With "It's a Wonderful Life" about to recur in its annual Christmas Eve airing (7 p.m., NBC), we thought it might be a good time to remind you of what could have been the ultimate "Wonderful Life" experience in the Twin Cities.

Talk about the big one that got away. 

Before we get to that whopper, we went rummaging through Pantagraph archives to pinpoint where Frank Capra's holiday classic originally played in the Twin Cities in its original run (it premiered Dec. 20, 1946, but spent most of its time in cinemas through January and February 1947).

As usual, we had to wait just a little bit longer than the rest of America.

Three months after its premiere, "It's a Wonderful Life" opened on a Sunday: March 23, 1947, at downtown Bloomington's showcase cinema, the Irvin Theater on East Jefferson Street (now a State Farm surface parking lot).

Sunday?

As longtime moviegoers will recall, the turnover rate for movies was far swifter 70 years ago, when bijou marquees might change two or three times a week, usually on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

In 1947 there were just four marquees in B-N to change: the Irvin on Jefferson, the Castle Theater a block to the south on Washington Street, the Esquire on Front Street and, in the downtown (not uptown) to the north, the Normal Theater.

How long did "It's a Wonderful Life" last in B-N ... in one theater ... with one screen ... offering four shows a day?

Grand total: seven days, or 28 screenings: March 23-29.

It was ousted on March 30 by a Red Skelton comedy called "The Show-Off" (with an added attraction, "Latest News Shots of Centralia Mine Disaster!").

In and out, just like that, for the one film from 1946-47 that is still being shown in prime time on network TV (not even "Casablanca" has earned that privilege).

Famously pegged as a box office dud in its original release (it lost over $500,000 on its $2.3 million production cost), "It's a Wonderful Life" met its biggest debacle in bringing down Liberty Films, the postwar indie company started up by Capra and fellow A-list directors George Stevens and William Wyler.

The company's films ended up sold off to other interests, leading to the infamous copyright renewal failure of 1974.

As a result, the film slipped into the public domain and could legally be shown free anywhere anytime by anyone with their hands on a print, which usually was a beat-up dupe of a dupe of a dupe.

For the next several decades, the film's over-exposure on TV and home video via these ratty prints ironically led to its resurrection as a timeless classic.

Around the time all of this was happening, Illinois State University's long-gone University Board Film Society (which actually showed classic films on campus on a regular basis) landed a coup by inviting Capra to campus to host a festival of his classic films.

Among them: "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "It Happened One Night" and, yes, "It's a Wonderful Life."

The time was the first week of December 1975, when Capra was 78 and long retired from active Hollywood duty (his last film, "A Pocketful of Miracles," had been released 14 years earlier).

For local film buffs, the opportunity was a dream come true: No other major Hollywood filmmaker had ever come to town for this kind of career retrospective.

The dream was short-lived: Several days before the festival was to start, Capra fell ill and had to cancel, according to a Pantagraph report.

"A film festival of Capra films for the first week of December has been canceled after Capra wired sponsoring agencies that he was too ill to attend as scheduled," according to a Nov. 30 news item.

Well, most of it was canceled: The lone survivor was that public domain title that didn't require a licensing fee. "It's a Wonderful Life" screened on cue in the University Union (now Bone Student Center) Prairie Room.

But, like the wrap-up of a Capra film, there's a happy ending:

Three years later, in March 1978, Capra DID make it to B-N, this time in good health, this time via Illinois Wesleyan University, where he attended IWU's annual two-day Fine Arts Festival ... but sans "It's a Wonderful Life."

In its stead were showings of three other Capra classics: "Lost Horizon" (1937), "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939) and "Meet John Doe" (1941).

Before one of those screenings, Capra told a Pantagraph reporter that, in his mind, they were all "about the human comedy," adding: "But comedy is an optimistic word there. You don't laugh if you worry too much."

Dan Craft is Pantagraph entertainment editor. He can be reached at 309-829-9000, Ext. 259 or via email at dcraft@pantagraph.com 

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