It's a Wonderful Town

By Sean Daly
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, December 12, 2001

The good people of Indiana, Pa., are having a bit of an identity crisis this holiday season.

First of all, the quaint college town in the western part of the state may indeed be both the Christmas Tree Capital of the World and the birthplace of "It's a Wonderful Life" icon Jimmy Stewart, but on this final weekend in November, a prolonged stretch of warm weather is putting a serious crimp in a yuletide vibe that's usually full-throttle festive by now.

Indiana goes all out in trying to get Mother Nature under the mistletoe anyway. Miles of twinkling lights, galaxies of red-ribboned wreaths and a healthy smattering of Santa stuff succeed in making the elegant center of town feel not so balmy. There are Christmas tree lots here, there, everywhere. And the endless references to Stewart's "It's a Wonderful Life" character George Bailey (not to mention Zuzu's petals and Clarence the angel and those dancing Buffalo girls and . . .) can be found not just in the Jimmy Stewart Museum or on Jimmy Stewart Boulevard or at Jimmy Stewart Indiana County Airport but everywhere else as well.

The effect is deliriously Capra-corny, but give the town credit for unabashedly striving for the spirit of the holiday film's fictional burg of Bedford Falls. These days, that's not such a bad thing at all.

Of course, this desire for wholesomeness leads to Indiana's other identity issue: the 20-year-old Playboy playmate who tends bar at what has quickly become the town's busiest watering hole, Wolfendale's.

Twenty-year-old Lindsey Vuolo, a k a Miss November 2001, is an undergrad at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, the fifth-largest school in the state. The sweet-natured student is proud of her time at Hugh Hefner's infamous mansion. And so, it would seem, is Kenneth Arthurs, the owner of Wolfendale's, who has slathered his storefront with pictures of his bar's most popular employee. Wolfendale's is on Indiana's main thoroughfare, Philadelphia Street, a charming, low-key host to antiques stores and cafes and a proud brick courthouse. And those snapshots of Vuolo are not exactly Bedford Falls material. Those are pure Pottersville.

Business leaders have yet to gripe publicly about Vuolo's budding popularity; after all, the young woman has brought considerable buzz to Indiana, and it's not as if she's riding the streets like Lady Godiva. That said, they would just as soon talk about the weather with a nosy visitor.

"I feel like I should be wishing you a Happy Easter," says Jonathan "Wally" Longwill, the young executive director of the Indiana County Tourist Bureau. "We haven't seen a single snowflake yet. In fact, I haven't even gotten my winter coat out this year."

An upbeat, unflappable fellow with roots in this town just as strong as those of any blue spruce, Longwill pushes the company line as we drive through the cozy tree-lined streets toward downtown. For the time being, discussion of a certain centerfold is successfully averted.

"We try to put ourselves out as another Bedford Falls," Longwill says. "This is the big season for us, and we really push ourselves. Jimmy Stewart and the Christmas Tree Capital: Those two tie in together perfectly."

The G-rated tour of Indiana always begins in the same place: the Jimmy Stewart Museum, an exhaustive tribute to the notoriously humble Hollywood legend that spreads out over six galleries on the third floor of the Indiana Free Library building. Just across Philadelphia Street is where Stewart's father's hardware store used to be; the building that squats there now -- sinister chuckle -- is a bank. And just a few blocks west, up the cobblestone streets of the neighborhood of Vinegar Hill, is Stewart's childhood home, which sits disappointingly undecorated at the end of a lonely street.

Thanks to donations of artifacts from both fans and family members, the museum details every facet of Stewart's 89-year life, from his days growing up in Indiana to his heroic flying missions in World War II to his leading-man roles in Hollywood. More than 10,000 visitors come here each year to see such goodies as his degree from Princeton, the medals he earned in a career that he ended as a brigadier general in the reserve, and his very own booth from Chasen's, the old Beverly Hills eatery.

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