Sometimes the most unexpected, unplanned short trips turn out to be very memorable. On a recent Saturday night, I happened to see the 1946 movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” for the first time, at least it was the first time that I remember! Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed starred in it, and I have to admit that I was deeply affected by its lessons and even needed a Kleenex or two before it was finished.
The next day I was reading my Tri County Sunday paper and found that one of the columnists mentioned that it was the 70th anniversary of the film’s release, and that the town of Seneca Falls at the northern edge of the Finger Lakes region in New York, bears a striking resemblance to the fictional Bedford Falls, the setting of the movie. Many of the buildings, streets and even the bridge where the main character George Bailey, intended to take his life, can be seen in Seneca Falls. The town has capitalized on its likeness and even bills itself as “The Real Bedford Falls.” The columnist mentioned that there were special events planned for the very next weekend in Seneca Falls, and that prompted me to grab my phone and search for all the details.
In spite of the fact that December in Finger Lakes country carries a good possibility of some pretty nasty lake effect snows or other wintry delights, I found and booked a room and decided to make the trip. I asked Gary if he could clear his schedule for the weekend and if he was up for a little adventure. I didn’t provide any other details, only that we would be heading north. I felt it was best not to tell him too much or he’d probably try to talk some sense into me.
When we left that morning, I continued being mysterious by telling him he could ask some yes or no questions if he wanted, but that I was keeping the destination a secret. Before we were on the previously dry roads for an hour, conditions began to deteriorate and visibility was very limited as we ran into a few heavy bands of snow. Now even I was beginning to doubt the sanity of this trip, but just as quickly, the snow stopped and we had sunny travel the rest of the way.
When we entered Seneca Falls and parked, I filled Gary in on the details as we sat in the car planning what to see first. People dressed as characters in the movie roamed the streets, and the first one we encountered was the crotchety banker Mr. Potter in his wheelchair, yelling insults at passers-by. Also present were some of the actors who portrayed the children in the movie, signing autographed pictures and other memorabilia.
Not really knowing where to go first, we decided to head for the Wonderful Life Museum located down the street several blocks. It was sunny but windy and frigid, and I was glad to be dressed like Nanook of the North as we held on to each other and picked our way around patches of ice. When I looked up as we neared the museum, I could see a small crowd gathered out front, along with two police cars. There was a closed sign on the museum door, which was puzzling, considering all the people waiting out front and the fact that it was within their posted hours.
I approached a man in a black trench coat who looked like he might know something, and asked him what was going on. He said Al Roker of the Today Show was expected to arrive shortly to interview the actors who played Zuzu, Janie and Tommy in the movie, and that the production crew was already inside. The interview was scheduled to be shown during Christmas week when NBC aired “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
We didn’t want to miss this opportunity, so we joined the other hunched and shivering people and waited. And WAITED. Soon someone came out of the museum with colorful poster board signs welcoming Al to Seneca Falls and proclaiming “We heart Al”. We accepted one of the posters to wave and became Al Roker’s instant fans.
After still more waiting, we were told Al was delayed and would arrive in another 20 minutes. By then it was becoming hard to feel our fingers and toes and we almost decided to give up and leave. A short time later shouts were heard as a black car went down the street and turned around. By then there were many more people in front of us and I decided to step to the side to see if I might have a chance to snap a picture with my phone without all those heads blocking the view. As luck would have it, Al got out of the back seat and walked right toward me. I not only got a great picture, but I got a chance to say, “Hey, Al! How’s it going?” and was rewarded with a small smile before he entered the museum. Elated (at least I was!), we hobbled back to the car on numb feet and tried to warm up.
We took a DVD of the movie back to the hotel with us to watch, and commented on the simple, but profound lessons to be learned from it. I love some of the most memorable quotes, such as “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”
And “Remember, George, no man is a failure who has friends.”
And how about “All you can take with you is that which you’ve given away.”
I also liked the quotes about what traditional housewarming gifts should be: “Bread, that this house may never know hunger. Salt, that life may always have flavor. And wine, that joy and prosperity may reign forever.” These gifts were ceremoniously presented that weekend to the occupants of the newest Habitat for Humanity house built in Seneca Falls.
I wonder how many movies made today have the staying power of this one. If you haven’t watched it lately, you might just want to get the DVD.
The trip home the next day was one whiteout after another on the New York Thruway which hadn’t yet seen a snowplow. There were many tense driving moments, but we brought a slew of good memories back home with us. It really can be a wonderful life if you’re willing to take a few chances! Have a blessed Christmas!