Jimmy Stewart Museum Needs A Bailout03:29

Actor Jimmy Stewart, shown with Donna Reed, in a still from the 1946 film <em>It's A Wonderful Life</em>, directed by Frank Capra. (RKO Pictures/Getty Images)
Actor Jimmy Stewart, shown with Donna Reed, in a still from the 1946 film It's A Wonderful Life, directed by Frank Capra. (RKO Pictures/Getty Images)

For many, the movie It's a Wonderful Life is a holiday staple, but life isn't so wonderful these days at the Jimmy Stewart Museum in Pennsylvania.

Just as Bailey Building and Loan fought to keep its doors open in the movie, the Jimmy Stewart Museum is trying to stay afloat. The museum is housed in the third story of a library where volunteer Pat Ward greets visitors.

Stewart called the people who paid to see his movies his "partners," and museum director Tim Harley says that generation of fans is fading, as evidenced by the slip in attendance. In 2000, it peaked at 10,000 visitors; this year, the museum will be lucky to get 5,000.

The bus tours for seniors that once comprised a big share of gate receipts has dropped off, and so has funding from the state of Pennsylvania. Harley says what they really need is an endowment to make sure the roughly $150,000 they use to operate will always be there.

"We are accustomed to living frugally; we have a very small operation," he says. "Nonetheless, it's one that's very well received."

John Butzo is president of the museum's board and sees the organization as a last stand between Stewart and the disappearance of his legacy. He says that with the exception of It's a Wonderful Life, Stewart's movies aren't being shown much anymore.

"We don't want that to fade, and we want to be sure that people have some real heroes to think about," he says. "He certainly was one."

If this were Bedford Falls in It's a Wonderful Life, the museum would get a bailout.

Lights circle the elevator entrance to the Jimmy Stewart Museum in Indiana, Pa., in 1999. The hall is decorated with movie posters, notes from movie studio executives, and this large mural depicting Bedford Falls, the mythical town in the film It's A Wonderful Life. (Keith Srakocic /AP)

But this isn't Bedford Falls, and Butzo is worried about what will happen six months from now since the locals aren't in a position to help.

On a recent day, the first visitor of the day has yet to walk in more than two hours after the doors opened. Finally, Cathy DeCaria and her husband arrive. She says it's family tradition to decorate the tree while watching the movie.

"Me, I'm an old movie nut anyways, and there's something about Jimmy Stewart," DeCaria says tearily. "And the thought of losing this museum is sad. It's sad. So we made a special trip."

The DeCarias are disappointed his movies haven't caught on with younger generations.

"We've become all Potters OK -- Mr. Potters. We're losing the George Baileys."

George Bailey gave up his dreams in order to run the family business and fight off a town takeover by slumlord Henry Potter. The museum hopes the goodwill engendered by Stewart's characters and Stewart himself will give it the financial staying power to keep him from fading away.

Copyright NPR 2022.




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