gosh, it was a wonderful life
Stewart '32 museum in his hometown hosts Princeton memorabilia
Story and photograph by Louis Jacobson '92
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
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
anywayand 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,"
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 Pennsylvaniathe 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
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,
The museum features a synopsis and stills from every movie Stewart
ever acted in a remarkably varied listplus 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
The biggest event of the year comes around Stewart's birthday
in Maythe 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 museumthat 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
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