ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
The movie "It's a Wonderful Life" was released in 1946, and it still gets a wondrous amount of airtime around the holidays. But a museum dedicated to the movie's star is not living such a wonderful life.
Here's more from Larkin Page-Jacobs of member station WDUQ.
LARKIN PAGE-JACOBS: James Maitland Stewart grew up in Indiana, Pennsylvania, about an hour east of Pittsburgh. He's the town's favorite son and he even tells you when to cross the street.
(Soundbite of crosswalk beeps)
Unidentified Announcer: (as Jimmy Stewart) This is Jimmy Stewart. Philadelphia Street walk sign is on to cross Philadelphia Street.
COMPUTERIZED CROSSWALK VOICE: Eleven, 10, nine, eight...
PAGE-JACOBS: 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.
Mr. PAT WARD (Volunteer, Jimmy Stewart Museum): And way in the corner, a replica of his boyhood bedroom but with the originally elongated bed because he was so tall. But let's get started right over here.
PAGE-JACOBS: 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.
Mr. TIM HARLEY (Director, Jimmy Stewart Museum): We're accustomed to living frugally. We have a very small operation. Nonetheless, it's one that's very well received.
PAGE-JACOBS: 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 with the exception of "It's a Wonderful Life," Stewart's movies aren't being shown much anymore.
Mr. JOHN BUTZO (President, Board of Directors, Jimmy Stewart Museum): We don't want that to fade, and we want to be sure that people have some real heroes to think about. He certainly was one.
PAGE-JACOBS: If this were Bedford Falls in "It's a Wonderful Life," the museum would get a bailout.
(Soundbite of movie "It's a Wonderful Life")
Mr. FRANK FAYLEN (Actor): (as Ernie Bishop) Quiet everybody. Quiet. Quiet. Now get this, it's from London.
Ms. BEULAH BONDI (Actress): (as Mrs. Bailey) Oh.
Mr. FAYLEN: (as Ernie Bishop) Mr. Gower cabled you need cash. Stop. My office instructed to advance you up to $25,000. Stop.
Unidentified Group: Oh.
Mr. FAYLEN: (as Ernie Bishop) Hee-haw and Merry Christmas, Sam Wainwright.
Unidentified Group: Oh.
PAGE-JACOBS: 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. Two and a half hours after the museum opens, the first visitor of the day has yet to walk through the door. Finally, Cathy DeCaria and her husband arrive. She says it's family tradition to decorate the tree while watching the movie.
Ms. CATHY DeCARIA: Me, I'm an old movie nut anyways, and there's something about Jimmy Stewart. And the thought of losing this museum is sad. It's sad. So we made a special trip.
PAGE-JACOBS: The DeCarias are disappointed his movies haven't caught on with younger generations.
Ms. DeCARIA: We've become all Potters. Okay, Mr. Potters.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DeCARIA: Yeah, right.
Ms. DeCARIA: We're losing the George Baileys, okay?
Mr. DeCARIA: Right.
PAGE-JACOBS: George Bailey gave up his dreams to run the family business and fight off a town takeover by the 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.
For NPR News, I'm Larkin Page-Jacobs.
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