Until I came to Indiana, Pennsylvania on this assignment – this specific trip – with the intent to tour the Jimmy Stewart Museum for this very story in fact – I had never been to this quaint city. Not that I can recall. And yet, everything here is oddly familiar.
I was walking the sidewalks and taking in the charming views and trying to recall if perhaps my parents had brought me here when I was much much younger. My sense of deja vous was running overtime. I would swear I had never been in this town before and yet, everything seemed familiar. The town square with the majestic courthouse – with the impressive dome on top. The cafes, small businesses – even the traffic patterns in and out of town. The willingness of folks in the middle of the day to give me directions and make recommendations. All of it was very familiar. Could my mind and my memory be betraying me? I thought I was much too young for these symptoms. If I had never been in Indiana Pa before, they why was the entire downtown area so familiar, so comfortable, so “at home?”
And then, my friends, it dawned on me. I knew. And I sat on the steps of the courthouse and smiled the most ridiculous grin because I was struck with an epiphany right then and there. I had been here before – here but not really here. Indiana, you see, is strikingly and hauntingly familiar to Bedford Falls – hometown of George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. It so resembles that town from the beloved movie that I admit I watch every year that I was transported. The town itself feels commissioned by a great movie director. I almost expect to walk into one of the stores and find out it’s nothing but an elaborate façade. But it’s not. This is real.
And it begs the questions – what came first? Indiana or It’s a Wonderful Life? Turns out, the two really could not exist currently without the other. Both are now inspired intertwined. And with good reason. This town, you see, is the hometown of Hollywood legend, icon, and everyone’s favorite leading man, Jimmy Stewart. And this is the home of the museum that bears not only his name, and his blessing, but artifacts and momentoes from what was indeed a wonderful life.
The resemblance to Bedford Falls here goes beyond the obvious here in Indiana. But it also begs the question – did the great Frank Capra make a little visit to his star’s hometown before shooting even began? There is so much here that mirrors the setting of that beloved movie. But It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t the only one of Stewart’s films that can be experienced and felt here.
“The Jimmy Stewart Museum is a definite must-see for film buffs and Jimmy fans alike! Over 6,000 visitors a year come to this one-of-a kind museum. We have had visitors from all 50 states and multiple countries from around the world. Jimmy Stewart’s legacy is alive and well in Indiana, PA and worth the visit to Stewart’s quaint hometown,” says Janie McKirgan, president and executive director of the Jimmy Stewart Museum, while giving this editor a jaw-dropping VIP tour. “There is so much to see and experience! Come and see for yourself what all the talk is about and learn about Jimmy Stewart’s wonderful life!”
James Maitland Stewart was born in Indiana, Pennsylvania, on May 20, 1908. The son of Elizabeth and Alexander Stewart, he achieved much in his lifetime. And most of what he accomplished can be appreciated in the museum here that bears his name.
And oh yes, opening in 1995, James Stewart did give his permission – albeit reluctantly – to open the museum. Once the founding committee agreed to his terms – to always keep the museum humble and accessible to all – he then began to furnish the museum with some of its contents – like his own personal office and some of the trophies and trinkets he had stored but had no permanent home for until the museum was established.
A letter he wrote upon the museum’s opening remains on display.
“I have always been proud of my hometown, Indiana, Pennsylvania. Not many days pass that I don’t think of my friends and the wonderful experiences I have shared with them in Indiana,” that letter reads. “It is a great source of pleasure to me that the Museum in my honor will be situated in Indiana, Pennsylvania directly across from where my father’s hardware store was located for so many years.”
Jimmy, as he was known by those close to him and his fans, attended Indiana Normal School, Mercersburg Academy, and Princeton University. His plans for the future entailed working at the J. M. Hardware Co. store that was started by his grandfather and passed down to his father. This never came to fruition although his father always told his son “if this acting thing doesn’t work out, you can always come home and take over the store.”
Jimmy graduated from Princeton with a degree in Architecture. Due to the Depression, Stewart thought there would not be many jobs available, so he took up an offer from a friend. He spent the next summer preparing a show for Broadway with the Falmouth Players. When the show headed to New York, Jimmy Stewart went too. And the acting bug hit.
In 1935, Stewart signed a contract with MGM studios and the rest is movie, Hollywood and Indiana, Pennsylvania history.
Legends like Jimmy Stewart are made, of course – woven from their life’s work on the flickering magical screen from a darkened movie theatre – but legends are also born and raised somewhere – and this is the hometown to one of our greatest. And a tour of the museum – which the Oscar winner actually supported – brings about a new respect for a man who was not only one of Pennsylvania’s proudest citizens, an Academy Award and Grammy winner, but a war hero who even flew a secret mission in Vietnam that – until the museum here opened – little knew about.
Jimmy Stewart went into semi-retirement in the early 1990s when health began to fail him. He retired permanently from public life after his beloved wife of forty-five years passed away.
On July 2, 1997, James Maitland Stewart died.
“He will be remembered as a talented actor, brave military hero, loving husband, good father, and a giant among men,” says McKirgan. “He leaves a legacy of honesty, hard work, and strong values. The Jimmy Stewart Museum is proud to exist and share his legacy with the world. He was a good man, a loyal citizen, and had a wonderful life. He indeed earned his wings!”
“Entering a building which houses a Museum named after me is a privilege I could never have anticipated,” Jimmy writes in that letter that hangs near the entrance. “I hope that its visitors will enjoy their stay here. After all, they are the ones who really built it.”