WATERLOO — Officials from the It’s A Wonderful Life museum in Seneca Falls appealed to the Seneca County Board of Supervisors Tuesday for $20,000 from its tourism promotion budget “so we can go to the next level’’ as a tourist destination.
The board’s Economic Development & Tourism Committee expressed support for the request, but tabled a motion to allocate the money until specific criteria or contract terms could be written to justify the one-time grant. The fund has some $100,000 available to grant the request.
Appearing before the committee were museum Board of Directors members Anwei and Henry Law, Francis Caraccilo and Janet Driscoll.
Using a PowerPoint presentation, they showed the board pictures of scenes from the classic 1946 Frank Capra movie “It’s A Wonderful Life,’’ starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. The movie has become one of the most popular holiday season movies ever and many in Seneca Falls believe that Capra based the Bedford Falls setting for the movie on Seneca Falls.
They point to Capra’s visit there several years prior to the movie to visit family in Auburn, stopping at Tommy Bellissima’s barber shop for a haircut while en route. They say he was made aware of the 1917 story of Antonio Varacalli, a young Italian immigrant working on the canal who lost his own life while saving a woman who jumped off the Bridge Street bridge in a suicide attempt.
Anwei Law showed some of the artifacts from the movie that are in the museum and noted that four of the five surviving actors from the movie come to Seneca Falls each December for the annual It’s A Wonderful Life Festival and they agree that the movie setting is likely Seneca Falls.
Capra’s grand-daughter has also come to the festival and also believes that Seneca Falls is the inspiration behind Bedford Falls.
“We are seeing an increasing number of visitors every year since we established the museum in 2013. This place is where believers choose to have the movie’s legacy shared with the world,’’ Law said.
Caraccilo said there were 11,747 visitors to the museum in 2018, coming from every state and 33 foreign countries. “They come all year round, not just at the holidays. Its becoming a destination for fans of the movie and its enduring message,’’ Caraccilo said.
He said the museum has grown from 20 items in one display case to hundreds of movie-related items in many display cases, so many that they are pressed for space to show it all.
“We need to move to the next level and we need your help,’’ Caraccilo said. He said most of the money the museum raises from the festival and other sources goes to pay to bring actors from the movie to Seneca Falls.
“The county has money from the room occupancy tax that is designated for tourism promotion. We feel taking the museum to the next level will make it a tourist destination that will bring more people to this area, bringing with them many economic benefits,’’ Caraccilo said.
Driscoll read a letter supporting the funding request from new board member Jeff Rook, who coordinates the annual It’s A Wonderful Life 5K run during the festival, an event that drew 5,500 runners last year.
A sales representative for ITT Goulds Pumps, Jeff Rook said he visits many smaller communities like Seneca Falls. “I urge you to take this opportunity to thrive with this movie museum. Not to do it could lead to a desolate situation,’’ he wrote.
Law said the 75th anniversary of the movie’s release will be in 2021 and the board plans to make it a huge celebration here in Seneca Falls, the only museum in the world dedicated to a black and white film. She said there are eight other movie museums in the world, “but none have a message that resonates with so many people, such as the value of the individual.’’ Law also said the board is working with a local suicide prevention group to incorporate the anti-suicide message that’s central to he movie to use in counseling sessions.
The board is working with Cornell University architect Caroline O’Donnell on ways to reconfigure the museum space at 32 Fall St. into a more meaningful experience about the movie. The building is the site of Seneca Falls first ever movie theater, opened by Italian immigrant Charles Fornesi, making a connection to Varacalli’s heroic efforts in 1917.
Committee chairman David Kaiser said the museum is an excellent candidate for the tourism funds. It was noted that the town of Seneca Falls contributed $5,000 each of the last two years, but that went primarily to help bring the actors to the festival.
The museum does not charge an admission fee.
After discussion, it was decided to amend a motion to provide the $20,000 from the tourism fund, but require a written contract or policy to spell out the benefits to the county in exchange for the money. The amended motion was then tabled until that can be prepared by County Attorney David Ettman.