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‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ runs deep in Seneca Falls, with this columnist

As I sit here, typing this on Sunday morning, less than 24 hours after participating in my first 5k road race, parts of my 66-year-old body are barking at me big-time for not sticking to the plan. My sore back, arthritic knees and aching quadriceps are screaming, “We told you so, you foolish geezer!” They’re reminding me I should have walked the 3.1 miles through the festive, decked-out streets of picturesque Seneca Falls.

But sometimes plans are meant to be scrapped. Sometimes the soul overrules the body and mind. As I joined the scrum of 4,100 racers herding across the steel truss bridge over the Erie Canal for the start of It’s a Wonderful Run 5K late Saturday afternoon, my younger me informed my older me there had been a change in plans.

Suddenly, inexplicably, I found myself jogging. I huffed and puffed for a few blocks, before downshifting my locomotive body to a brisk walk. After another block, I began jogging again, then down-shifted once more. And, so, it went. Jog. Walk. Jog. Walk. Jog. Walk. My spirits clearly were buoyed by my fellow runners and walkers, and by the townsfolk who had congregated outside their houses, exhorting us with encouraging words, applause, high-fives, pats-on-the-back, cups of water and cups of other libations more spirited. Fireball, anyone? How about a screwdriver?

While recounting that race on my keyboard, the stiffness and pain persist. But so does the joy that comes from accomplishing something one doesn’t think possible. I’m so glad the young me took charge of the old me. It’s been a while since I’ve hurt so good.

My goals entering the race were modest. Make sure you finish. Make sure you don’t finish last. And make sure you finish upright. Vertical. Not horizontal. As it turned out, I ended up in 1,708th place and 31st among the 53 males in my age bracket. No medals for that, but I’m content. Sometimes you win just by finishing.

That I would choose this race and this village was by design. After a year when serious health issues forced me to confront my mortality, I needed to do something special and go somewhere special to make me feel alive again. I figured this quaint mill town during the Christmas season would be the ideal setting to boost my spirits because of all its connections to one of the most uplifting movies I’ve ever seen and re-seen more times than I can remember.

Count me among the many who believe the fictitious village of Bedford Falls in the film, “It’s A Wonderful Life,” was inspired by Seneca Falls. Though director Frank Capra never mentioned the ties between the two in his memoirs, the coincidences are numerous. Too numerous, in my mind, to ignore.

With references in the movie to Rochester, Buffalo and Elmira, it’s evident Bedford Falls is some place in Upstate New York. The downtown architecture lighted by globe-topped street lamps, and the bridge over the canal seem similar. Each Falls boasts a large Italian community, and each features a neighborhood where people of modest means can live comfortably. In “It’s A Wonderful Life,” that neighborhood is known as “Bailey Park,” named after a family-owned building and loan, while in real-life Seneca Falls it is called “Rumseyville,” after one of the town’s large pump manufacturers.

The clincher, though, may be the riveting scene where a frustrated, beaten-down-by-life George Bailey contemplates suicide by jumping off a bridge before guardian angel Clarence intervenes. It bears strong similarities to a true Seneca Falls story.

On April 12, 1917, Antonio Varacalli leapt into the icy canal waters to save a girl who attempted suicide by jumping off the Bridge Street bridge. Varacalli saved her life, but was overcome by fatigue and hypothermia from the rescue and drowned. A bronze plaque commemorating his heroism was placed on the bridge, and it’s possible that Capra walked by it during a visit to a nearby barbershop in late 1945 while traveling to visit relatives just down the road in Auburn. At the time of his haircut, Capra reportedly was in the early planning stages of “It’s A Wonderful Life.” So, who’s to say he wasn’t influenced by Varacalli’s life-saving sacrifice and incorporated it into the script?

While passing by the plaque Saturday, I thought about Varacalli and the George Bailey character played so magnificently by Jimmy Stewart. And I thought about Clarence, the simple-minded, kind-hearted angel who showed the despondent Bailey the incredible void that would have been felt by so many had he not been born.

Near the race’s starting line, Karolyn Grimes waved and wished all of us a safe journey. Now 81, she was the child actor who played Bailey’s adorable daughter, Zuzu. Upon hearing a Christmas tree ornament ring in one of the movie’s most memorable scenes, Zuzu tells her father that every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings. George smiles and thinks of Clarence.

As I trudged down Cayuga Street and prepared to turn onto Fall Street for the final leg of my jog/walk, tree limbs and traffic lights began swaying and the rain started pelting us. Chimes rang out from the bell tower of Trinity Church. Perhaps another angel had just earned his wings. The combination of wind, rain and chimes prompted me to start running again. I was determined to end the race with some sort of flourish, maybe even a sprint. As we rumbled toward the finish line, numerous drenched runners who had already completed the course began cheering.

I felt like George Bailey in that final scene when the community of Bedford Falls rallied around him in his moment of need.

I felt wonderful.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.


  1. Great story Scott. I had a Wonderful Life experience last week here in Ocala. The equivlent to GEVA, the Ocala Community Theater in playing Wonderful Life with a twist. They are broadcasting the story on the radio set in the 50’s. Really well done. Merry Christmas and keep running.

  2. Growing up in that area, this is a great story. One that makes me think of all the small town heroes that are in every town all over the country. More now than ever, we need a good story. Thanks for sharing

  3. Thanks, Frank. I had heard about people doing “It’s a Wonderful Life” on the radio. I would love to hear a broadcast like that. Thanks for reading, and Merry Christmas to you, too.

  4. Thanks, Joe. Yes, there are so many small town heroes, and it’s important to remember those good people. Inspiration is all around us. Even during these challenging times. Thanks for reading.

  5. Thanks, George…oh I mean Scot!! Thanks for sharing and inspiring, as you do so often. Especially in times like these, we need to focus more on the high notes as a reminder that, truly, “It’s A Wonderful life”!


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