Wednesday, January 1, 2020

A Wonderful Life Recalled: The Jimmy Stewart Museum, Indiana, PA

Upteen broadcasts of It’s a Wonderful Life this past month have surely heightened interest (not that it was ever lagging) in its star, Jimmy Stewart. Scott Eyman’s dual bio of the actor and his longtime friend Henry Fonda, Hank and Jim, will go part of the way toward satisfying that appetite. 

But physical artifacts linger longer in the mind. So, if you want a visceral sense of what made this embodiment of American values tick, you should, if you have the chance, travel to the town of Indiana, PA, the actor’s birthplace, where his life and career are celebrated in the Jimmy Stewart Museum.

In keeping with the star’s own wishes, the building in his honor is understated and intended to boost the fortunes of his town (about an hour’s drive east of Pittsburgh). But casual fans of the actor will find a vast assortment of eye-opening material in this space (converted from the third floor of the borough’s public library, and adjacent to the original site of the Philadelphia Street hardware store his father owned and operated for years). And even I, a more intense devotee, wanted to linger longer when I visited the museum in October.

There was a whole gallery here devoted to It’s a Wonderful Life. But the material I found most of interest related to his own family growing up. In an almost tangible way, Stewart was able to invest so much in George Bailey because he related so much to him.

Watching It’s a Wonderful Life over the holidays (again!), I was struck more than previously by the relationship between George and his father Peter. There was the quiet but palpable paternal pride in an intelligent, ambitious son; the transmission of the values of hard work and looking out for others; the hope/expectation that the son would eventually take over the business; and the son’s fear that the daily grind of eking out a living in a small town that had daily sapped his father’s vitality would happen to him, too, if he didn’t escape. 

Like George Bailey, young Jimmy Stewart saw his original dream—building something big—frustrated. But unlike George, Jimmy did manage to get away from his hometown. Shortly after graduation from Princeton University, believing opportunities for advancing as an architect in the Great Depression would be limited, he decided to pursue an interest that had increasingly captivated his interest in college: acting. Stints in summer stock and Broadway led eventually to his journey out to Hollywood and, eventually, stardom. 

Jimmy’s son Michael noted that both his parents carried to Hollywood a “small-town Christian Presbyterian ethic that nobody owes you a living. If you have bad breaks, get up and move on.” Jimmy had seen how his own father, Alexander Stewart, had taken one blow after another—first a fire, then the Depression—and managed to keep his business afloat. He maintained the same work ethic.

Hard work was not the only belief instilled in the Stewart family. So was patriotism, best exemplified by service to one’s country. His ancestors served in the American Revolution, the War of 1812 and the Civil War, and during WWII Stewart became the most prominent Hollywood professional to serve in combat missions.

All of that translated to the screen, particularly in three films with his favorite director, Frank Capra (You Can’t Take It With You, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and It’s a Wonderful Life), in which Stewart carved out a remarkably enduring image as the embodiment of American decency and integrity. 

A timeline guides visitors chronologically through Stewart’s life, a 50-seat theater runs films about him, and a gift show includes must-have items for fans. 

Even so, I found most interesting the museum’s artifacts (many donated by the actor or his family), which testify both to Stewart’s near-endless variations on his Everyman image, as well as his film peers’ respect for his versatility, professionalism and kindness.

Among the items on display here are:

*Several of Stewart’s Army Air Corps and Strategic Air Command Reserve uniforms, including a military tuxedo;

*A gray, sweat-stained cowboy hat worn in seven of his westerns that he considered a good-luck charm;

*Scripts for several films, including his Oscar-nominated turn as the gentle tippler Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey;

*A room setting with original items from the office he kept in Hollywood;

*A replica of the booth where he usually dined with his wife in the famous Beverly Hills celebrity eatery Chasen’s; and,

*A fiberglass statue of Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

A sign in the museum prominently features the advice Stewart gave each of his daughters as they went away to college: “Always remember: be nice to people.” Words simple, unpretentious and true, taken to heart forever in the town where he grew up.

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