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Originally published Friday, December 10, 2010 at 3:30 PM

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New York town's museum pays tribute to 'Wonderful Life'

For years, civic boosters have pointed out intriguing parallels that suggest Seneca Falls was the inspiration for Bedford Falls, the make-believe New York mill town in "It's a Wonderful Life." Those musings are now embodied in a museum of sorts that showcases Frank Capra's Christmas movie classic.

Associated Press

SENECA FALLS, N.Y. — For years, civic boosters have pointed out intriguing parallels that suggest Seneca Falls was the inspiration for Bedford Falls, the make-believe New York mill town in "It's a Wonderful Life."

Those musings are now embodied in a museum of sorts that showcases Frank Capra's Christmas movie classic. And who cut the ribbon at Friday's grand opening? Zuzu, of course.

Former child actress Karolyn Grimes, who played George Bailey's daughter Zuzu in the 1946 drama, traveled to central New York to launch "The Seneca Falls It's a Wonderful Life Museum."

Grimes called the exhibition of movie posters, photographs, magazine covers and memorabilia "a great leap of faith ... in a wonderful place that's just so much like Bedford Falls."

At Christmastime, the village of 6,600 is adorned with white lights and wreaths strung across the main street like the snowy movie set erected near Los Angeles 64 years ago.

With "exalting the worth of the individual" at the apex of his filmmaking philosophy, Capra once said, he strove "to champion man, plead his causes and protest any degradation of his dignity, spirit and divinity."

Those quotations from the late director line the walls of the one-room display at the Center for the Voices of Humanity run by Anwei and Henry Law at the former Seneca Theater. The couple hopes the exhibition, which is open free of charge on weekdays, will in time become an officially designated museum.

A big part of the film's enduring appeal is its joyous closing scenes in which townspeople rally behind Jimmy Stewart's character, a downcast small-town money lender who comes to his senses with help from Clarence Odbody, a guardian angel.

"Maybe we like it (the film) because we know what the ending's going to be — in our lives, we don't," Anwei Law said. "No matter what's going on, George Bailey is going to be that richest man in town because he's spent his life enriching others and just being who he is, that person who is there for everybody."

While Capra was never quoted as mentioning a visit to Seneca Falls, he could have passed through while visiting an aunt in nearby Auburn. A local barber claimed he cut Capra's hair before the movie was released.

Characters in the film mention nearby cities like Rochester and Elmira. Both the real and mythical villages have classic American main streets. And the steel truss bridge here looks remarkably like the one where George Bailey pondered his mortality.

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An old plaque on the bridge tells of similar real-life heroism but with a tragic twist — how Antonio Varacalli leapt into the icy Seneca River in 1917 to rescue a woman but then drowned.

"Capra didn't make Bedford Falls 'Shangri-La,"' said Fran Caraccilo, Seneca Falls' former village planner. "It's not a utopia. It's a real, working, everyday small town, and Seneca Falls is just that. We're not a perfect community. But in a crunch, we pull together, we help each other out and I think we kind of embody that spirit as he portrayed it in the film.

"The idea that one person's life touches so many others is, I don't think, just a movie thing for Capra. It's think it's something he actually believed."

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