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The eternal feel-good of 'It's a Wonderful Life'

Dec 10, 2019

Here is more proof that the world of movies can be a surreal experience: when we catch up with Karolyn Grimes, who memorably played the 6-year-old Zuzu Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” she’s passing through Texas as a passenger in a car driven by Paris Themmen; he played Mike Teavee, the television-obsessed kid in “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.”

Even the slightest brush with cinema history can be everlasting fame.

Grimes and Jimmy Hawkins, who play two of the children in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” will be at Dryden Theatre at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 12, to introduce the film and share some stories. This weekend, they’ll also be in Seneca Falls at the It’s a Wonderful Life Museum.

Seneca Falls is the inspiration for Bedford Falls, the fictional setting for one of the most-revered Christmas films of all time. We know this, Grimes says, because director Frank Capra got a haircut in Seneca Falls a few weeks before announcing he was going to make the new Christmas film starring Jimmy Stewart.

Yes, Grimes did talk to that actual barber, who confirmed he cut Capra’s hair while the director was in Seneca Falls visiting relatives. 

“It has to be there because, in the movie, they mention Rochester, Syracuse, Elmira, it’s right in that area,” Grimes says. “I think Capra had in his mind that he didn’t want to name a specific town or anything because he wanted everyone to identify with their own town. The little man, the little man would just consider that his own town.”

Grimes played the daughter of Jimmy Stewart’s character, George Bailey. She even had one of the most memorable lines in the film: “Look, Daddy. Teacher says, every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.”

Grimes was interviewed many times over the years about her role in the film. But it wasn’t until 1993, when a national department store sponsored her on a tour on behalf of the film, that Grimes became what she calls the “unofficial ambassador for the film.”

“I’m just a conduit for the messages from that film,” the 79-year-old says. “I’ve kind of been on the road ever since, because that’s when I really got to meet the people who were affected by this film. The tears, the joy, that affected me, and encouraged me, and made me realize the message needs to be spread, and people need to see this film.”

And, she says, Jimmy Stewart was just as wonderful as the character he played, George Bailey. 

“I just loved riding around on his back, because he was so gentle and kind,” Grimes says. “He was just a really nice man to work with.”

Perhaps no holiday has ever been celebrated with as many films as Christmas, the inspiration for equal-opportunity feel-good movies that run from “Holiday Inn” to the high-production values of “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.” And what is Grimes’ own favorite, besides “It’s a Wonderful Life?”

There’s no hesitation. Chevy Chase in “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” she says. There’s no need to ask why; everyone digs the scene where the cat gets ahold of the Christmas tree lights.

Jeff Spevak is WXXI’s Arts & Life editor and reporter.