It’s that time of year when we are making lists, checking them twice, looking for the perfect gift to wrap in pretty paper and place under the tree for loved ones. Children write letters to Santa Claus with special requests, counting the days until December 25th when the jolly man in the red suit will make their wishes come true. It might be a pair of Hop-along boots or a doll that will talk, or maybe it’s something greater. In 1943 Philip Van Doren Stern sent a rather lengthy Christmas card to two-hundred of his closest friends. It was a short story called “The Greatest Gift” which was deemed a failure and rejected by every publisher around. Three years later, in 1946, the same story would become a feature film directed by Frank Capra and starring Jimmy Stewart called “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Seventy years later in 2016, this Classic American Story is brought to life in a theatrical version in Congress Hall’s Harrison Room.
Philip Van Doren Stern was a historian educated at Rutgers University and the author of forty books. His greatest accomplishment, however, could very easily have become his greatest failure, were it not for a unique Christmas card that he sent in 1943. Over the course of four years, he wrote the short story “The Greatest Gift” after a dream he had. It became difficult to find a publisher, so Stern decided to print two hundred copies and send them out as Christmas cards.
Eventually, one of these pamphlets or “Christmas cards” made its way into the hands of RKO pictures producer David Hempstead, who showed the story to Carey Grant. Grant had visions of himself portraying the protagonist, George Pratt, and RKO purchased the motion picture rights in 1944. After the project came to a standstill, RKO was anxious to rid themselves of the working script and so they sold it to Frank Capra’s production company, Liberty Films, in 1945. Liberty Films had a nine-film agreement with RKO, and thus the work was produced in conjunction with one another. Capra assembled a team of writers to polish three different scripts along with Stern’s original story. George Pratt became George Bailey, edits were made, the film was cast and the end result was an American Classic, It’s a Wonderful Life.
The film was as much as financial success as Philip Van Doren Stern’s original efforts to get “The Greatest Gift” published. Stern did eventually have the story published in 1944, and while RKO lost more than half a million dollars, It’s A Wonderful Life was nominated for six Academy Award nominations, receiving only one as a Technical Achievement Award. Between 1974 and 1993, due to a clerical error that occurred when Liberty Films was acquired by Paramount, the copyright on It’s a Wonderful Life had expired, and therefore became very popular amongst television networks who wanted to air the film as a Christmas special. Some say that the film’s popularity lasted for so many generations because of this accessibility to a wide range of audiences. Like a Christmas card to 200 close friends, the ability for a wide audience to experience It’s a Wonderful Life, ensured a sort of immortality for the story.Today, Congress Hall celebrates 70 years of this beloved American film with This Wonderful Life, a one-man live show that depicts every character in Bedford Falls. Guests will visit the Blue Pig Tavern for Dinner and a Show or Lunch and a Sunday Matinee. The story about a man, searching for his purpose on this earth one Christmas Eve will continue to touch those who come and experience the live show. As Philip Van Doren Stern discovered with his Christmas card, Frank Capra discovered with his film, and George Bailey discovered through the angel Clarence, the hope is that audiences will be touched by the message that "No man is a failure who has friends."