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The meaning of 'It's a Wonderful Life' resonates even more in challenging times

ROCHESTER, NY (WXXI) - Jimmy Hawkins was just 4½ years old when he rose before dawn each morning to take a bus and a streetcar to a Culver City, California, movie set to work with some of Hollywood's biggest stars. That was 75 years ago. Today, that movie he was working on — "It's a Wonderful Life" — is a Christmas classic. An annual  festival honoring the film has brought Hawkins and some of his surviving cast members to Seneca Falls multiple times in the last decade or so. This week, six of the former child actors will travel to the Finger Lakes town that claims a connection with the movie's fictional Bedford Falls.

Hawkins has vivid memories of portraying Tommy Bailey, one of George (Jimmy Stewart) and Mary (Donna Reed) Bailey's four kids. He specifically recalls director Frank Capra explaining that he wanted him to drape tinsel over Stewart's head while seated in his lap. "I was wearing a Santa Claus mask, and inside the mask, it was very rough like sandpaper. Every time he (Stewart) pulled me in, it would hike up and scrape my cheek," he said with a laugh. "I thought, 'When is this man going to stop doing this?'" At that point in the movie, George Bailey is starting to unravel, soured by disappointment over his lost dreams and tempted to end it all by jumping off a bridge. The character's inner turmoil was no doubt lost on the young Hawkins at the time, but he and his former co-stars know that the movie's theme never seems to grow old. "We believe in Frank Capra's message that each man's life touches so many others that if they weren't around, it would leave an awful hole," he said.

Maybe that's something people need to be reminded of especially in this time of pandemic and political divide. Just like George Bailey discovers, life is pretty good when you realize that you're needed and valued. Anwei Law, president of the  Seneca Falls It's a Wonderful Life Museum's board of trustees, said that idea might resonate with people even more now. "There've been a lot of opportunities for 'George Bailey moments' — those times when people come together," Law said. "When you think about the film, you can't really have those moments unless you have a crisis." This theme of promoting the value of each person will be celebrated throughout the coming year in Seneca Falls. Law said it ties in nicely with the town's history of individuals making a difference in women's rights, for instance. Whether Seneca Falls can claim a connection to Capra's Bedford Falls is another matter. A lot of people believe Frank Capra visited a Seneca Falls barbershop and heard how Antonio Varacalli drowned in the barge canal in 1917 while rescuing a woman who attempted suicide. The bridge overlooking the canal does look a lot like the steel truss bridge George Bailey jumps from to save his guardian angel, Clarence. But not everyone is convinced there's a connection. "I regret that I have to play the role of Mr. Potter, you know, the villain in 'It's a Wonderful Life,'" said film historian Jeanine Basinger. She is the curator of the Frank Capra film archive and personal records at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. According to Basinger, who said she was "great friends" with Capra, the director kept a detailed diary — and it never mentioned Seneca Falls. "Frank Capra, in his lifetime, never recorded a visit to Seneca Falls, said he had heard this story or indicated he knew anything about it," she said, "and we have to go with that evidence because he kept records of everything; he was a meticulous recorder of detail."

That's not to say Seneca Falls wasn't the inspiration for someone else involved in the film. Basinger said the script went through a dozen or so revisions before Capra bought the rights to it. It's possible one of those writers had a Seneca Falls connection. Either way, the debate is not expected to dampen the excitement of this year's extended  five-day festival. In addition to meeting Hawkins and other actors who portrayed the Bailey kids, festivalgoers will have a chance to see the 1919 Dodge touring car that Jimmy Stewart drove — and crashed — in the movie. There's also a parade, a  screening of "It's a Wonderful Life" at the Eastman Museum's Dryden Theatre, and a re-enactment of the final scene of the film following a dinner at the Seneca Falls Country Club. "As you get older, it means more to you in different ways," Law said of the movie, "because you're going through different things in your life and so it grows old with us."