Wendy Royal Winter 2017
I’ve been a small-town girl my entire life, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Small towns can be found throughout Pennsylvania. While each is unique, they all have one thing in common: a big heart. There’s something magical about a fresh blanket of snow and the tree-lined streets of Lititz, Pa., where I grew up. Add Christmas, and you have a Frank Capra film.
There is a town in western Pennsylvania where the name George Bailey is only overshadowed by the name of the man who portrayed him in the classic film “It’s a Wonderful Life.” James Maitland Stewart was born on May 20, 1908, in Indiana, Pa., to Elizabeth and Alex Stewart. Jimmy was the oldest of three children.
The Stewarts lived an idyllic life in Indiana. Alex owned the J.M. Stewart & Co. Store, which had been in the family since 1848. As one of the town’s most prominent families, the Stewarts were able to support and encourage their son’s inquisitive nature.
Jimmy grew up in a loving home and learned pride and patriotism from an early age. Pennsylvania was home to the Stewart family prior to the American Revolution, and some fought in that war. His father was a veteran of the Spanish-American War. As the nation entered WWI, Alex enlisted in the infantry at the age of 46. While his father was at war, Jimmy supported the cause at home by putting on patriotic plays for friends in his basement.
Jimmy graduated from Princeton in 1932 with a degree in architecture. With little work available for an architect during the Great Depression, Jimmy decided to pursue his love of acting. His first full-length film came in 1935 in “Murder Man,” starring Spencer Tracy.
“Dad made a point of movie-going when a show of mine was in town,” Jimmy once said, “but all my shows seemed to make him drowsy. When he talked to me about one of my pictures, I could always tell at which point he’d gone to sleep.”
Although his father had hoped Jimmy would join him in the family hardware business, he was very proud of him. In addition to attending his movies when they came to town, Jimmy’s father kept a scrapbook and photos that he displayed in the hardware store. Incredibly, Jimmy Stewart’s 1941 Academy Award for Best Actor for “The Philadelphia Story” was displayed in the Indiana hardware store window until Alex died in 1961.
The patriotism and sense of duty that Jimmy felt from an early age burned within him as America entered WWII. In March of 1941, Jimmy reported for duty as Pvt. James M. Stewart in the Army Air Corps. Jimmy’s service to his country was not merely a publicity stunt; he was commander and group operations officer, which gave him the responsibility for planning the missions his squad carried out. From 1943 to 1945, he earned six Battle Stars, the Distinguished Flying Cross, with two Oak Leaf Clusters and France’s highest honor, the Croix de Guerre. In all, Jimmy flew more than 20 combat missions over Europe. When Jimmy returned from the war in 1945, he came home to Indiana. True to his nature, he refused the hero’s welcome that was being planned for his return.
Shortly thereafter, Jimmy returned to Hollywood and his acting career, where he created some of the most memorable characters of all time. Of Jimmy’s 94 film credits, “It’s a Wonderful Life” was his favorite. Dec. 20, 2016, marks the 70th anniversary of the film’s release.
Jimmy stayed very close to his family during his filmmaking years. In addition to his visits to Indiana, his parents would also travel to see him. It is said that on one such trip, Alex was very discouraged to find out that his son was no longer attending church on Sunday mornings. Alex left Jimmy’s house and returned with two elders from a church three blocks away. Jimmy attended church from that time on.
HONORING A LEGEND
In 1993, a group of Indiana citizens began to meet about establishing a museum to honor the town’s favorite son. Though Jimmy initially rejected the idea, he agreed once it was explained that the museum would lend a financial boost to his hometown. But Jimmy insisted that it be modest and if possible located in downtown Indiana. It was decided that the museum would be housed in the library building adjacent to where his father’s hardware store used to be.
The Jimmy Stewart Museum opened May 20, 1995, Jimmy’s 87th birthday. Much of the extensive collection came from Jimmy himself. The museum is home to Jimmy’s military and film memorabilia, as well as artifacts from the Stewarts’ family life in Indiana. It’s not fancy, which is exactly the way the actor wanted it.
The museum has a 50-seat theater where Stewart retrospectives, biogra
phies and films can be screened.
The gallery is laid out in a timeline of Stewart’s private and professional life. Among the artifacts on display are two flight suits worn by Brig. Gen. Stewart, as well as a dress blue uniform and his military tuxedo. Also included in the collection are many awards and photographs spanning his military career.
The museum’s newest exhibit celebrates the December 1946 release of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” with images from the museum’s collection as well as an email that the museum received at the time of Jimmy’s death and how the movie personally affected the sender.
Visitors to the Jimmy Stewart Museum come from all over the world and are made up of all age groups. The museum has been featured on AMC, CNN, CBS, A&E, Disney, the BBC and more.
IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE
The holidays are a special time at the Jimmy Stewart Museum. It will hold an open house on Friday, Nov. 18, as part of Indiana’s Light Up Night. The museum will be decorated with several Jimmy Stewart-themed trees and other decorations. The following afternoon, the museum will host a book signing followed by the annual George Bailey Dinner at 6 p.m. at Indiana’s Rustic Lodge.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” will be shown in the theater at 1 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays from Nov. 19 until Dec. 18.
Each year, the entire town pays tribute to its native son by hosting the It’s A Wonderful Life Festival. The 2016 event will kick off on Nov. 18 with a parade and will continue on weekends through Friday, Dec. 23. Each weekend will feature holiday music, including entertainment provided by local schools, churches and instrumental groups, as well as Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) performances and tours of the museum. All new decorations will adorn the town, creating a festive atmosphere for everyone.
Nov. 18 – In addition to the parade, marshmallow roasting, hayrides, entertainment, holiday activities for families and the arrival of Santa! The whole town will sparkle as it celebrates the season, with each storefront decorated for the occasion.
Nov. 19-20 – Families will enjoy all the holiday activities in IRMC Park, Indiana’s two-year-old downtown pedestrian plaza. Among the highlights will be Santa and two of his reindeer. There will also be a baby reindeer that children can pet.
Dec. 9-11 – An old-fashioned Christmas awaits visitors this weekend. Period costumes, old-fashioned activities and treats and an antique sleigh will be featured. In addition, a Holiday Home Tour of historic properties adorned in their holiday finery will take place.
Dec. 16-18 – A Family Fun Weekend featuring the “It’s A Wonderful Life” Family Fun Run where runners of all ages take to the streets of Indiana dressed as their favorite character from the movie or in any holiday-themed costume. There will also be a Christmas sing-along.
Adding to Indiana’s holiday appeal is the fact that the surrounding area is dotted with Christmas tree farms, giving it the honor of the “Christmas Tree Capital of the World.” Fleming’s Christmas Tree Farms will hold its annual Family Fun Weekends from Nov. 29 through Dec. 13. Pick out your Christmas tree and enjoy horse-drawn wagon rides, food, children’s activities and Santa.
Fleming’s annual Trees for Troops event will be held on Saturday, Dec. 3. During the event, people may buy trees at a special price to be distributed to military bases throughout the world. Since the event began in 2009, more than 1,500 trees have been donated. Families will enjoy live music, face painting, a visit from Santa and the opportunity to meet soldiers.
From Saturday, Nov. 12, through Saturday, Dec. 10, IUP’s University Museum will feature the exhibit “Holiday Wheels and Thrills: A Model Train Display.” Admission is free.
The community that helped shape the life of one of America’s most beloved actors still gives residents and visitors the feel of small-town America, but it also offers entertainment and cultural events that larger cities enjoy.
In a scene from “It’s a Wonderful Life” Clarence, the angel says to George Bailey, “One man’s life touches so many other lives; when he isn’t around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”
Jimmy Stewart’s life certainly touched so many, but what he left behind in Indiana is a proud and thriving community.
Located southeast of Indiana in Dilltown is The Dillweed Inn Bed & Breakfast. Each year the B&B’s Parlor Players delight guests with an old-fashioned evening of storytelling. The performances of “Christmas Stories” on Dec. 3 and 4 will fill you with the spirit of the season. Dessert and beverages are included in the $16 ticket price.
Then, on Friday through Monday, Dec. 9 to 12, and Friday through Sunday, Dec. 16 to 18, the Indiana Players will present “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” a joyful tribute to the holiday season at the Dillweed.