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Weekend in Bedford Falls

SENECA FALLS, N.Y. — Tonight, in a snow-swept town south of Syracuse, I stepped foot in Bedford Falls for the first time.

Sort of.

Thoroughly convinced that “It’s a Wonderful Life” director Frank Capra used its little town as the prototype for  Bedford Falls in his Christmas classic, the people here launched a Wonderful Life Festival 12 years ago. And so, as the author of 52 Little Lessons From It’s a Wonderful Life, I was invited this year to join Zuzu (Karolyn Grimes), Janie (Carol Coombs-Mueller) and Donna Reed’s youngest daughter, Mary Owen, as special guests at the event.

Tonight, the festival committee put on a dinner for us at — well, of course — Martini’s, an Italian-Irish bar that, this weekend, gets turned into the place where George Bailey gets a punch in the mouth from — well, of course — a character known as “Mr. Welch.” Later, in the movie, George drops by with Clarence the Angel, who, to save the suicidal man, takes George back to see what life would have been like without him.

As does Clarence in the movie, I asked the bartender for “mulled wine, heavy on the cinnamon and light on the cloves.”

He didn’t laugh. He’s probably heard that a few thousand times over the years.

But besides him, the folks here throw themselves into this event with great gusto. She Who Wanders and I are staying in a 97-year-old hotel known as the Hotel Clarence. The film plays continuously in the lobby from Thanksgiving to Christmas.

“Used to be all year round,” says a hotel clerk.

And the three-day weekend offers no fewer the 59 events, including a parade, fun run, bonfire, Christmas tree lighting, Dance by the Light of the Moon Swing contest and An Evening at Bailey Park.

With nearly 10,000 people expected to nearly double the size of the town, the event — and the year-round Wonderful Life Museum — have infused economic life in a community reeling from the loss of big companies  that have left.

As an unabashed fan of the movie, I ate up the Wonderful LIfe conversation over our festive dinner, 40 of us packed into the bar’s back room. How often do you get to talk with Donna Reed’s daughter about attending Beverly Hills High in the 1970s and actually swimming in the pool that lay beneath the gym floor?

Talk to folks in the community who know people who remember seeing Capra in town in the mid-1940s, shortly before the movie came out?

Ask Janie — “Oh, daddy,” she says as a distraught George tells her to keep playing the piano — to please pass the bread?

With snow in the forecast, it’s all adding up to a wonderful weekend — if not life — in a community that calls itself “The Real” Bedford Falls.

Me with Janie (Carol Coombs-Mueller) .

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