Borough of Indiana provides free space for the museum on the third and fourth floors of a building also housing a public library at Philadelphia and Ninth Streets.
Impressionist Rich Little and his wife, Marie, donated a $20,000 entrance canopy in 2008, and an earlier federal grant paid for a $500,000 elevator tower.
The museum was never meant to be underwritten by the Stewart family, and the actor specified that it be an understated undertaking that would boost the downtown.
"His condition was that the museum not be a Taj Mahal, be in an existing building, and be within the borough, so we very much want to continue to operate within the parameters that he set forth," the executive director said.
That means keeping the collection and Harvey Award dinner in Indiana, rather than, say, Pittsburgh.
"If things became more pressing, it might be something we would consider, but I think part of the delight that our guests have is being in Stewart's hometown, being able to walk around the block and see the substantial home that he grew up in, walk across the street and see the site of the hardware store" his father operated.
That site now is home to a bank, but after Stewart won his Oscar for The Philadelphia Story, he sent the golden statuette to his father, who placed it in the hardware-store case that had once displayed kitchen knives.
Harley said he understands agencies of all types are experiencing financial challenges, "but to have such a singular opportunity in Stewart and a gentleman who is so easily and comfortably promoted, I mean, he was not only a film icon who had international acclaim but he was really a military hero."
He flew successful combat missions, stayed in the Air Force Reserve after World War II, and donated his military pension back to the government.
To try to make sure that the museum appears on the radar of tourists near and far, the Indiana Tourist Bureau promotes it and its events at every opportunity, executive director Penny Perman said.
For the first time, it offered a "Christmas Tree Getaway Package" that included an overnight stay and breakfast, admission to the museum, a DVD of It's a Wonderful Life, entrance to the Festival of Lights at Blue Spruce Park, a welcome bag, and a voucher toward the purchase of a tree at Fleming's Christmas Tree Farms.
The package also included a $5 donation to Trees for Troops, which ships trees to military service members and their families Stateside and overseas.
The tourism agency also ties stops at nearby antique shops with a museum visit or suggests pairing a tour with a side trip to Smicksburg for an Amish wedding-style feast. "It's a perfect combination - Hollywood glamour and Amish simplicity," Perman said with a laugh.
It turns out that the museum celebrating the man who brought George Bailey to life has company in pinching pennies.
"We just came out with our annual report, the Philanthropy 400, which focuses on the 400 largest charities in the country, and this year we saw, among those groups, the biggest drop we've seen in the 20 years we've been doing this," said Michael Solomon, a spokesman for the Chronicle of Philanthropy.
On average, donations were down 11 percent. Even endowments may not bring salvation if they're subject to the vagaries of the stock market.