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'It's a Wonderful Life' hits home for fans of the film in Seneca Falls

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Max Schulte
The bridge in Seneca Falls, New York, that locals say is the one that the bridge in “It’s a Wonderful Life” was based on.

It was a flop in theaters when it was released 76 years ago, but now "It's a Wonderful Life" is considered a quintessential holiday classic. Nowhere is that truer than Seneca Falls, which claims credit for having inspired the movie's Bedford Falls. The village's annual celebration of the movie and its surviving stars was held this weekend.

It's the sound of the season along Fall Street...

"Daddy, teacher says every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings."

If Karolyn Grimes ever gets tired of saying her famous line, you'd never know it more than 70 years later. For almost 30 of those years, she's been on the nostalgia circuit along with her movie siblings from the Bailey family, meeting fans who treat the movie as an inspiration.

"People that went through the autograph lines shared with me the stories of how the movie had changed their lives and gave them hope," Grimes said during a Friday event where bells rang 20 times in honor of the 20th anniversary of Grimes’ first visit to Seneca Falls.

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Max Schulte
Karolyn Grimes, best known for her role as Zuzu Bailey in the classic 1946 Frank Capra film "It's a Wonderful Life," has made the trip to Seneca Falls, New York, for 20 years to celebrate the village's connection to the film. Greg Bond, whose great-uncle was Ward Bond, who played the "Bert the cop" in the film, traveled from Virginia to meet her.

The movie's theme resonates deeply with Grimes, whose son died by suicide at age 18. It's why she is certain director Frank Capra based the movie on Seneca Falls, where he visited in 1945. The bridge George Bailey jumps from in his attempt? It's a close match for the one in Seneca Falls that still bears a plaque honoring Antonio Varicalli, who died a century ago when he jumped from that bridge to save a girl who'd tried to kill herself there.

"He (Capra) would have felt that energy and he would have gotten inspiration, I'm sure, from something like that when he was here,” Grimes surmised. “And I do believe he was here because I talked to the barber who cut his hair."

Frank Capra died in 1991, a decade before Seneca Falls began honoring the movie that he said was his favorite.

The annual weekend-long celebration has become a reunion for the film's family, both on and off the screen. Capra's granddaughter, Monica Capra Hodges, began coming to Seneca Falls after encountering Karolyn Grimes at a flea market on the West Coast. It's given her new insight into a man she knew only as "her grandpa who lived in Palm Springs."

"The meaning of the movie to him was, every man's life is important. Every man touches every person's decisions and how they live their life touches so many others," Hodges said.

It's a theme you hear a lot this time of year in Seneca Falls.

Video of the Seneca Falls celebration by WXXI's Max Schulte.

"It makes everybody feel ‘I’ve done something,’” said Jimmy Hawkins, who played little Tommy Bailey when he was 4. “George Bailey never thought he did anything until he got to see what life would have been like if he’d never been born. That’s what other people say, that I bet I’ve done something too.”

His memories of being on the set with Frank Capra remain vivid.

"When Jimmy Stewart came in the room, he’d say, 'Now go through his pockets.' So you’ll see me doing all these things like, ‘Oh, did Daddy bring me something?’ or I’d put tinsel on his head."

The festivities in Seneca Falls draw fans from around the country, including new visitors Greg and Jean Bond from West Virginia. They've been fans of the movie for decades.

"Every year without fail. This is our favorite movie,” Jean Bond said.

But it was just this year that they discovered a family connection to the film.

"Ward Bond was my great-uncle. He was my grandfather's brother. He was Bert the cop in the movie, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ I've never met him,” Greg Bond said. “And I found out a few years ago that I was actually related to him and I was like, ‘OK, how awesome is that?’"

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Max Schulte
Jimmy Hawkins, who played Tommy Bailey in "It's a Wonderful Life," remembers the experience acting in the film "vividly" as a 4-year-old child and has been visiting Seneca Falls, New York, to celebrate the film's anniversary. This weekend's celebration marks 76 years since the film was released.

Jason Middhaugh and his eighth-grade daughter, Jane, came from Syracuse with their Lego models of Bedford Falls. She's part of what locals hope will be a new generation of fans — and part of a committee that's filling a time capsule to be opened in 2046, on the movie's centennial.

"My dad and I watched it starting when I was 6, and we've watched it every year since then,” said Jane.

Has it become one of her favorites?: “Definitely."

Will Jane be the exception? Frank Capra’s great-granddaughter, Hannah Capra Ermi, hopes her great-grandfather's production choices will make the movie a perennial classic and not just an antique.

"That was a conscious choice that Frank Capra made when he made 'It's Wonderful' that he wanted it to be black and white," she said. "He thought it would retain the nostalgia of the film and really emphasize the emotions and feelings and so I think it's really cool that it's black and white. Once you learn that, it helps create a deeper appreciation for it."

The actors who played Tommy and Zuzu Bailey agree.

"It's never going to go away. It'll be soon the greatest film ever made," said Jimmy Hawkins.

"The young people need to learn what magic is in there,” Karolyn Grimes advised. “And I'm hoping that enough parents will do that as a tradition and it'll just go down through the ages with their kids. Let’s hope so, because it would be a terrible loss if we lost that wonderful story."

You'll hear Scott in various capacities on WXXI either as a reporter, or hosting Morning Edition or All Things Considered.