Christmas in a real-life Bedford Falls

Seneca Falls, New York
A sign hanging in the town of Seneca Falls, N.Y., which claims to be the real town depicted in the film "It's a Wonderful Life."
CBS News

A 65-year-old movie is the talk of the town. Bill Geist explains why.

On Christmas morning what better place to be than Seneca Falls, New York, where they proudly proclaim their little town to be the inspiration for Bedford Falls, the setting for the Christmas classic "It's a Wonderful Life"?

The signs are everywhere - as are the T-shirts.

Even the postmark says it's so.

They took the idea and ran with it. The old hotel has been renamed Clarence, after the film's angel who earns his wings by saving George Bailey. The Zuzu Cafe is named after one of George's daughters.

They hold the "It's a Wonderful Life" festival each December, where fans gather to celebrate their favorite film.

"It's like a Mecca for "Wonderful Life' fans, absolutely," said one visitor.

And this year, fans lined up to meet two real actors from the 1946 film, stars once more: Karolyn Grimes, who played Zuzu; and Carol Coombs-Mueller, who played her sister Janie.

Grimes had "six minutes" in the movie, but also one of the most memorable lines in film history: "Daddy, Teacher says every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings."

Fans came from near ("We're from Elmira, N.Y.; Elmira is mentioned in 'It's a Wonderful Life'!") and far ("I'm sure I have the largest 'It's a Wonderful Life' collection in western Canada," said Jeremy. "Now I have this shirt made for me by a friend which is even signed by Karolyn Grimes and Carol Coombs, so now it's complete!").

They view rare artifacts at the "It's a Wonderful Life" museum.

All wonderful, as they say around here - but how do they know for sure that this IS Bedford Falls?

"The proof is in the movie," said curator Anwei Law, "and I think it's pretty convincing."

Fran Caracillo tries to offer further proof on his walking tours: A house in the movie goes by the address 320 Sycamore; Caracillo showed us a house at 32 Cuyahoga Street. "Maybe a coincidence? We don't know," he said.

He'd been making note of the parallels, when out of the blue, "the barber approached me and he shyly, very shyly said, 'You know, I cut Frank Capra's hair.'" The smoking gun! ,/P>

Barber Tom Bellissima's story proved to Caracillo that director Frank Capra had actually BEEN to Seneca Falls.

"We think that he drove to Seneca Falls, parked his car and walked around and met Tom Bellissima, got a haircut, saw the bridge, saw the plaque on the bridge, took all of that back to Hollywood with him, and found its way into the film," said Caracillo.

The plaque on the bridge tells the true story of a hero, Antonio Varacalli, who on April 12, 1917 jumped off and gave his life saving that of another.

In the original story, titled "The Greatest Gift," the character of George Bailey never jumps. "He's on the bridge, he's looking in the water, but never leaps," said Caracillo.

Caracillo believes that after Capra's visit here, he wrote in the famous scene where George takes the plunge to save Clarence.

Coincidence? "I don't know, I don't think so," Caracillo said.

He says the Bedford Falls look-a-like initiative has spurred tourism here.

"Once upon a time," Caracillo said, "people would show up in December, maybe into January asking about 'It's a Wonderful Life.' Now it's all year round - So, this is the real Bedford Falls? This IS the real Bedford Falls."

Now you should know, there are some spoil sports.

Indeed there's a film historian, a friend of Capra's who oversees his archive, who says that in all his years of talking and writing about the film the director never once mentioned Seneca Falls.

Geist didn't interview her: "I kind of like this Christmas story just the way it is," he said.

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