Seneca Falls, N.Y., hosts "It's a Wonderful Life" festival each year as a tribute to the movie, which was somewhat inspired by the little village in Central New York. Two years ago, four people got together and created a 5-kilometer race as part of the festivities.
In 2009, the event attracted more than 400 runners. That's quite good for a new race in a small town. Last year, organizers were stunned to have 800 runners, including me. This year, thanks in part to word of mouth advertising plus some media coverage, including an article in Runner's World, the race did more than 2,000 runners.
That's more than any race of that length in Western New York, by far. It's several hundred runners more than the Lindsay's Legacy run, held in November. Amazing. What a great economic engine for the festival.
I was back this past week for the third annual running, and have to tell you about the Saturday portion of the trip.
The race starts on a bridge that served as an inspiration for the suicide scene of the Jimmy Stewart movie. That alone is a little odd, especially to someone named Bailey (think of the film). I was waiting for the start with a couple of friends, when Karolyn Grimes was recognized. She was Zuzu in the movie, the young girl with the line at the end about an angel getting wings when a bell rings. Karolyn has made every one of the 11 festivals, signing autographs, selling her cookbook, and posing for countless pictures. She was nice enough to stop for a quick picture with me before the start of the race, and seemed to enjoy the fact that I was a favorite in the "Bailey Division" of the race. Last year, I was the only Bailey, and waited in vain for a trophy.
Grimes started the race with a replay of her final movie line ("Start running when you hear 'wings."), and we ran around the village at dusk. Near the end, as the race went down the main street of town, I again got to yell out at a temporarily renamed building, "Merry Christmas, you old Building and Loan." Then I finished, had some water, and headed back to the hotel to take a warm shower.
The fun really began when my wife and I got back to a bar/restaurant renamed "Martini's" for the weekend. The Lancaster Striders had a major club outing at the event, and they had gathered at Martini's for dinner.
When I walked in the bar portion of the place, my wife and I were greeted with a loud and unexpected chorus of "It's the Baileys!!!" I felt like I was in the drafty old house at the end of the movie, surrounded by friends. After a good laugh by all, I said, "I guess for the weekend, I should be named George Bailey," which got another happy response.
Then after a moment or two, I said, "All we need now is for Harry Bailey to get here." And someone pointed to my right and said, "He's right over there."
The festival uses "actors" to walk around town impersonating movie characters during the event. Sure enough, "Harry Bailey" was there in character, dressed in a military uniform and seated next to Grimes.
And at this point, I was no longer visiting a movie festival. I was in the movie.
Thinking quickly, I walked over to "Harry" and said, "I'm so glad you came home from the war, Harry," and gave him a big hug. Then someone yelled out, "Here's to George Bailey -- the richest man in town." I just wish I had the presence of mind to lead the bar in a chorus of "Hark the Herald Angels Sing."
You never know when you are going to have to be really, really fast on your feet. Whew.