The spirit of Seneca Falls

SENECA FALLS, N.Y. — Here’s what it’s like to spend a weekend at the Wonderful Life Festival in Seneca Falls, N.Y.

You’re waiting for a table at Parker’s Grille and Taphouse when a stranger leans over to you and says: “What I don’t get is how Mary manages to have bought a house in the hour between George and she getting married and when he shows up for dinner that night. And , sure Uncle Billy wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, but he couldn’t remember that Potter took his newspaper that just happened to have the $8,000 in it?”

You’re finished with your New York Pastrami Sandwich at the restaurant when suddenly two bag pipers emerge from a back room, wind their way through the packed restaurant in full-blow mode and people start cheering while taking cell-phone photos.

You’re signing books when a 60-something woman sees Karolyn Grimes, who played Zuzu in the movie, and says, “Oh, my gosh; on, my gosh; oh, my gosh; oh, my gosh; oh, my gosh.” You’d have thought it was 1964 and she’d seen Ringo.

Indeed, an odd sort of magic infuses this town of 6,000 amid the lakes and whitened farmland an hour south of Syracuse — a spirit rooted in Frank Capra’s 1946 movie about a suicidal man, George Bailey, who finds perspective after an angel is sent to earth to help him.

“It’s as if we’ve been dropped into some feel-good movie set,” you tell She Won Joins You For the Clarence Odbody Adventure. “As if the guy shoveling the snow knows his line is, ‘Happy Holidays!’ And the woman in the bakery knows she is to say, ‘Welcome to the real Bedford Falls.'”

You start out as two strangers in a strange land; you end the weekend drinking hot chocolate  in an 1845-built bed and breakfast  at the insistence of the place’s owners. Mention that, because of heavy snowfall, you’re heading back to Syracuse Sunday afternoon to make sure you make a 10 a.m. Monday train trip to New York City and a Wonderful Life fan from that city  invites the two of you to come to their house. Ask a couple to take a Christmas card-photo of you and She Who in front of The George Bailey bridge and you learn that they eschewed the 5K It’s a Wonderful Life 5K Run the previous night to go to the Dance by the Light of the Moon & Swing Contest, which they won.

If two people are in a heated exchange by a Christmas tree in the bar of The Hotel Clarence, it’s not politics; it’s a debate over which Seneca Falls house director Frank Capra used as the prototype for the Granville house that George and Mary lived in.

The lines for autographs from Zuzu, Carol Coombs-Mueller (Janie) and Marie Owen (Donna Reed’s daughter) snaked outside the door of the Clarence, even if snowy weather  meant a smaller turnout than in 2012.

Sitting in a wheelchair, Old Man Potter offers sidewalk evangelism to promote the gospel of greed. “I own everything in town,” he boasts.

The Wonderful Life Festival is the smell of chestnuts roasting on an open barbecue, more than 3,000 runners taking off across George’s bridge in a sideways blizzard in 5 p.m. darkness and  non-stop showings of the movie in the lobby of the Hotel Clarence.

As I sign copies of “52 Little Lessons From It’s a Wonderful Life,” I talk with people from North Carolina, New Jersey, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Ohio, Michigan, Kansas and New Jersey — all here because of Capra’s 1946 movie that suggests we matter deeply to each other and our communities. “Each man’s life touches so many others — and when he’s not around he leaves a terrible hole,” Clarence the Angel tells suicidal George Bailey after taking him back to look at what life in Bedford Falls would have been like without him.

At the 10th annual George Bailey Awards, given to a person or family in Seneca Falls whose life or lives have furthered that concept, more than 100 people pack into the Wonderful Life Museum Saturday morning to honor an Italian family who won the award this year.

Everything is better than it needs to be: the donuts decorated in holiday motif, the hot chocolate that’s actually hot hot, the people who greet strangers as if they’re family.

And, amid such, it is as if the weather gods cue the snow just for the occasion: more than six inches fall Saturday, cloaking the town in a soft white that makes even the doubters wonder if this could have  been it: the place Capra patterned Bedford Falls after.

The evidence: A Seneca Falls barber affirms he twice cut Capra’s hair in 1945, nearly two years before the movie came out. The Seneca Falls Bridge  over the Cayuga-Seneca Canal looks strikingly like the one in the movie. A plaque on the bridge, which would have been there in 1945, tells of a man losing his life after jumping in to save a suicidal woman who had jumped from the bridge. A handful of houses that could double as the Granville House. And references in the movie to nearby Rochester and Elmira.

Personally, I don’t need a definitive answer; like Bigfoot, half the fun is in the realization that a clear-cut answer will never solve the mystery. It’s far more fun to simply assume it could be true, and enjoy a place where the spirit of George Bailey clearly lives on.

 

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