SENECA FALLS, N.Y. - More than a decade ago, a barber named Tommy Bellissima either ended or added to the speculation that Seneca Falls, New York was the inspiration for Bedford Falls. Today that speculation has driven excitement and tourists to the Finger Lakes Village of Seneca Falls.
Many residents over the years had noticed similarities between their village and the fictional hometown of George Bailey in the holiday classic film, "It's A Wonderful Life", but it wasn't until Tommy's stories of a famous customer gave validation to the speculation.
In 1998, Bellissimo told me about one day in 1945, when director Frank Capra strolled into his shop and sat down in his chair. Bellissima remembered Capra's name because their families were from the same region of Italy, and they commented on each other's names. Bellissima means "beautiful" in Italian, Capra means "goat".
At around the same time that, according to Bellissima, Capra was traveling through town (Capra's mother lived nearby), a plaque was being dedicated on Seneca Fall's Bridge Street Bridge. It commemorated the sacrifice of Italian immigrant Antonio Varacalli. In 1917, Varacalli dove off the bridge to save a woman who was attempting to commit suicide. She survived, Varacalli did not.
The bridge just happens to be almost identical to the bridge that George Bailey jumps from to save the angel Clarence in the film. A scene that was not in the original screenplay, or the story upon which the movie is based, "The Greatest Gift". The scene was added later by Capra. Many here in Seneca Falls believe it was the heroics of Antonio Varacalli that inspired Capra.
There are other similarities, the architecture, the family names in the film, and the mentions of nearby cities Buffalo, Rochester and Elmira. The college that Harry Bailey attends in the movie was originally Cornell University, but the studio made Capra take the name out for fear that Cornell would want compensation. Seneca Falls is about 40 miles away from Cornell.
The speculation and stories have driven tourism in the past decade. There is an "It's A Wonderful Life Museum" and festival every December which now attracts visitors from around the world.
In fact two people who have become regulars at the festival are Karolynn Grimes and Carol Coombs-Mueller. They played Zu Zu and Janie Bailey in the film.
While there are plenty of skeptics to the notion, one person who is sold on the idea is Karolynn "ZuZu" Grimes. When she arrived in downtown Seneca Falls for the very first time, the streets were decorated for the season, a light Christmas snow was falling, and according the festival organizers, Grimes looked around and said "This IS it!"