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Clues that connect Seneca Falls to 'It's a Wonderful Life'

Insomnia Cured Here/It's A Wonderful Life (1946)
A scene from "It's a Wonderful Life"

Watching the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” is a holiday tradition for many. It takes on added significance in central New York because of the suspected connection between the fictional town of Bedford Falls and Seneca Falls.

Locals think they have a pretty convincing story that their town is the same one in the 1946 movie.

And for some diehards who watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” over and over, the holiday tradition extends to visiting Seneca Falls, the small canal town west of Syracuse. There they say they feel like they are in Bedford Falls, the fictional town that George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, never gets to leave.

Anwy Law is one of the volunteers at the It’s a Wonderful Life Museum and has seen fans make the connection.

“We get visitors who come here, who go to the bridge first. And without us even telling, or without them look at the Internet, they have a sense that this is it," said Law.

Frank Capra, the famed director of the movie, never publicly said that Seneca Falls was the inspiration for Bedford Fall. But that doesn’t stop locals from believing it. And they have one particular reason.

"We have discovered that Frank Capra came to town,” said Fran Caraccilo, a lifelong resident and volunteer at the It’s a Wonderful Life Museum.

Caraccilo says that really cemented the suspicion that Seneca Falls was the model for Bedford Falls. The story came out in 1997, when retired barber Tom Bellissima admitted something he’d known for years, but kept quiet about. He had given a haircut to Frank Capra.

Capra had been visiting his aunt in nearby Auburn when he stopped by for the haircut.  And Carracillo says after that, things in the movie, which was in development at the time, started changing.

"It wasn’t until after his visit here, while they were developing the screenplay, that Bedford Falls seemed to get its geographic fix. The references to Rochester, Buffalo, Elmira, and even Ithaca, something that doesn’t make it into the final film, didn’t get added till his final visit here,” said Caraccilo.

And another clue is the way the both towns looked -- with Gothic-style homes, an old bank that looked similar to the town’s savings and loan. Both were mill towns, with large Italian populations. And the median down the middle of the street looks like the one that George Bailey runs down towards the end of the movie.

"We had one, and it was here when Capra was here. But it was only on this one block. This block, by the way, was longer. The state refigured the intersection and doesn’t look the way it did when Capra was here, but we had the median down the middle of the street," said Caraccilo.

But the biggest physical connection is the bridge, which plays a huge part in the film.

Credit Ellen Abbott / WRVO News
The Bridge Street Bridge in Seneca Falls, N.Y. resembles the one in "It's a Wonderful Life."

"It seems the bridge scene, where George jumps in to save Clarence, who jumped from the bridge to save George, that didn’t happen until after his visit here,” said Caraccilo. "When Phillip Van Doren Stern, the author of the short story the movie is based on, first commissioned illustrations for his first formally published version of the story, the bridge was a different style bridge all together. But after he was here Capra chose a Pratt truss bridge, just like ours.”

And there’s another similarity between Seneca Falls’ bridge and the bridge in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” In 1917, a young man witnessed a woman jumping from the bridge in a suicide attempt, and jumped in to save her. He drowned. But there is a plaque on the bridge that tells the story of that man, Antonio Vericalli, who had been trying to raise enough money to bring his family from Italy. And when he died, the community came together and raised the money to bring his family over. Law says that it’s the spirit of the community that really ties it all together.

"When you see the plaque, it says he honors the community and the community honors him. That in essence is the end of the movie,” she said.

One believer is one of the few surviving members of the “It’s a Wonderful Life” movie cast, Karolyn Grimes, who played Zuzu. Grimes says the similarities are more than coincidence.

"It all ties together. It’s just there. And I really believe this is the town," said Grimes.

But she says the reason Capra never spoke to a Seneca Falls-Bedford Falls connection, goes to the heart of the movie.

"Because he wanted everyone to connect with their own hometown, their own community and to think that the little man was their own place.”