Is Seneca Falls, New York, the inspiration for Bedford Falls, the fictional mill town setting for “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Frank Capra’s Christmas classic?
Capra visited the small town in 1945. He saw the canal, walked the streets past the Victorian houses, and noted the street names that led to small-town America. According to a New York historian, the main street, the local shop, and the winter’s heavy snow looks exactly like Seneca Falls.
The director even had his hair cut in a downtown barber shop where the barber gave him a precise description of the upstate New York town.
“Take a look at the steel bridge downtown with the big metal girders stretching across the canal,” the barber suggested.
It wasn’t long before Capra returned to Hollywood and began work on the beloved Christmas story. According to the historian, Capra had a reason for never naming Seneca Falls as his inspiration for the film.
Capra wanted everyone to identify with their own community.
The final scene in the movie shows George Bailey’s brother, Harry, raising a glass to George and saying, “A toast to my big brother George, the richest man in town.”
Harry is not talking about money. He is referring to the love and generosity of George’s family and friends when he needed it most.
It won’t be long until our own Bedford Falls-like weather arrives in our communities. The best feeling in the world is to walk downtown past the familiar landmarks, in a place we have long called home, as the snow begins to cover the sidewalks and store fronts.
The Murphy Theatre in Wilmington will still stand tall in all its grandeur, and a couple of doors down, the WALH Radio studio resides at the intersection of Main and South Streets.
But something will be missing this year. Lee Hendee is no longer with us. He passed away on May 19, 2017.
According to the WALH-LP FM radio website, “The small station was started by Lee Hendee of Wilmington, who had been in commercial radio for 50 years, as a non-profit community, low-power FM radio station. The numerous roadblocks by out-of-town concerns over an FCC license was simply too expensive and mentally draining on Lee, which contributed to his early demise.”
As I walked past the radio station the other day, I thought about Lee, and how he, like George Bailey in the Capra movie, was also “the richest man in town.”
Lee had countless friends and a loving family, which gave him his true wealth. The outpouring of love on Facebook at the time of his passing was extraordinary, coming from a diverse cross-section of people from within the Wilmington community. Young and old loved Lee.
Lee was a kind man, a gentle soul. He wouldn’t hurt a flea.
His daughter, Rachel Ann Hendee, captured the essence of her dad when she shared the story how when she was young, about five years old, knowing she liked Elvis Presley, her dad convinced her that Elvis was buried in Wilmington and Graceland was the big house that sat close to the cemetery. Lee’s story, from a loving, protective dad to his daughter, made Rachel feel good.
Rachel said that her dad never wanted to see her heart broken. When she was seven or eight years old, her cat, Simon, died. She said instead of telling her about the cat’s death, her dad gently told her that Simon had moved to Florida where he got a job. Rachel said her dad provided her with vivid updates, saying the cat called him at work to let him know how he was doing.
Rachel said her dad was always “pulling someone’s leg” or being tender, trying to bring comfort to those in pain.
A friend of Rachel mentioned on Facebook that Lee’s stories reminded her of Tim Burton’s movie, “Big Fish.”
Lee was a character, a dreamer, much like Edward Bloom, the storyteller in “Big Fish.” Edward crossed paths with a wide variety of people in his life as well, and who all showed up as he was carried to the local pond for his final swim as the Big Fish.
Regretfully, Lee Hendee never had a chance to say goodbye. He left us much too soon and without warning. His family and friends would give anything for just five minutes with him, but it would never be enough.
As the Christmas season approaches and the carols are sung, we will think of Lee and be reminded he was, by far, one of the richest men on earth.
Pat Haley is a Clinton County Commissioner.