Pennsylvania Historic Preservation

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It’s a Wonderful Life

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We all know the story of the classic American film, It’s a Wonderful Life. But did you know that the star of this quintessential holiday film is a Pennsylvanian? And that there is a Pennsylvania Historical Marker for this star?

Pennsylvania’s Jimmy Stewart

James “Jimmy” Maitland Stewart was born in Indiana, Indiana County, Pennsylvania on May 20, 1908. His family has strong roots in Pennsylvania and his father ran the successful J.M. Stewart & Co. Hardware Store on Philadelphia Street in Indiana. Stewart attended Indiana’s Wilson Model School through junior high school before transferring to Mercersburg Academy for high school.

J.M. Stewart and Co. Hardware Store on Philadelphia Street in Indiana, PA. Jimmy Stewart is recognizable at far right. Image dated January 1930.

Originally on a course to become an architect, Stewart’s interests at Princeton University led him to the career we all know and love: acting. Like most aspiring actors, Stewart moved to New York City in 1932 and spent the next nine years working his way up to becoming an American heartthrob and Hollywood movie star.

In February 1941, Stewart became the first major American move star to enlist and fight in World War II. Among his many accomplishments and activities during the war, Stewart served as deputy commander of the 2nd Bombardment Wing of the Air Force and actively recruited airmen through film and radio.

A Christmas Classic

Stewart returned to the United States in 1945 and initially decided to return to Indiana, Pennsylvania and run the family business on Philadelphia Street.

Friend and director Frank Capra asked Stewart to stay in the acting business and take on the character of George Bailey in his 1946 film It’s A Wonderful Life. In the film, Bailey, who lives in the fictional town of Bedford Falls, contemplates suicide on Christmas Eve and is saved by an angel who convinces him that his family and friends are not better off without him.

Stewart with co-stars Donna Reed (left) and Karolyn Grimes (right) in a screenshot from the film.

Nominated for five Academy Awards and only modestly successful at the box office, It’s A Wonderful Life is now considered one the 100 best American movies of all time and has become a staple of Christmas entertainment. Stewart’s George Bailey is also listed as a “hero” in the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest Heroes and Villains.

Stewart’s Indiana Legacy

In Indiana, Stewart is recognized and celebrated as a hometown hero. A museum dedicated to Stewart, his military service, and his career opened in Indiana 1995. A statue of Stewart stands on the lawn of the Indiana County Courthouse and the local airport has also been renamed in his honor. A Pennsylvania Historical Marker for Stewart was dedicated at 9th and Philadelphia Streets in downtown Indiana on July 2, 1998.

Jimmy Stewart marker. Photographed by Mike Wintermantel, February 27, 2011. Image from Historical Markers database at https://www.hmdb.org/m.asp?m=40565.

So, as you watch It’s A Wonderful Life, whether its for the 1st or 100th time this holiday season, thank a Pennsylvanian!

Happy holidays!

Author: Shelby Weaver Splain

Shelby Weaver Splain is the Education and Outreach Coordinator for the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office. Shelby is a native of Bucks County and holds a Masters degree in Historic Preservation Planning from Cornell University and a Bachelor of Arts with Honors in Historic Preservation from Goucher College.

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