Web Exclusives: PAWPLUS

Posted April 10, 2002:

Well, gosh, it was a wonderful life
James Stewart '32 museum in his hometown hosts Princeton memorabilia

Story and photograph by Louis Jacobson '92

INDIANA, Pa. — Seven decades after James Stewart '32 graduated from Princeton, several artifacts from his days as a Tiger are coming home — at least for a little while.

The Jimmy Stewart Museum — a seven-year-old facility located in the famed actor's hometown of Indiana, Pennsylvania — will soon unveil several items on temporary loan from Princeton. These include the megaphone Stewart used as a cheerleader and a jacket and orange cowboy hat he wore at reunions.

The loaned artifacts will supplement two other Princeton-related items in the museum's permanent collection: Stewart's diploma (for a degree in architecture) and the 1990 Woodrow Wilson Award, an award given annually by the university to a distinguished undergraduate alumnus.

Elizabeth Salome, the museum's executive director, says that the special exhibit serves to recognize the significance of Princeton on Stewart's future career in acting. Not only did Stewart draw notice for his on-campus theatrical work with the Triangle Club, but he also became friends with Josh Logan '31, who convinced Stewart to spend a summer with a Cape Cod theater troupe called the University Players. After that experience, Stewart set aside his architectural career — which faced uncertain prospects during the depression anyway—and pursued acting full-time in New York City. Logan went on to become a Broadway producer and director.

Indiana, a small town of 15,000 located 55 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, had at least as much influence on Stewart's life. Indiana — a homey place that's often compared to the fictional Bedford Falls of It's a Wonderful Life — is where Stewart was born in 1908, into a respected, churchgoing family that owned a hardware shop downtown. Though Stewart was especially close to his father, Alex Stewart 1898, his father "never really got it out of his system that Jimmy didn't come back to take over the hardware store," Salome says.

As a movie star, Stewart came back to Indiana in order to visit family and friends — but usually quietly, as was his style, Salome says. In the mid-1970s, Stewart received an honorary degree from Indiana University of Pennsylvania—the local college — but the biggest event came in 1983. That year, on Stewart's 75th birthday, he and his wife Gloria were present for the unveiling of a bronze statue on the grounds of the Indiana County courthouse.

From then on, fans began making pilgrimages to this out-of-the-way town to see the sculpture of a lanky, fedora-wearing Stewart. The traffic has increased since the dedication of the Jimmy Stewart Museum in May 1995. Stewart did not initiate the museum effort, and was too ill to attend its dedication (he died on July 2, 1997). But in time, he became convinced of its importance. "He was a very modest man," Salome says. "But when he realized that a museum could help Indiana and bring people to town, he agreed."

The effort got underway as the town was reeling from a decline in the coal economy — the sector that had been a backbone of local employment for decades. After the James M. Stewart Museum Foundation was established in 1993, two local banks offered the foundation a line of credit, and at least 100 volunteers pledged their services.

Stewart made his support contingent on establishing the museum in the heart of downtown, rather than in a new building on the outskirts. Organizers managed to secure space on the third floor of the Indiana Free Library — a building Stewart knew well as a child. The Stewart estate helped stock the museum with items, ranging from a cowboy hat he wore while filming westerns to movie scripts bearing his handwritten notes. Family members continue to drop by occasionally, Salome says.

The museum features a synopsis and stills from every movie Stewart ever acted in — a remarkably varied list—plus separate exhibits on his childhood, his work in radio, the awards he won, and his military career (an often-overlooked part of his life that was especially important to him, Salome says). An on-site theater shows a documentary on Stewart's life.

The museum hosts 10,000 visitors during a typical year, with about half from Pennsylvania and half from elsewhere. Admission fees, plus memberships and sales of authorized merchandise, allow the museum to "run in the black, which is unusual for any museum," Salome says. Salome eventually hopes to expand to the now-unused fourth floor.

The biggest event of the year comes around Stewart's birthday in May—the Harvey Award dinner, named after the invisible rabbit befriended by Stewart's character in Harvey. Near Valentine's Day, the museum holds a fundraiser in which couples can be served a meal in the booth — now owned by the museum—that Stewart used to frequent at Chasen's, a Beverly Hills restaurant.

The Stewart Museum is one of a handful of museums devoted entirely to film stars, including a James Dean museum in Fairmount, Indiana, the John Wayne birthplace in Winterset, Iowa, an Ava Gardner museum in Smithfield, North Carolina, and the Lucy-Desi Museum in Jamestown, New York. The number of visitors who make the trek to Indiana suggests that Stewart still "means a lot to a lot of people," Salome says. But she adds that as the years pass and youngsters grow up with different cultural reference points, the museum's challenge will be to "keep his memory and career meaningful to future generations."

Louis Jacobson '92 is a staff correspondent at National Journal magazine in Washington.

You can reach the museum at 1-800-83-JIMMY
or at the website, www.jimmy.org