Every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings. Whether or not you’ve sat through the entirety of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life you have probably seen or heard that line from the film. Since the premiere in 1946 the film has become one of the most beloved Christmas classics of all time. But did you know the film’s story has more than a few connections to the town of Seneca Falls, New York?
I was driving along scenic Highway 20 through Skaneateles and Auburn in mid-October. The fall colors were popping, the sun was shining, and it was a perfect autumn day. The rolling hills and long bodies of water of the Finger Lakes began to give way to more homes, churches, and businesses. I knew I must be approaching a town; Seneca Falls, New York. Suddenly I caught sight of a long row of three-story brick buildings with large picture windows of retail shops on the first floor and narrow windows of residences above. Turning onto the main street (it was actually Fall Street) I found myself surrounded by the typical skyscrapers of small towns, tree-lines wide sidewalks, and parallel parking. It was the quintessential American Main Street.
When I come into a new town I have two rules I follow without fail: find the visitor center and then chat with some locals. These two rules have opened doorways and led me down streets I never would have discovered on my own or even with a Google search. On this particular gorgeous autumn day I would discover a town with a compelling history, fantastic food, and a connection to that classic Christmas movie.
As the local story goes Frank Capra was visiting some relatives in nearby Auburn in 1945 while working on the screenplay for the film. Tom Bellisima was a barber from Italy, where Capra was born, so he would always visit Seneca Falls for a haircut when he was in the area. One day Bellisima regaled Capra with a story about a local hero. On April 12, 1947 Antonio Varacalli heard the screams of a woman in the river just behind the town. The woman had jumped from a narrow two-lane bridge into the water attempting to commit suicide, but apparently changed her mind once hitting the frigid water. Varacalli jumped into the water and managed to get her to shore where another man pulled her out of the river, but Varacalli drowned during the attempt. Does any of that sound familiar?
While the screenplay for It’s a Wonderful Life is based on the 1943 short story The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern, the story of Varacalli and the bridge in Seneca Falls is hard to ignore. The town seems to agree; in 1996 they held their first It’s a Wonderful Life Festival. It has now become an annual event held the second weekend of December throughout town. The festival includes a train ride, food tasting, special performances, Christmas light competitions, and a screening of the film. The three-day festival has grown each year since the first with bigger crowds, more events, and an extra dose of that small town charm.
Capitalizing on the connection between the film and town and with the popularity of the festival the locally-owned It’s a Wonderful Life Museum opened in 2010. This one-room museum features hundreds of photos, posters, movie props, and memorabilia surrounding the classic movie. The museum, located on one end of Fall Street, is so small you can see the entire exhibit space from the entrance, but it takes nearly thirty minutes to wade through everything on display.
I don’t know if Capra was inspired by the true story of Varacalli. I don’t know if he modeled Bedford Falls after Seneca Falls. I don’t know if his visit to this quaint town remained as fresh and vivid in his mind as it does in mine. But the bridge, the woman jumping to end her life only to be saved, the Victorian homes, and the town’s location in New York are too similar to the film to be mere coincidence.
Whether or not this town had any influence on the film it is still a place you need to visit. The restaurants and shops along Fall Street will give you plenty to do and well fed. The Women’s Rights National Historical Park was a delightful surprise to explore. You can walk across the bridge where the woman jumped and see the plaque dedicated to the young Italian man. Visit the It’s a Wonderful Life Museum, then take a short drive out to the Seneca Locks.
At the very least get off the busy interstates and take a drive along the scenic highways through the Finger Lakes. Discover this town for yourself. You may be surprised just how much you enjoy your time there just as I did. You may find yourself planning next year’s long weekend getaway to a town that by every means of comparison possible could be Bedford Falls, a town where George Bailey learned that the gift of life is the greatest gift of all.