Even 70 years after the now-iconic film first premiered (and subsequently flopped), “It’s a Wonderful Life” continues to be a major economic driver in Seneca Falls, New York, the town that Bedford Falls is based on.
The classic Frank Capra story is a memorable one about gratitude — George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) is having dire financial problems, and attempts suicide but is saved by a guardian angel named Clarence (Henry Travers). Clarence shows Bailey what life would be like in the rural town if he hadn’t been born, changing his perspective completely.
Nostalgic fans flock to Seneca Falls every December for the four-day “It’s a Wonderful Life” festival to get autographs from 76-year-old Karolyn Grimes, who played Zuzu, and 81-year-old Carol Coombs, who played Zuzu’s older sister, Janie. Frank Capra’s granddaughter Monica Capra Hodges delivers a special presentation at the “It’s a Wonderful Life” museum. There’s a parade, crafts for kids, horse-drawn carriage rides, and an ugly sweater party.
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The festival started modestly as a one-day celebration in 1995. That changed when Karolyn Grimes’ first visited in 2002. Grimes, who played Zuzu Bailey (George’s daughter) in the film, “added an entire dimension that we originally lacked,” Francis Caraccilo, a Seneca Falls resident who has been involved with the festival since the beginning, told the Democrat and Chronicle.
The event draws more tourists each year from places as far flung as Nova Scotia, said Becky Bly, who owns a gift shop in the village’s business district and is president of the Seneca Falls Business Association.
Year round, fans can visit the It’s A Wonderful Life Museum on 32 Fall Street, which features a range of memorabilia from Grimes and other members of the cast. The museum, which opened in 2010, is also the starting point for the “It’s a Wonderful Life” walking tour of Seneca Falls. A map guides visitors to 13 nearby sites, including the Bridge Street Bridge, the Fall Street Business District, and the Seneca Falls Post Office, which offers a special Bedford Falls cancellation stamp during the festival, according to The Democrat and Chronicle.
“We felt that there needed to be a year-round connection for people to touch base with the movie,” Caraccilo said. “I’ve had people come in and burst into tears, or do a little dance. We get the full gamut of emotions, but it seems to touch everybody.”
The infamous Hotel Clarence (today, The Gould Hotel) books solid the weekend of the festival, with rates upwards of $299 a night. Original construction began on The Gould Hotel in 1919. When it opened in 1920, The Syracuse Journal claimed it was “the most complete and perfectly equipped of the smaller hotels of New York State. Four stories in height, absolutely fireproof in construction and equipped in perfect taste and convenience, it is scheduled to become the Mecca for travelers and autoists between Rochester and Syracuse.”
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Years later, the hotel was developed as apartments, which were largely vacant. By the 1980s, the building fell into disrepair until JGB Enterprises purchased the property in 2007 and reopened it in 2009 as Hotel Clarence, modeled after the construction of the fictional Hotel Clarence.
After a series of upgrades, the hotel was turned into a modern boutique hotel with 48 rooms and suites. It was renamed the Gould Hotel in 2013 in honor of manufacturer Goulds Pumps. The epicenter of the “It’s a Wonderful Life” festival, the hotel’s redevelopment has been part of a larger, citywide effort to make Seneca Falls a tourist destination—all of which seems to be working quite well.