INDIANA - He was the "richest man" in Bedford Falls. He shot Liberty Valance. He had an imaginary friend named Harvey, he went to Washington and he was thrown out of an apartment window by Raymond Burr.
He also served as a pilot in the United States Army Air Forces during World War II, ultimately rising to the rank of brigadier general.
He was Jimmy Stewart, arguably one of the most famous Hollywood stars of all time, well-known for his good guy, small-town persona.
Mirror photo by Cory Dobrowolsky
This exhibit at the Jimmy Stewart Museum in Indiana, Pa., recreates the late actor’s Beverly Hills office with authentic items from his estate.
And he was born in Indiana, Pa.
The star of such classic movies as "It's a Wonderful Life," "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and "Rear Window," Stewart was raised just over 50 miles west of Altoona, and the Jimmy Stewart Museum in Indiana is dedicated to the life and memory of the actor.
"He was a good guy and a comfortable person to promote," said Tim Harley, executive director of the museum at 835 Philadelphia St. on the third floor of the Indiana Free Library building.
If you go
What: The Jimmy Stewart Museum
Where: 835 Philadelphia St., Indiana, Pa., at the corner of Ninth and Philadelphia streets. The museum is located on the third floor of the Indiana Free Library building.
When: The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sundays and holidays. The museum will close at 1 p.m. on Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve and will be closed on Christmas and New Year's Day.
Admission: $7 for adults; $6 for seniors, military personnel and college students; and $5 for children ages 7 to 17. Children under 6 are admitted for free.
"Mr. Stewart's popularity was tied up very closely to his every-man appeal," Harley said. "His acting style was comfortable, at ease, and people didn't perceive him as an actor. His roles were down-to-earth people, someone the bulk of the population can identify with."
"What an unassuming man he was," said volunteer Mary Ann Soule, a resident of Indiana. "Given all the Hollywood people and all of that, he maintained who he was."
Despite his "aww-shucks" persona, Stewart had quite an affluent upbringing.
"Hollywood portrayed him as a Pennsylvania hayseed, a country-boy farmer," Harley said. "The reality is that (perception) was far from the truth. The Stewart family was very comfortable."
The Stewart family had established Stewart Hardware in Indiana in 1853, and by the time Jimmy was born in 1908, his father, Alex, was running a very successful business.
"He lived in a home that had a staff, and he finished his secondary education at Mercersburg Academy," Harley said. "He had a privileged life before he left Indiana."
The museum, according to Harley, is the only museum solely dedicated to Stewart's life. Though the museum opened in 1995, two years before Stewart died, he was never able to visit it personally.
"He was too ill," Harley said. "A video tour was sent to him."
Stewart's daughters have been to the museum many times, Harley said, and they helped open an exhibit titled "918," which details Stewart's Beverly Hills home at 918 Roxbury Drive and features pieces from the house and many pictures of the star with Hollywood stalwarts such as Cary Grant, Julie Andrews, Audrey Hepburn and Johnny Carson.
Along with "918," the museum chronicles Stewart's early life, including an exhibit modeled after the interior of Stewart Hardware, and his Hollywood career, featuring many movie posters.
The museum offers matinee showings of Stewart's movies every Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. in the museum's theater. Through Jan. 2, those matinees will feature a screening of "It's a Wonderful Life," arguably Stewart's most famous movie and a holiday classic.
"Throughout the year, the movies change every week," Harley said. "During the week, individual guests can select from a number of documentaries about Mr. Stewart to view.
"When I first arrived (at the museum), we only had permission to show 15 of his films. It took me several years and took input from the Stewart family and their attorney, but we added another 56 titles we are now permitted to show."
Other features of the museum include the Stewarts' regular booth at legendary Hollywood restaurant Chasen's and a re-creation of Stewart's Beverly Hills office, featuring most of the original items.
"I like the things in his office," Soule said. "He spent a lot of time there. When we got it, his daughters came and sat in his chair, and they cried."
The museum is also dedicated to Stewart's military career as a pilot in the U.S. Army Air Forces, the predecessor to the modern Air Force. Stewart served in World War II, first as a squadron commander in the 703rd Bomb Squadron of the 445th Bomb Group (H) and then as operations officer in the 453rd Bomb Group (H). Stewart actually conducted that group's briefing for the D-Day invasion of Normandy, France.
The museum has several of Stewart's uniforms on display.
The museum also annually gives a Harvey Award at a special reception at the Indiana Country Club. The Harvey Award was originally given to someone who worked with Stewart, but as Harley acknowledged, that generation of actors is slowly fading away.
"We now award it to someone who reflects the ideals of Mr. Stewart," he said.
The 2010 recipient of the Harvey Award was Patrick Wayne, John Wayne's son, who starred with Stewart in "Shenandoah." In honor of Wayne, the museum currently has a display dedicated to both Patrick and John Wayne, including a shirt and vest worn by John Wayne in "The Shootist," in which Stewart also starred.
Other past winners of the Harvey Award include Robert Wagner, Ernest Borgnine and Shirley Jones, with posthumous awards going to Grace Kelly and Spencer Tracy.
Despite the late Stewart's ongoing popularity and appeal, Harley recently has seen a decrease in visits to the museum.
"When I began, we got about 10,000 visitors per year," Harley said. "In 2009, we had 6,500 visitors. Where we have seen a marked decline is chartered tours of senior citizens. The generations contemporary to Mr. Stewart's own have aged out of travel, at the very least."
Harley, however, sees one particular factor transferring Stewart's popularity to subsequent generations.
"Simply, by merit of 'It's a Wonderful Life,'" he said. "It's captivating enough that it will drive interest to see the museum."
According to Soule, visitors to the museum will learn "a whole lot more about Jimmy Stewart then they already knew."
"No one has ever come and said, 'Aww, this was stupid," she said.
Mirror Staff Writer Cory Dobrowolsky can be reached at 946-7428.