‘It’s A?Wonderful Life’

BEMUS POINT – The first week of December is proving to be one of the busiest weekends of the year for lovers of the arts, but Bemus Point United Methodist Church is offering you a production of a play which is based upon one of the most positive and heartening films in all of history: “It’s a Wonderful Life,” by Frank Capra. This version is a musical, with book written by Keith Ferguson and music by Bruce Greer.

While we’re stopped, let’s mention that performances begin at 7 p.m. Dec. 6-7 and at 2 p.m. Dec. 8. Tickets are $15, and may be purchased at the church, whenever its office is open, by phone at 386-3401, or by computer at www.itickets.com.

.This week, I’d like to share with you some things I’ve learned from a visit to the busy church, during one of their rehearsals of the show, and then I’d like to tell you about the film which inspired so many positive responses.

BPUMC

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is the eighth production to be offered at the holiday season by the Bemus Point United Methodist Church. The church has decided to present a production every other year, since 1999.

This year, the play is being both produced and directed by Mike Quimby, who is the worship leader for the church’s large congregation. A company of close to 100 people are members of the cast and the many crews which make a production possible. Although many of them are regular members of the church’s congregation, many are neighbors or friends of members who find the production worthy of their substantial sacrifice in time and talent.

Readers who are familiar with the church but haven’t visited it, since its members met in a small, white, clapboard-clad building on Maple Street, in the village of Bemus Point, will be astonished by the giant, meandering, modern building which stretches along the Bemus-Ellery Road. The official address is 4954 Bemus-Ellery Road, if you’d like to program your GPS device to get you there. If you prefer old-fashioned directions, from Jamestown, take Route I-86 west. Not far past the exit for Strunk Road, drivers are offered a choice of a left fork, which takes you across the Veterans’ Memorial Bridge and sets you on your way to Erie, or a right fork, which puts you on Route 430, toward Mayville.

Take the right fork, and in a short while, you will be offered an additional exit, which is labeled Bemus Point. Get off that exit, but don’t turn left, into the village. Instead, turn right, and very soon, you’ll see the large church, on your left.

The church now has both a formal sanctuary, where traditional services are held each Sunday, and an even larger worship center, where more modern music and worship take place. The production will be performed in the worship center.

The plot of “It’s a Wonderful Life” is the story of a man named George Bailey, of a small town called Bedford Falls, N.Y. By many standards, George could be judged to be a failure in life. A good student and a hard worker, George planned on taking a long, overseas tour, on graduation from high school, followed by enrollment in college.

Instead, although George had earned every cent of the money he planned to spend on his trip and his college education, with after-school jobs, before it’s time to leave on his tour, he learns that his father has suffered a stroke. George’s father has opened a building and loan business, which makes it possible for residents of the town to borrow money at more reasonable rates than are charged by the town’s only bank. The board of the building and loan votes that there is no one capable of running the business, other than George, so unless George gives up his plans in order to run the business, they will have to close the doors.

George falls in love with Mary Hatch, a neighbor and childhood friend, and the two marry, but they give up their plans for their honeymoon to send George’s younger brother to college.

When the plot begins, George has sent a large deposit to cover the savings and loan’s debt to the town’s bank, but his Uncle Billy has misplaced the money. Unless another $8,000 can be located immediately, the business will be lost, the people who owe it money will come under the control of the bank, and George will be sent to prison for embezzlement.

On Christmas Eve, George has fallen victim to despair. He is contemplating suicide, when an apprentice angel named Clarence undertakes to prove to George that his life has had importance and meaning, and to give him the will to live again. One of George’s children – his daughter, Zuzu – makes the statement that her teacher said whenever a bell rings, it means that an angel was been awarded his wings, and the play ends with the assurance that his dealings with George have earned Clarence his own pair of wings.

Brady Webb will be playing the central role of George in the upcoming production. He is a full time student at Jamestown Community College, and reports he lives only a short walk from the church where the performances will take place.

Webb reports that he participates in many of the BPUMC’s ministries. He said he was invited to perform in the play. “Mike hunted me down,” was his turn of phrase.

Webb has done some theater at JCC and at Maple Grove Junior-Senior High School, and he was a member of the cast at the church’s musical, two years ago, but he thinks of himself more as a singer than an actor. I asked if he was working to create a separate interpretation of his character than the familiar one which was created by actor James Stewart in the classic film. He said he has only watched the film a few times, and he doesn’t think he talks in the familiar patterns which people associate with Stewart, but he makes a genuine effort that nothing he does will seem odd or out of place to the many audience members who love the classic version.

Mary Hatch Bailey, the fine and true wife of main character George, is being portrayed in Bemus Point by Emily Allen. Actor Donna Reed, who was known in the 1950s and ’60s as the leading actor in a television series, played faithful Mary in the film.

Allen has lived in Bemus Point for only two years, having moved to the village from Olean. She is a sophomore at Maple Grove Junior-Senior High School, and her parents are jointly the pastors of BPUMC. Although she has done some acting at school and at church, this will be her first leading role. She told me she has enjoyed watching how so very many people can be doing completely different things and yet all their efforts come together and make for a single result which has meaning and worth.

Skip Anderson is an actor familiar with readers of these pages, who has been performing around our area for many years, often doing leading roles at the Lucille Ball Little Theatre of Jamestown, at JCC, at Theater for a Cause, and for many other companies and organizations in our area. A graduate of Maple Grove Junior-Senior High School, he remembers being in either a homeroom or a study hall, supervised by me, during my years of teaching, but never taking an academic class.

Anderson will be rolling around the stage in a wheel chair. He will portray the owner of the town’s bank, “Old Man Potter,” whom he describes as “an ornery old cuss.” Potter is one of Anderson’s few villains among his many portrayals, and he believes is the only one who isn’t punished in the plot for all his evil doing.

“I guess he gets to come within a few minutes of getting what he wants and then he’s thwarted,” Anderson said. “I guess that’s his punishment. He never confesses his wrongdoing and doesn’t seem to regret any of it.”

Anderson has been challenged by the fact that the company of “It’s a Wonderful Life” started working on the play all the way back in late August, but they rehearse only Monday and Tuesday evenings, which enables people to participate who couldn’t come nearly every day of every week, as performing companies often need to do. He says he thinks of his performance as a tribute to Lionel Barrymore, who plays the wicked banker in the classic film.

“It never occurred to me that I could do it better than he did,” he said.

In the classic film of the plot, Gloria Grahame played Violet Bick, the too-available young woman ready to comfort young men who have quarreled with their girlfriends. In Bemus Point, Violet will be portrayed by Taralyn Sample.

She graduated from Maple Grove Junior-Senior High School, then left the village to study dramatic arts in New York City, but she has returned to her hometown, where she has been working as a bartender. She said she thought Violet was the most fun female character in the plot, and was the one she wanted to get, when she auditioned.

To complete my brief interviews, I shared a few words with a very familiar face. Jacquie Blackwood has done many plays at Little Theatre, and at other venues around the community. She is functioning as assistant director, a role which she describes as “doing whatever needs to be done, from holding the play’s script and giving a little memory help to an actor who’s struggling to remember his lines, to giving a hand to a crew member who is struggling to carry on a piece of scenery, to trying a series of hats on an actor to see which one best teaches the audience the character of the person he will be portraying.”

She said she has been working on the various productions at BPUMC since the very first one, and while she has done some on-stage roles, she enjoys the backstage things best. When I try to get some of her time, she is shepherding actors who aren’t on stage at that immediate moment out to the lobby, outside the worship center, where Meg Pickard, who has volunteered to choreograph the production, is waiting to teach them the dance steps.

She tells me that the script comes with the option of either having a local pianist or instrumental ensemble do the accompaniment, or the purchase of a DVD in which professional musicians provide the accompaniment.

“Nothing is as good as live music, and having the musicians right there gives the actors the freedom to hold a note a bit longer or to do a piece of business while he’s singing, but that doing the live music requires having a pianist or an ensemble commit their schedule to all the rehearsals and performances. We decided we already had taken up so many people’s time that it would be worth using the recorded accompaniment, so that’s what we’re doing,” she said.

“Doing a production like this creates a real sense of community because everyone is dependent upon everyone else to do a good job. You can be a wonderful actor, but if the scenery falls over, or you reach into a drawer and the gun which is supposed to be there isn’t there, it can ruin your performance, so we’re all dependent on each other.” You’re welcome to join that community during the first weekend of December.

THE FILM

The much-beloved film of “It’s a Wonderful Life” was made in 1945 and released in 1946. That was the same year Hitler died, and was well before even I was born. It was the first film James Stewart made, after returning from four years of service in World War II.

The plot was based on a short story, written by Philip Van Doren, who wrote it to be included in his family’s Christmas card, in 1939. Film star Cary Grant received one of those cards, and he obtained an option to make the story into a film for himself. World War II intervened, and the story was shelved until the war came to an end in the spring of 1945.

Newspaper accounts claimed that Gary Cooper would play the lead, but Hollywood mythology claims that Lionel Barrymore, who was contracted to play Old Man Potter, insisted that the role was perfect for the overwhelmingly decent character which James Stewart specialized in performing.

One effect of the war was a necessity to keep everything as inexpensive as possible. Mistakes often couldn’t even be corrected. In one scene, for example, actor Thomas Mitchell, who was portraying Uncle Billy, was supposed to be staggering away from the Bailey home. When the scene was filmed, a stage hand dropped a piece of heavy equipment, which made an audible crash on the film’s sound track. Mitchell ad libbed “I’m O.K., I’m O.K.,” and the crash remains on the sound track to this day, with the audience thinking Uncle Billy had staggered into a trash can or some such obstruction.

When snow fell, during films, in the 1940s, it was traditional that huge piles of corn flakes were painted white and lifted over the actors’ heads in a huge canvas hammock, which was shaken, to gradually dislodge “snow.” Because the cornflakes made noise while falling and crunched audibly underfoot, actors had to re-dub their lines, to be added into the sound track.

To save the cost of overdubbing, the crew of this film created a substance made up of a chemical flake called foamite, mixed with laundry powder flakes, and 6,000 gallons of the stuff was pumped through a wind machine to make the snow which falls on the actors in “Life.”

There are other errors. George arrives home with a large holiday wreath over one arm, for example, which immediately disappears, but later returns to his shoulder when he is called to the telephone.

Two of the minor characters in the film are Burt, the cop, and Ernie, a taxi driver who help George get home from the bridge from which he was planning to jump. Representatives of the Muppets have insisted repeatedly that the names Burt and Ernie are only coincidentally used by the two famed Muppet characters.

If you loved the film, here is a chance to enjoy it again, performed by your friends and neighbors, and with songs and dances factored in, in addition. If you’ve never seen the film, I strongly suggest you borrow or rent it, and go out to Bemus Point, next weekend to see it done live.

When you come right down to it, it really is a wonderful life.

The public is invited to Shea’s Performing Arts Center, in Buffalo, this evening at 7 p.m. and tomorrow at 2 p.m. to hear the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra perform the accompaniment of a production of the classic ballet “Nutcracker,” while the Neglia Ballet, of Buffalo, performs the dance roles.

Tickets may be purchased at 800-745-3000 or at www.ticketmaster.com.

Also tomorrow, after their afternoon at Shea’s, the orchestra will journey to Our Lady of Victor Basilica, in Lackawanna, to accompany the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus in a performance of Handel’s “Messiah,” which will be performed with professional soloists. Tickets are $20 and $40, and may be purchased at www.bpchorus.org.

Some of the most beloved classical music of Christmas will be performed by the orchestra at Kleinhan’s Music Hall, Friday at 10:30 a.m. and next Saturday at 8 p.m. Guest artists will be the Castellani-Andriaccio Guitar Duo.

A day of music aimed at families with young children will take place on Dec. 8 at 2:30 p.m., when guest conductor Ron Speigelman will conduct the orchestra in a concert called “Jingle Bell Jam.”

The orchestra’s Holiday Pops concert is always one of the most popular of the year. It will take place in four separate performances, at 10:30 a.m. and 8 p.m. on Dec. 13, 8 p.m. Dec. 14, and at 2:30 p.m. Dec. 15. JoAnn Falletta herself will conduct. Guest Artist will be Buffalo native and Broadway featured singer Michelle Ragusa.

Tickets to performances at Kleinhans may be purchased at 885-5000 or at www.bpo.org. Kleinhans is located at 3 Symphony Circle, in Buffalo.

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This afternoon at 4 p.m., hear a performance by singer Pat Shea, at the Lancaster Opera House, in Lancaster, N.Y. Immediately following the performance, the audience is invited to participate in the lighting of the community’s Christmas tree.

Shea has won international fame on the television show “Star Search,” and is a frequent guest on “Nashville Now.” The opera house is located at 21 Central Ave., in Lancaster, which is near the Buffalo Niagara International Airport. For more information or to purchase tickets, phone 683-1776.

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Dec. 3-21, the Station Dinner Theater, in Erie, will perform their own musical version of the traditional holiday story “Miracle on 34th St.” Performances will usually take place on Fridays at 7 p.m., Saturdays at 5:30 p.m., and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. Additional performances will take place at 4 p.m., Dec. 5 and 12, and at noon, on Dec. 3.

The theater is located at 4940 Peach St., in Erie. For additional information or to reserve tickets, phone 814-864- 2022. Special menus such as vegetarian and diabetic are available on request. Please make certain of date and time of performance when making reservations.