Image: James Stewart In 'It's A Wonderful Life'
Rko Pictures  /  Hulton Archive via Getty Images
James Stewart stands behind Donna Reed, gesturing with a handful of money while speaking to a group of townspeople in a still from the Frank Capra-directed film, "It's A Wonderful Life."
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 12/6/2010 9:08:59 AM ET 2010-12-06T14:08:59

The Jimmy Stewart Museum needs a George Bailey moment.

It needs a community of good-hearted people who revere all that’s good about Hollywood to dance in with baskets of cash to save it from a dreary Pottersville of a future with shuttered windows and sidewalks of scowling strangers.

It needs a Sam Wainwright to wire it a line of credit to ensure future generations of Americans won’t forget about a Yankee Doodle Dandy whose charm and patriotism still resonate.

Hee! Haw!

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“It’s touch and go right now,” says museum executive director Timothy Harley. “We need a cash influx to help us get through this challenging time.”

Similar hardships have closed the doors at museums dedicated to other icons whose once-gleaming luminescence has begun to fade with age.

The Liberace Museum in Las Vegas, dedicated to the flamboyant ivory tickler, closed its doors in October after 31 years. And a museum dedicated to Roy Rogers and Dale Evans rode off into the sunset at the end of 2009.

Harley says attendance at the Jimmy Stewart Museum has steadily declined in the past three years in concert with the struggling economy and as Stewart's contemporaries withdraw from bus tour participation.

“We used to see 10 to 15 charter bookings per month in September and October,” Harley says. “This year, we did not have five between both months combined. Attendance in 2009 was 6,500 and this year it's down to about 5,000. Plus, our state funding has dropped from $5,500 per year to $1,400.”

Harley is the museum's only full-time employee.

Penny Perman of the Indiana County Tourism Bureau says the namesake museum adds about $407,000 in tourist dollars to the local economy.

Safe to cross
More than money, it stamps the region with engaging personality.

“Jimmy Stewart is the voice people hear at our major crosswalks,” she says. “Rich Little recorded impersonations of Jimmy telling people it's OK when to cross. He's a definite draw for us from around the world. More than 12 years after his death and people are still enthralled with him.”

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Both Perman and Harley remain optimistic aging baby boomers will soon begin strolling the halls to admire a man well-known for his role as George Bailey in the perennial holiday classic, “It's a Wonderful Life.”

“This museum’s not just about Jimmy Stewart — it’s about America,” says museum host Pat Ward. “His life takes us through the life of The Greatest Generation.”

Onscreen, Stewart portrayed a series of indelible American characters from George Bailey to Elwood P. Dowd in “Harvey” to a young idealist named Mr. Jefferson Smith who went to Washington and changed a cynical political culture (well, for a while, at least).

Offscreen, Stewart was a real-life Boy Scout, a war hero, a father and a consummate gentleman.

The five-time best actor nominee was born in Indiana, Pa., on May 20, 1908. His father owned the local hardware store in a building that today is across the street from the museum honoring his son. The hardware store was a local curiosity because it was where Stewart displayed the 1940 best actor Oscar he won for “The Philadelphia Story.” Customers admired it there next to the cash register when they paid for things like hammers and plumbing supplies.

A Boy Scout whose memory is still honored by The Boy Scout Jimmy Stewart Good Citizen Award, he graduated from Princeton University in 1932 and was soon commiserating about the difficulties of Broadway auditions with his tenement roommate, another eventual icon, Henry Fonda.

Serving his country
The success of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939) and “The Philadelphia Story” (1940) made him a star and brought with it all the perks of fame — including an opportunity to duck duty in World War II.

Not Stewart, an avid aviator who’d earned his pilot’s license in 1935.

“The studio told him he didn’t have to go to war and they were against him going,” Harley says. “Like a lot of stars, they wanted him to stay home safe and sell war bonds. But that wasn’t his way. It made front-page news all over the country when he traded his $200,000 a year life in Beverly Hills for $21 a month to serve overseas as a private in the Army Air Corps.”

True to his word and displaying a puckish sense of humor, he still dutifully forked over a percentage of the monthly stipend to his agent back in Hollywood.

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George Bailey was a chagrined 4-F, ineligible for service, but Jimmy Stewart the bomber pilot was more like four stars. He flew 20 combat missions, was awarded six battle stars and in 1945 returned home a full colonel.

He refused his military pension and donated it all back to the government. He remained active in the Air Force Reserve and retired in 1968 as a Brigadier General and earning the Distinguished Service Medal.

At age 41 he married Gloria Hatrick McLean, already a mother to sons, Ronald, 5, and Michael, 3. Fraternal twin sisters, Judy and Kelly, were celebrated in 1951.

The family enjoyed a comfortable life at 918 North Roxbury in Beverly Hills. They tended an ample vegetable garden and shared the fresh bounty with neighbors Lucille Ball, Jack Benny and Rosemary Clooney.

They don't make 'em like they used to
One of the museum’s most cherished exhibits is the actual front door from the home, sold and demolished after Stewart’s death in 1997 at age 89. Visitors peek through the door’s peephole and imagine what it was like to see frequent guests such as Stewart friends Ronald Reagan, Bob Hope, Johnny Carson and Gregory Peck standing outside.

“Growing up there made you not want to grow up,” daughter Kelly Stewart Harcourt is quoted as saying.

The museum shows a life imbued with joy on- and offscreen. Museum board member Pauline Simms says the people today look at the exhibits, recall the movies and marvel at a man so talented and, gosh, just so darn normal.

“The one comment we hear most of all is, ‘They just don’t make ‘em like him any more,” she says.

It’s true. It’s impossible to imagine Stewart bouncing up and down on Oprah’s couch.

He eventually expressed his life’s love in a much more poignant and profound way.

“He was devastated by the death of his wife in 1994,” Ward says, “and he lived out his final three years as a recluse. He loved her very much.”

Admission’s certainly affordable: Adults are $7; Seniors and service personnel, $6; children (17-7) $5. And, hey, Pookas are free!

That’s a nod to Harvey, the 6-foot-3 invisible rabbit, who co-starred with Stewart on stage and in the 1950 film adaptation. Stewart says it was his favorite role.

At heart, it’s a story about a man so pleasant, so utterly charming, and so devoted to the well-being of his every fellow man that the busy world is convinced he must be insane.

Remove lunacy from the equation and sounds like the man who played opposite the big pooka.

It’s a wonderful life. It deserves a wonderful museum.

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