Indiana Borough's Jimmy Stewart Museum rebounds from dire situation
By Rich Cholodofsky
Published: Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2013, 11:12 p.m.
The Jimmy Stewart Museum hopes its story ends in much the same way as the legendary actor's famous movie, “It's a Wonderful Life.”
In the Frank Capra classic released in 1947, townspeople rush to the home of Stewart's character, George Bailey, on Christmas Eve with cash and jewelry to bail him out of financial troubles caused by a bumbling uncle and an evil banker.
In Indiana Borough, Stewart's hometown, the museum that honors the late actor came as close to death as Bailey did when he stood on a bridge outside the mythical town of Bedford Falls and contemplated suicide.
“In 2010, the situation was dire enough that I was beginning to form plans to close the museum and disperse the collection,” said Tim Harley, curator, chief financial officer and director of the museum on the third floor above the Indiana Free Library. It's just across Philadelphia Street from where the Stewart family's hardware store once served the town.
With the help of its own Clarence Oddbody — the movie's guardian angel who helped Bailey to embrace the future — the museum has been saved, at least for now. Museum officials choose to emulate Bailey and look on the bright side.
Last year, the museum received its first $25,000 donation from Western Pennsylvania natives Ken and Carol Schultz. The San Diego couple pledged to match the annual contribution from Stewart's family to keep the museum open.
“We never had any linkage to Indiana or the Stewart family. He was just a favorite actor of ours. We thought, ‘There's one guy who really does stand out here and represents our character,' ” said Ken Schultz,a University of Pittsburgh graduate who ran communications and energy companies before he retired.
The museum's well-publicized struggles in 2010 prompted the gift.
“We're certainly on more solid footing, but the visitation and other challenges still remain,” Harley said.
When the museum opened in 1995, it attracted more than 10,500 visitors a year. It expects 6,500 this year.
Funding, beyond contributions from the family and the Schultz Foundation, is limited to small local grants, proceeds from an annual awards dinner and marginal profits from on-site and online gift shops.
Its 2012 tax return shows the museum operated with a $161,000 budget and one full-time and three part-time workers. Revenue exceeded expenses by almost $20,000.
The surplus might enable the museum to begin its first advertising campaign, Harley said.
The memory of Stewart, Hollywood royalty for six decades, is fading as his fans age, Harley said.
And Indiana, the picturesque town 70 miles east of Pittsburgh that could stand in for Bedford Falls, is not easily accessible.
Hollywood A-listers have not embraced the cause. “I'm not even sure they see our letters,” Harley said.
The museum's star power comes from impressionist Rich Little, 75, and TV host Nick Clooney, 79, Stewart's neighbor from California and the father of actor George Clooney.
Stewart never got to see his museum. He was in ill health when it opened, and he died in 1997.
“When Dad was first approached about the idea of the museum, his natural modesty made him hesitant,” said Stewart's daughter, Kelly Stewart. “Creating a museum based on his life seemed a bit too much like self-aggrandizement. But he gradually warmed to the plan the more he learned about what the people of Indiana had in mind. He liked the idea of something small, something that was an integral part of the place he knew and loved.”
The museum showcases artifacts from Stewart's family, including his childhood bed, movie memorabilia, costumes, scripts and the front door from his Beverly Hills home.
Documentaries and movies play in a 50-seat theater. Space is dedicated to Stewart's distinguished military career. Fans from as far away as Sacramento, Germany and Norway have signed the guest book.
This month, about 50 members of the St. Therese Seniors Club in Munhall came as part of a holiday tour.
Mary Louise Marcilli of West Homestead met Stewart in 1955. She was a freshman that year at the nearby college, now Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and Stewart was visiting the old homestead.
“We were walking down the street and since I knew where his house was, we went there,” Marcilli said. “We knocked on the door, and Jimmy Stewart opened it. He asked us in and we talked. He was very, very friendly.”
The museum “brings back a lot of memories,” Marcilli said.
Pauline Simms, president of the museum board, said it represents not just the actor, but the town of nearly 14,000 people: “We are the birthplace of Jimmy Stewart, and that's an important part of our identity.”
Harley said the museum is not just about movies.
“Our goal is to keep it open,” Harley said. “Could we have more bells and whistles? Sure. Do we really need them? I don't think we do. We present a life history of Jimmy Stewart in a very real way.”
In a way, the museum echoes “It's A Wonderful Life,” which the New York Times called “a parable of virtue being its own reward” in 1947.
“We're just trying to be able to tell the stories of an honorable American from this little town,” Harley said. “... Yes, it's dated, but one of the most important things it shows is that success doesn't have to change a person.”
The Stewart family agrees.
“To our family, personally, the museum is like a gift. It honors and celebrates our father's achievements and perpetuates his legacy. The museum helps keep our father alive. No family could ask for more than that. It has always moved us to see the affection and respect that the town of Indiana has for our father,” Stewart said.
And the museum has more to tell.
There are early plans to take over Stewart's family home on Vinegar Hill, which sits above the borough. Harley said he'd like to add a floor to focus more on Stewart's military career.
“That will be a great part of our future,” Harley said.
Rich Cholodofsky is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 724-830-6293 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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