Thursday, December 26, 2013

For Jimmy Stewart Museum, a Not-So-Wonderful Plight

INDIANA, Pa.—It used to be a wonderful life at the Jimmy Stewart Museum.
Every year before Christmastime, bus loads of senior citizens would come to the actor's hometown to see costumes and scripts from his 81 movies, his childhood bed and the red leather booth excavated from the acclaimed, now-shuttered Chasen's Restaurant in Hollywood. The Stewart family dined there on Sunday mornings and Thursday evenings.

Often, guests would stop in the museum's 50-seat theater for a special holiday viewing of Mr. Stewart's 1946 classic "It's a Wonderful Life," which tells the story of George Bailey, whose failing savings and loan was saved by the community, while he himself, distraught and about to leap from a bridge, was saved by his guardian angel, Clarence, on Christmas Eve.
"We could use a Clarence," says Timothy Harley, executive director of the museum. There hasn't been a single charter tour bus this month and none have been scheduled for the spring. In December, typically one of its busiest months, the museum had three smaller bookings. One was a chapter of the Red Hat Society, a network of older women known for their crimson headgear. Another was a student group.
Attendance has slid to about 5,000 this year, down from a peak of roughly 11,000 in the late 1990s, when the museum opened. That's far less than the droves that typically turn up for Groundhog Day, a tourist draw in nearby Punxsutawney.
Above, Brig. Gen. James M. Stewart, (USAF Reserve, c.1960.), who kept up his reservist career after the war, despite an active life as a Hollywood star and producer.

An age is fading, as the Libarace Museum in Las Vegas shuttered its doors, and in much smaller towns across the nation rememberances of the 20th century find the recession, and fading memories of a modern "me" generation, hard to overcome. The money is no longer there. Federal, state, local government help is not there, and endowments were hit hard by bank failures and the recession. And those who love what is being preserved are graying or an increasingly small minority of passionate "under 30's".
The Jimmy Steward Museum is modest and small, because that is the only way the actor would accept it. A decorated WWII Bomber Pilot despite being a major star before the war broke out, Stewart was as soft spoken, as polite and as kind as the characters he typically played ("Mr. Smith Goest to Washington", "Harvey," and "It's a Wonderful LIfe" to name just a few). He was, Mr. Harley notes, not only a Hollywood star, but a decorated military hero, a Boy Scout, as well as a good husband and father. 

Mr. Stewart's simple four words of advice to his twin daughters as they went off to college: "Be nice to everyone."

Below are items from Jimmy Stewarts father's General Store, with helping in the store while on leave from the US Army Air Corp.

First published 12-21-2010

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